US President Barack Obama sipped from a coconut on Wednesday on the banks of the Mekong River. He pattered through a Buddhist temple in his socks. He led his motorcade through a lush mountain city popular with backpackers and ex-pats and ruminated on multiculturalism and his childhood in Indonesia.
If there was a single day that demonstrated just how different Obama is from Donald Trump this might have been it.
Presidential trips can be mobile personality tests, character-revealing for the leader driving the show. Obama’s valedictory tour through Asia this week — a roller coaster of legacy-burnishing moments, snafus, diplomatic misses and adventurous tourism — has been no different. It’s repeatedly displayed the president’s cool head, his diminishing celebrity, his global worldview and his post-presidency dreams for what he’s said could be a life with more “relaxed” travel.
But this trip has also shed light on one of the contenders for the job. From across the Pacific, Trump has shadowed Obama with characteristically blunt and mocking criticism of the president’s bruising moments. And he’s made clear that where Obama runs cool, he would run hot.
Even where Trump has been quiet, the comparisons are inevitable and striking.
On Wednesday, Obama, the cerebral son of an anthropologist, quietly studied Buddhist statues in a centuries-old temple in Luang Prabang, the northern Lao city Obama made his second stop in a historic first presidential trip to impoverished, landlocked Laos. As required, Obama left his shoes at the door. He later popped out of the motorcade for a staged stop at a coconut stand in a dusty, busy shopping district. Before entering a tiny gift shop adorned with paper lanterns he bowed his head, hands pressed together in the traditional greeting.
The president cast the trip as a return to his childhood in Indonesia,
“It’s very familiar to me,” he told a group of young people from across Southeast Asia. That was at a town hall meeting where he espoused the benefits of multiculturalism and chided Americans for too much looking inward.
“If you are the United States, sometimes you can feel lazy and think, you know, ‘we’re so big, we don’t really have to know anything about other people,’“ Obama said, adding that Americans will be left behind if they follow a path of cultural isolation.
Obama views this outreach as part of a soft-diplomacy campaign to win young people’s affection for the US across a region he considers critical to putting a check on Chinese dominance. He made a point of telling the audience that he was raised in part in Indonesia. Laos, he said, “reminds me of my childhood.”
Trump, the brash son of a big-city builder, has shown no signs of prioritising such Obama-style soft diplomacy.
On his only foray on the global stage of the campaign, Trump zipped to Mexico City for a trip that lasted only a couple of hours. He did no sightseeing nor made any other effort to examine the country’s culture.
Trump’s personal travels have largely consisted of extensive trips for business, which includes golf courses, properties and other projects across the world. But the self-proclaimed clean freak has long bragged about his aversion to vacations, outside of time spent at his own luxury resorts, golfing at his golf clubs and retreating to his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida in the winter.
But Trump’s most striking contrast may be in how he deals with the leaders on the world stage. The Republican made clear earlier this week he wouldn’t have tolerated the tarmac trouble Obama endured, when Air Force One landed Hangzhou, China, last week for a summit and wasn’t met by the usual lofty staircase. Obama exited from a rear door.
White House officials cast the incident as a snafu. Trump said it was snub. He said he would have turned the plane around.
That sort of impulsiveness would certainly add a new element of unpredictability to world affairs and diplomacy. Obama has shown no such appetite for drama. Even this week, when Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte called the president a “son of a bitch” ahead of a meeting, Obama played it cool. His cancelled a sit-down with the new president, but met with him later, privately, ahead of a dinner for leaders at a regional summit in Vientiane.
Obama spent three hours at the dinner, where he and the leaders wore matching silk shirts, posed for group “family photos” and sat through a performance of traditional dance. Trump has suggested he won’t be game for that sort of ceremony.
“We should be eating a hamburger on a conference table,” he’s said of the expense and ceremony of state dinners.