President faced with wrenching decision on travel during shutdown
By Justin Sink - 10/03/13 04:46 PM ET
President Obama is facing a wrenching decision on whether to cancel his weekend trip to Asia.
Political analysts warn that if the president does leave to participate in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Indonesia and the East Asia Summit in Brunei, he could be seen as abandoning his country in the midst of the shutdown crisis.
But foreign policy experts say a cancellation would put important trade and security interests at risk. Dropping out would risk offending allies in Asia, they say, and could undermine the president's attempts to refocus attention on the region.
The White House on Thursday would say only that it was "evaluating the president's trip in light of the shutdown," while maintaining that at present, the trip remained in motion.
Earlier this week, Obama scrapped stops in Kuala Lumpur and Manila, citing the shutdown.
For the president, the political disadvantages of traveling during a shutdown are obvious, as leaving the country would forfeit the bully pulpit and open him up to attacks.
Princeton University professor Julian Zelizer said that for Obama, "it will be tricky to pull off without political fallout."
"Leaving Washington in the middle of a government shutdown gives the Republicans an opportunity to say he isn't really interested in negotiation, that he's abroad when the country is in crisis," Zelizer said. "It's a difficult trip for him to take right now, and the sense of crisis will only increase in the next few days."
But foreign policy experts say that the international implications of canceling his trip might be incentive enough for Obama to risk it.
Matt Goodman, who served as the White House coordinator on APEC during Obama's first term, said he believed Obama "will do everything he can" to attend the summit.
"It's really, really important for him to go. In Asia, you get points for showing up. … If you cancel, it's considered very bad form and it's remembered for a very long time," Goodman said.
Goodman said that Asian leaders still talk about decisions by former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton to skip APEC summits. Clinton skipped the conference in 1995 during a government shutdown, creating tension with Japan, which served as the host nation.
The former administration official said he also believes that "there is more likelihood Obama will go" because of the emphasis the president has placed on the so-called "pivot" toward the East. The president has spoken about the need to focus diplomatic attention on the region as China and other economies emerge on the global stage.
"He's identified Asia as a key area for U.S. engagements," said Suzanne DiMaggio, the vice president of global policy programs at the Asia Society. "The APEC summit to be held in Bali and the East Asia summit in Brunei are two important venues for the U.S. to really communicate that they are committed to engaging Asia economically, diplomatically, [and] politically."
That renewed focus has been cast into doubt in recent months, as events in the Middle East, including the ouster of Egypt's president, Syria's use of chemical weapons, the Israel-Palestine peace talks, and Iran's nuclear negotiations have dominated the agenda.
Diplomats and trade experts say the president's attendance could be crucial for moving forward a Trans-Pacific trade agreement that countries hope to complete by the end of the year.
"That looks problematic right now, but leadership at the highest level could do a lot to establish that free trade zone," DiMaggio said.
The meetings could also be an important forum for sideline security discussions on not just the Middle East, but American naval interests and North Korea.
"These are the kinds of meetings where representation by the United States at the highest level achieves, you know, good things for us in terms of our national security and in terms of our role in the global economy," said White House press secretary Jay Carney on Thursday.
Carney said that if necessary, Obama could sign important legislation to either fund the government or raise the debt ceiling while traveling.
Still, the White House stressed Thursday that it hoped House Republicans would move forward with a “clean” spending bill to reopen the government, rendering the tough choice "moot."
"The Speaker of the House can reopen the government today, and we hope he does," Carney said.