Obama shifts to foreign policy challenges

President Obama is focusing more on daunting foreign policy challenges even as healthcare reform, his top domestic agenda priority, faces many legislative hurdles on Capitol Hill this month.

Obama, who is scheduled to leave for Moscow on Sunday, is balancing healthcare reform, financial regulatory reform and climate change legislation, but North Korea's missile tests and  unrest in Iran could overshadow his meeting with Russian leaders and the leaders of the G-8 countries in Russia and Italy next week.

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Senior administration officials acknowledged this week that those pressing foreign policy matters, combined with European skepticism about the U.S.'s commitment to climate change legislation, will be constant areas of discussion between the president and his foreign counterparts.

As the president prepares to meet first with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, administration officials are emphasizing the U.S./Russia commitment to reducing nuclear arms proliferation will be discussed at length.

Given Russia's crucial role in negotiations with Iran and North Korea, those officials acknowledged that global security issues will be "front and center."

Michael McFaul, special assistant to the president for Russian and Eurasian affairs, said the president's meetings with his Russian counterparts and a speech he will deliver there will demonstrate "we want to actually do real business with the Russians on things that matter to our national security and our prosperity."

"And the idea here is that this is not 1974, this is not just where we go where we do an arms control agreement with the Soviets, but that we have a multidimensional relationship with the Russian government and with the Russian people," McFaul told reporters last week.

However, with the START treaty expiring in December, an arms control agreement will be a big part of the discussions, and U.S. and Russian representatives have been tackling ways to expand and reinvent the non-proliferation treaty.

McFaul noted that for many Russians, the "United States is considered an adversary; I'm sure many would use harsher words among themselves when they talk about us."

He added that Obama will talk about global security matters and then "he's going to pivot to those and say, 'Well, this is our interest in fighting terrorism; this is our interest in energy efficiency and dealing with climate changes; these are our interest in dealing with Iran -- is there anything here that I've just said that in any way is negative in terms of Russia's own interests, and Russians' own interests in terms of their security and prosperity?'"

But on two of the biggest sticking points between the two countries -- NATO expansion for Georgia and the Ukraine and U.S. missile defense sites in Europe -- senior administration officials suggested that Obama is not willing to bend.

"On NATO expansion and missile defense, I would just say this, that we're definitely not going to use the word 'reassure' in the way that we talk about these things," McFaul said. "We're not going to reassure or give or trade anything with the Russians regarding NATO expansion or missile defense."

After his meetings in Russia, the president will travel to Rome and L'Aquila, Italy for G-8 meetings where climate change and the global economic crisis will likely dominate the agenda.

Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said European leaders will push the president on financial regulatory reform and climate change.

On financial regulatory reform, Conley said European leaders will "want to see some very tough language" to prevent another collapse.

Many European leaders squarely place the blame for the global meltdown on lackluster regulations that allowed Wall Street to play fast and loose. To that end, Obama will likely laud his recent introduction of proposed reforms, but Conley said foreign leaders will be skeptical.

That skepticism will also be on full display on the issue of climate change.

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The House provided Obama with some cover on the issue last month when it narrowly passed the Markey-Waxman energy bill, but European leaders are not only dubious that that bill will be passed and signed into law, but also whether it goes far enough.

Conley said foreign leaders, at least publicly, will give Obama "full credit for using leadership and political capital" to move the legislation.

"Privately, they're going to be pushing him farther," Conley said. "He's got to do more."

She added: "They want to praise and encourage, but they're afraid [Waxman-Markey is] not going to be sufficient."

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Obama at the White House last month on the day the House was voting on the energy legislation, she saw firsthand the political resistance Obama is facing on climate change.

Obama will be able to hail the first step taken as progress on the matter, especially compared to the Bush administration, but it is doubtful he can make a good-faith promise to do more in the near future.

Conley said European leaders, hopeful for more progress and leadership from the U.S., will likely be disappointed.

"I think their expectations are really too great at this point," Conley said.

Obama talked more about healthcare reform than climate change, but was actively involved in getting the necessary votes to pass climate change through the lower chamber.

Both the House and Senate are looking to pass healthcare reform legislation before the August recess, but policymakers have not yet revealed how they will pay for what is expected to be more than $1 trillion in new benefits for the uninsured. Obama and congressional leaders have said healthcare reform legislation will not add to the federal deficit, claiming it will be fully paid for over 10 years.