Government shutdown may keep Obama grounded
By: Reid J. Epstein
October 1, 2013 07:15 PM EDT
It’s hard to win a political argument in Washington when you’re half a world away.
President Barack Obama learned that the hard way last month, when he traveled to Sweden and Russia and was unable to fight congressional opponents to U.S. military intervention in Syria took hold for good.
Now with no end in sight to a government shutdown, the White House is slowly laying the groundwork toward canceling Obama’s planned week-long trip to Southeast Asia – an acknowledgement that both the shutdown isn’t likely to end soon and that leaving town before it’s over would be political malpractice.
A White House official said Tuesday that discussions are ongoing about whether Obama should go on the trip – though Obama isn’t likely to make a decision to cancel until the last possible moment.
Making things more difficult: much of the White House advance team has been deemed non-essential and is furloughed during the shutdown. The press staff is without the wranglers who handle the movements of journalists who travel with the president.
Press secretary Jay Carney’s explanation of the trip has gone from last week insisting Obama will make the trip to saying Monday that “we have this trip scheduled and we intend to take it” to on Tuesday saying “we are currently scheduled to travel.”
Obama left for Sweden and Russia days after asking Congress to give him a use-of-force authorization against Syria. The White House knew it would be tough to win congressional support and despite unprecedented congressional outreach, opposition grew throughout the week Obama was abroad.
White House officials feel their political position on the shutdown is stronger than it was on Syria, but the official said that is maintained in part by Obama’s daily intonations against congressional Republicans — a pattern due to repeat itself the rest of this week.
“There is no question that being there is not the same as being here,” the White House official said.
As a practical matter, flying from Washington to Asia would put Obama in the air and out of pocket for some 20 hours – time when he could otherwise be making a daily case for blaming Republicans for the shutdown.
Timing also plays a role — Obama spoke at formal bilateral press conferences while in Sweden and Russia, but those were often very early in the morning in the United States. If he goes to Asia, his appearances would likely be in the middle of the night, hardly the optimal moment for the White House.
Staying home, Obama can continue pushing his message daily, giving the same speech over and over again like during his campaigns.
“If you leave the country there is any number of hours you’re in the air, you allow the other side to occupy an awful lot of media real estate when you’re in the air and overseas,” said Chris Lehane, a veteran of the Clinton White House during the budget fights with Republicans.
Obama spoke four times about the shutdown Monday, then made his Rose Garden speech Tuesday, flanked by a dozen people the White House said would be helped by the Affordable Care Act. Wednesday he is meeting with CEOs at the White House and Thursday Obama plans to visit a Maryland construction company that Carney said is emblematic of small businesses that will be hurt by the shutdown.
“He’s got the bully pulpit and everything he does needs to be about getting government going again and making these guys do the right thing,” said Democratic pollster Andrew Myers, who is giddy about the damage the shutdown is doing to House Republicans.
And the optics of flying Air Force One to several different countries over 10 days likely wouldn’t help the White House while federal workers are sitting at home.
“When the story line is about meeting with Asian dignitaries than getting Boehner and his caucus to do the right thing for the country – that’s something better done from the steps of the White House,” Myers said.
There is little precedent for a president leaving the country while the government is shut down.
Bill Clinton canceled a trip to Asia during the 1995 government shutdown. It “blew a hole in our Asia outreach strategy” but was the only choice to be made, said Mike McCurry, Clinton’s press secretary at the time.
Now Obama in the same situation faces the same no-brainer, McCurry said.
“On balance, how do you justify going over to an international conference and yukking it up w international leaders when everything is going a-cropper at home” McCurry said. “It was not a close call.”
There is already precedent for Obama canceling major trips to focus on pressing issues at home – he has twice postponed travel to Australia to focus on first negotiations on the health care legislation and then the Gulf Coast oil spill.
And as recently as last month Obama skipped going to California for a labor conference and a DNC fundraiser to try to save his Syria strategy.
Obama didn’t mention the trip during his interview with NPR or during his remarks on health care in the Rose Garden Tuesday.
Carney on Tuesday declined to address whether it is even possible for Obama to travel to Asia with the limited staff in place because of the shutdown.
“We are currently scheduled to travel. We certainly hope that the time between now and the president’s scheduled departure the speaker does the right thing” and allows a vote on a budget resolution without Obamacare cuts, Carney said.