NOW with Alex Wagner | November 19, 2012
>>> i've come to keep my promise and extend the hand of friendship. america now has an ambassador in rangoon, sanctions have been eased, and we will help rebuild an economy that can offer opportunity for its people and serve as an engine of growth for the world. but, this remarkable journey has just begun. and has much further to go. the flickers of progress that we have seen must not be extinguished, they must be strengthened, they must become a shining north star for all this nation's people.
>> that was president obama earlier today during his landmark trip to burma . the country also known as myanmar had been all but abandoned by the international community due to its record abuse of human abuses. the president gave a speech at the city's university and visited with aung san suu kyi , the nobel peace prize laureate that serves in parliament after 15 years of house arrest . the president's four- day trip to thailand, burma and cambodia, his first overseas visit since the election was intended to underscore the foreign policy shift to asia. events in the middle east are making a pivot more difficult. joining me "new york times" columnist nick kristof . you and i have been talking about burma for years, actually. we've been there multiple times as have i. before we get to the bad stuff, to see the president speaking at rangoon university , meeting with aung san suu kyi , thein sein , cars allowed to pull up to her house on university avenue is one for the history books.
>> it's amazing, be alex. also just the changes happening in burma itself. this is a company that was frozen in embers, seen absolutely unchangeable and now it's changing more in a week than it used to in a year. i think -- i mean human rights groups have been critical for the president for going. i think it was right that he go and confirm and kind of place a stamp of approval on that new trajectory.
>> and to bring that up, let's get to the bad stuff which is to say that the criticism he has received has been from human rights folks who have said look, change is happening but it's not -- it's too soon for him to visit and among the things they cite the roy hin ga minority that have been persecuted outraoutra outragely for years now, there's ethnic strife still going on and now that burma is open for development it's unclear with that can be sustainable and on a trajectory that best serves the country.
>> all those criticisms are valid. still a couple hundred political prisoners and what's happening to the roy hin ya is appalling. aung san suu kyi has not been as outspoken as she should be. she needs to speak out about the persecution of the ethnic muslim muslims in burma as well. i think it is important for the president to go and make that point to her, to the burmese government, and, you know, there's also a debate within the burmese leadership about whether this is the right thing to do, about whether this opening is right, whether burma is going to get more from the u.s. versus from china . i think it is useful for us to go and to reward those who have been engineering this really quite extraordinary reform.
>> i want to bring in our panel here and some of our friends who have been silent thus far. michael steele . during the election there was a lot of talk about tough positions on china and everyone was sort of trying to out -- sort of out tough talk one another, to say mitt romney had as stance he was going to, you know, talk to tough to china on day one. he was not elected. president obama 's trip to burma and the southeast asia is seen as a way to say, china , we're in your backyard and not going to let you have a monopoly over this part of the world. something the president has looked to do for several years now. the issue is whether, a, he can do that, whether he can really actually intimidate the chinese, and b, whether this is the time to be doing it given what's happened in the middle east . i will point out what professor gin canwrong said. the pivot, speaking of obama 's pivot to the middle east is a stupid choice. the united states has achieved nothing and only annoyed china . china can't be contained. i wish the professor would tell us what he or she really thinks. in terms of the pivot happening now, your assessment?
>> i think the pivot is part of a refocus that the administration needs to make. look, you know, despite the way mitt romney talked about, you know, standing up to china , it needs to know where the united states plans to go and how it will look at actions taken by the chinese, especially economic. geopolitical, their influence on the u.n. and elsewhere and sort of stopping or advancing certain causes is important. i think the president is sending out a clear signal his second term, while he's done this year domestically at home said okay republicans you want to play, time to play, i think he's saying beginning to say internationally, okay, i'm ready to move on to the international stage and stay and do things heretofor have not done. and to allies, supporters, friends we're with you. but opponents and those kind of neutral like china where we don't have, you know, a real --
>> we have a difficult -- we have a complicated and difficult relationship.
>> that we want to uncomplicate it a little bit and you need to know where we stand.
>> nick, you are an expert in many things but also the china question on a number of levels is a complicated one. what do you think this trip does for the chinese, apart from the blustery quote i just read? is this an effective way of dealing with them in terms of asserting american power in a different part of the world?
>> there is a competition for southeast asia , burma , cambodia. one presidential trip isn't going to transform that competition, but it's going to show that look, we're in the game and i think it is a reminder to beijing under new leadership as you knnoknow, a new leader takes over and a way of underscoring we're going to be in the neighborhood. we're not retreating. i do think that the pivot has been done in a ham handed way and the administration to its credit has changed the vocabulary on that. they no longer use the word pivot and they talk about rebalancing and refocusing. this trip was the right thing to do and at the right time.
>> it's worth noting, michael eric dyson , the president has many connections to southeast i asia, given the fact he grew up in indonesia. "the new york times" had a great story talking about how president obama 's paternal grandfather was serving the british army in rangoon in the 1940ss and i don't think we can underestimate the symbolism and import, both someone who is -- i'm half burmese, my mother is a burmese exile, the vision of president obama going over there, but also in terms of his own personal history , the notion his grandfather left there and service to the british army and his grandson would arrive there on the blue and white wings of air force one.
>> it underscores the international pedigree of his identity and the way in which the spokes that kind of flair out from the hub of who obama is is quite more remarkable than we give him credit for from the rags to riches story and if only in america can this happen. i think first of all you're being modest because part of the speech you didn't play obama said, the fierce urgency of now. but beyond that --
>> because of me.
>> he's there because of you. the reality is that, you know, as ari said earlier, what's interesting, america 's footprint lightly acknowledged and traced in some parts of the world, is more heavy than others. people want the drones out but they also call upon america to exercise that bully pulpit and what's interesting here about china , if china owns a lot of your paper, talk about the money and doe dough, if you own the paper and economic interest the geopolitics track the cash. and i think that in one sense, obama both proves international pedigree but his savvy american presidential authority to try to say we have to get ahold of this bull by the horns so to speak. i think all that stuff is coming together, the geopolitical, the substantive, symbolic and the kind of economic interests that is invested there and what remains to be seen to what degree will he be able to balance concerns about human rights and the economic interests that america has.
>> you know -- i mean -- think of a president who has had this view of the british empire through his grandfather. this president, i hope in the second term, will rebalance and re-set and refocus with an awareness this country should not become the wounded empire in the way that the british were because i think what you can do in a great way is lead. america could lead a coordinated global recovery, bringing in china , bringing in the countries, brazil, russia, india, bringing in europe, and do real nation building through economic means so you don't end up having a cold war with china or russia or entering a new gray war with al qaeda or intervention in syria or war with iran. let us hope those are not the foreign policy markers of a second term. he has a chance here. not for cold war with china , but to rebuild because china 's going through terrible social instability, economic growth is plummeting. a whole series of issues to unit.
>> it's worth mentioning the president announced the return of the u.s. to the tune of 170 million for projects over the next two years and that is something i'm sure the burmese welcome with open arms , but at the end of the day i think he probably could have gone with empty hands and still receive the reception he had which was people flooding the streets. reports of six and seven people deep on the sidewalks as his motorcade passed by.
>> that's right. china has been offering a lot of cash, doing a lot of projects there. a lot of chinese business people in burma . china very much wants access to the indian ocean . they want a military presence there to spy on india. but -- so i think it was encouraging that burma for right now is choosing washington.
>> the "new york times" nick kristof a pleasure to speak with you, of all the journalists in the world, on this day in particular. thanks for your time.
>> thanks, alex.
>>> coming up, will your next grand slam breakfast cost more because of the affordable care act ? some business owners are claiming obama care will mean higher prices for customer. pancake prices or political fear mongering. i cannot read the teleprompter for us. ezra klein will break it down for us. that is ahead. i have