PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA - For all of the attention wrenched elsewhere in recent days -- on new violence in the Middle East, the "fiscal cliff" back home -- President Obama's quick visit to Southeast Asia achieved a major goal: It was clearly seen in the region as a validation of Asia's strategic importance as the United States refocuses its foreign policy to counter China's clout.

It wasn't easy. Even as Obama traipsed in stocking feet through a temple in the heart of Bangkok, a monk wished him luck negotiating the deficit-reduction challenge awaiting him in Washington.

And the bloodshed in the Middle East, exploding as he toured Southeast Asia for three days, illustrated the limits of U.S. foreign policy even as he tried to display its influence and reach.

But Obama came away from his trip to this corner of the world -- a place once defined by a cloistered and shunned nation like Myanmar or by Khmer Rouge "killing fields" or by Chinese power --with at least the hope that the example of U.S. democracy can effect change and strengthen America's hand.

Establishing a bigger, more influential presence in the Asia-Pacific region has long been an Obama objective, a goal driven by 21st century geopolitical considerations and by the Hawaiian-born president's own self-identity as the first Pacific president.

Just by making the trip -- and by making it his first after his re-election -- Obama made a point about the importance the United States attaches to the region.

He was greeted by large crowds chanting his name in Thailand and in Myanmar, a country less than two years removed from a repressive military dictatorship where such assemblies were long forbidden. The reception was more muted in neighboring Cambodia, a staunch ally of China that pointedly displayed a sign at the presidential palace welcoming Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao but nothing for Obama.