Trip to Asia presents risks for Obama on healthcare agenda

Healthcare reform’s greatest advocate will be thousands of miles from Washington as the Senate seeks to move toward floor action next week.


President Barack Obama is set to depart for a weeklong trip to Asia on Thursday. He’ll leave behind divided Democrats and an opposition determined to derail healthcare reform.

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“Democrats have relied on the president’s ability to drive the debate,” Republican strategist Kevin Madden said. “And without him here and with his priority being a diplomatic mission, it absolutely scrambles the Democrats’ ability to provide a unified front.”

Obama will first visit Japan before heading to Singapore for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit (APEC). His attendance at APEC has been cut short because of changes to the schedule in the wake of last week’s shooting at Fort Hood. The president will then travel to China and South Korea before heading home on Thursday.

When presidents travel abroad, there is always a risk that their opponents back home will fill that vacuum and gain traction as they seek to weaken the administration’s efforts.

The White House received a direct lesson on those difficulties in early July, when the president was forced to issue a statement from Moscow to assuage the concerns of liberals. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, back in Washington, floated the idea that the White House could accept a “trigger” that would put the public health insurance option into place if private insurers weren’t meeting certain benchmarks.

Former White House aides said shepherding a domestic agenda from abroad is an inherent part of a president’s job.

“There’s always a risk of losing momentum on legislation when a president is called to attend [to] overseas business, but a president is still a human being and can’t be in two places at once,” said Dana Perino, former White House press secretary for President George W. Bush.

The president’s absence puts extra pressure on his staff who stay behind to represent him.

While senior adviser David Axelrod is traveling with the president, Emanuel, a key player in the healthcare debate, will stay behind.

Perino said that even though the president will have a capable team running his ground game in Washington, the time difference between home and Asia presents its own challenges.

“When the president should be sleeping, Washington is getting its day under way,” Perino said.

“You can expect that the president’s team is well-aware of these challenges and they’ll have a lot of plates spinning at once — the goal is to prevent one of them from breaking,” she said.

Democratic strategist Dan Gerstein agreed that there is some risk in elongated absences, but he said “it’s manageable.”

The healthcare debate will not be at a juncture that requires Obama’s role as “cajoler in chief,” and Gerstein said that is likely not a coincidence.

“If you look at the schedule, you can tell when those make-or-break moments are,” he said.

It would have been more difficult — and perhaps impossible — to move healthcare legislation through the House without Obama. The president made a dramatic trip to Capitol Hill on Saturday to give wavering Democrats a push on what he’s labeled historic legislation.

The Asia trip also comes as Obama and his advisers struggle to decide on the strategy for the U.S. military in Afghanistan.

The president held his eighth meeting with his war council on Wednesday to discuss four possible strategies, but a decision is not expected until Obama returns to Washington.

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Republicans have attacked the president for taking too long to make a decision, and Rep. Darrell Issa said Obama should not be leaving the country without first announcing a plan for Afghanistan.

Issa (R-Calif.), ranking member on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Armed Services Committee ranking member Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) wrote to Obama on Friday to demand that the president offer his national security plan.

While Issa conceded that Bush was also late with his plan, he said Obama’s failure to submit either the national security plan or an Afghanistan strategy, compounded by his decision to go to Asia, tells U.S. soldiers “around the world we can’t make up our mind.”

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