WASHINGTON -- Beginning a mission redesigned to stress "jobs, jobs, jobs," President Bush was bound for the Far East last night on a 12-day journey that has taken on as much significance for domestic politics as for international diplomacy.
In both respects, Mr. Bush's trip to Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Australia is seen by the White House and many outside analysts as a risky venture.
"Let me be very clear about the focus of this trip," Mr. Bush said shortly before Air Force One began its 22-hour journey to the first stop in Sydney, Australia. "My highest priority is jobs. And I want us to build a foundation for sustained economic growth and an ever-increasing supply of good jobs for American workers."
U.S. and Japanese negotiators are still bargaining hard to come up with some examples of progress that Mr. Bush can cite to declare the journey a success at cracking the $40 billion trade deficit with Japan.
Small concessions, particularly some gestures toward the three U.S. automakers traveling with the president in a 21-member delegation of business leaders, are considered virtually certain.
But there was some potential the mission could backfire, so high were the expectations that Mr. Bush raised by converting what had once been a broad diplomatic visit into a make-or-break "jobs" mission.
"This problem is very deep and wide," Seth Cropsey, director of the Asian Center of the Heritage Foundation.
"It's not the kind you can address with one trip and a lot of ballyhoo. And Asia is the last place in which I would want to be negotiating from a position of weakness."
Democratic politicians such as House Majority Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., were already poised to shoot down any inflated claims of achievement by a Republican president eager to reverse his slide in public opinion polls.
"I think he's got to get concrete results, not just promises or press releases, but really get something done," Mr. Gephardt said during an interview with CNN Sunday.
That attitude is unrealistic, argued John Yochelson, vice president for international business and economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He said Mr. Bush had already accomplished a lot in getting Japan's attention, noting that Japan lowered its discount rate Sunday to stimulate its economy and is considering other steps to ease the purchase of U.S. imports.
"What people don't seem to understand is that a president under pressure and a prime minister who's having trouble need each other," Mr. Yochelson said. He was referring to the new Japanese leader, Kiichi Miyazawa, whose political base has weakened recently over budget and tax problems.
There was also concern that Mr. Bush's original diplomatic goals for the trip, to reaffirm security relationships in the Pacific, would get lost in the new plans.
"These new economic realities have not eclipsed the security concerns that continue to demand our attention through East Asia," Mr. Bush said yesterday.
"I'll make very clear to each country I visit that America remains committed to the cause of freedom and democracy, that America will remain engaged in the Pacific area economically, politically and militarily."
However, those issues have clearly become secondary now, even to his host countries.
For example, Australia has long been looking forward to the good will and thank-you tour that Mr. Bush had promised to Prime Minister Bob Hawke, partly to show his appreciation for Australia's ready support last year for the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq. Mr. Bush will be the first U.S. president to visit Australia since Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s.
But Mr. Hawke was recently ousted by his party, and Mr. Bush has decided to trim back a trip that would have taken him fishing on the Great Barrier Reef.
Instead, a round of meetings with Australian business leaders has been included at the insistence of the Australians who heard that Mr. Bush had invited the U.S. business executives to the Japan portion of his trip and wanted equal treatment.
The United States has a healthy trade surplus with Australia. But Australian wheat farmers want Mr. Bush to end U.S. subsidies to their American competitors and were expected to mount protests during his visit.
Singapore earned a spot on the president's itinerary mostly because it was a good midway point between Australia and Korea. But early plans included discussions of the prospect that U.S. naval craft that have lost the use of facilities in the Philippines may use airfields and the harbor in Singapore.
Now the talks are more likely to center on a possible free trade agreement between the United States and the tiny Southeast Asian city-state, which is also a major trading partner.
There was never any thought of Mr. Bush stopping in the Philippines itself, which has become less important to the United States now that it now longer welcomes American military bases, White House officials said.