Obama the first Asian-American president?

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Apr 26 2009 02:35 PM | Updated as of Apr 26 2009 10:35 PM

WASHINGTON - Barack Obama made history as the first African-American president but in his first 100 days he has also shown himself to be America's most Asian leader yet, community members say.

Obama appointed a record three Asian-Americans cabinet members and quickly focused his attention across the Pacific. He invited Japan's prime minister as his first guest and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went to Asia on her maiden trip.

At home, Asian-American leaders have welcomed signs Obama will take political risks to revamp the immigration system, whose rigid rules and creaky pace are blamed by many in the community for tearing apart families.

"In a nutshell, he has done more in 100 days than the last administration has done in eight years," said Representative Mike Honda, who heads the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.

Honda, a member of Obama's Democratic Party, told AFP he expected the president to take up immigration reforms after May.

He also applauded Obama for signing a measure giving nearly 200 million dollars in back pay to aging World War II veterans from the Philippines, who fought alongside US forces but were stripped of benefits in 1946.

Obama through his background "understands what it means to be inclusive and to be on the other side," Honda said.

"It just makes me smile and makes me proud that we have someone like him as the American face," said Honda, who was interned as a child in a World War II camp for Japanese-Americans.

Obama has a deep personal connection with Asia, having spent part of his childhood in Jakarta. His sister is partly of Indonesian descent; her husband in turn is of Chinese heritage.

"Sometimes I jokingly say that this is the most Asian-American president that we will have," said Helen Zia, a prominent Asian-American scholar and activist.

"He recognizes what it means to be bicultural or bilingual -- that it's something we can contribute to America rather than being seen as a potential enemy or alien," she said.

She said there was "poetic justice" that one of the Asian-American members of the Obama cabinet, Steven Chu, heads the Department of Energy.

In 1999, the then energy secretary, Bill Richardson, accused Taiwanese-born scientist Wen Ho Lee of stealing secrets from Los Alamos National Laboratory -- the birthplace of the atomic bomb -- to give to communist China.

Lee spent nine months in solitary confinement before the government dropped all charges against him other than carelessness with sensitive documents.

To the dismay of some Asian-Americans, Obama initially named Richardson to be commerce secretary. Richardson bowed out due to an unrelated controversy and Obama replaced him with Gary Locke, a Chinese-American.

The other Asian-American in the cabinet is Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, a retired general.

In foreign policy, Obama has moved quickly to assure Japan that it is a cornerstone US ally and pledged to develop a broader relationship with a growing China.

"Much of our American history and policy-making has emphasized relationships across the Atlantic," Zia said. "But we know that this will be the century of the Pacific."

Bob Lee, a retired telecom executive and former chair of the Committee of 100, a Chinese-American group, said he was encouraged by Obama's early dealings with Beijing.

He was hopeful that Obama would disagree "collegially" when disputes crop up with China on issues ranging from the environment to human rights.

"Every Chinese-American I know is very loyal to this country," Lee said. "But when there are problems between China and the United States it creates a very concerning picture as it spills over onto us."

Asian-American representation is also growing among Republicans. Voters in Louisana last year elected Republican Anh "Joseph" Cao as the first Vietnamese-American member of Congress.

The conservative southern state also has an Indian-American governor, Bobby Jindal, seen by many as a rising star in Republican politics.

"When growing up as an Indian-American, there were two choices -- to be a doctor or an engineer," said Sanjay Puri, chairman of the US Indian Political Action Committee.

"But now it's really become cool to be in the political environment."