By Sam Youngman - 10/19/10 07:24 PM EDT
President Obama is giving Republicans a 10-day window to set the agenda for a lame-duck session and the new legislative year by leaving the country right after the midterm elections.
The timing of the president’s trip to Asia is worrying some Democrats, who believe it could cede further momentum to a resurgent Republican Party that might win a House majority on Nov. 2.
But the White House says the trip, which will also cover Japan, South Korea and Indonesia, is an important part of the president's effort to strengthen the economy, the issue that has left Obama and his Democratic allies in peril.
“The president understands that his job requires him to focus on more than one important thing at time,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest. “Make no mistake, a top priority of the president’s trip is ensuring markets in Asia are open to American businesses that are instrumental to creating jobs and growing the economy here at home.”
The trip, moved up a couple of days by the White House, is not without precedent, and a similar decision once resulted in a happy ending for Democrats.
Former President Clinton took a page from a Southwest Airlines “Want to get away?” commercial and left Washington for a summit in Asia immediately after Republicans won House and Senate majorities in a 54-seat tsunami in 1994. Clinton was eviscerated by the press for leaving the country after his party was left in shambles and the future of his presidency was in doubt.
“Bill Clinton's escape from a shell-shocked White House during the post-election turmoil that descended on his administration and his party serves as a metaphor for his unraveling presidency,” wrote conservative columnist Donald Lambro.
Former Clinton White House officials, however, said time away from the country gave Clinton time to gain perspective and remind voters of the power of the presidency on the foreign policy front.
Dee Dee Myers, Clinton's press secretary at the time, said that while a lot of people questioned the decision for the president to be out of the country, she thought it was a plus for Clinton to be away to “refocus his mindset beyond the contours of domestic policies.”
“It's a little counter-intuitive, but it makes sense,” Myers said.
The story turned out well for Clinton, who emerged from his well documented war with Newt Gingrich's Congress to win reelection in 1996. But Obama faces higher national unemployment figures, a new breed of angry Republican and a media environment that has been on a steady regimen of steroids since the Clinton days.
Obama, who has stayed close to home in 2010 after a whirlwind globe-trotting first year in office his administration said was designed to “restore America's reputation abroad,” has struggled to maintain message discipline when out of the country.
During the summer of 2009 while the healthcare debate was raging, the president was forced to issue a clarifying statement during a trip in Moscow to walk back remarks then-chief of staff Rahm Emanuel made to The Wall Street Journal about the public health insurance option.
This trip has the potential to be much worse for Obama and Democrats, the Democratic strategist said, by giving Republicans a head-start in pushing for an across-the-board extension of the Bush tax cuts.
“Mark my words, they will seize the moment and ram an extension of the Bush tax cuts down our throats,” the strategist said. “Fair or not, [the trip] is just a terrible idea.”
But Larry Berman, an expert on the presidency and a political science professor at the University of California-Davis, said there is little political risk in Obama's travel even though the “bloggers and Obama-haters are having a field day.”
Obama has been “putting most of his time and energy these past two months into the elections, trying to re-energize his base and hold losses,” Berman said. “It now makes sense to let the dust settle before returning to what looks certain to be a different political dynamic in D.C.
“Being away will allow for some perspective, perhaps a change in game plan and personnel.”
Jamal Simmons, an aide to Clinton in 1994, said Obama has a job to do as president, and his presence in Washington during the aftermath of this year's elections is unnecessary.
“The president is not a pundit, so there’s not much use for him to sit around and haggle about the election results,” Simmons said. “Whether the Democrats win or lose, the president ought to be getting back to work governing the country and managing foreign affairs.”
Myers said that while the Washington echo chamber is filled with media and pundit speculation about the meaning of the election results, Obama will at least have the comfort of distance as he waits for the dust to settle.
“It's not a very productive time to be in Washington,” Myers said. “There's not much you can do.”
Kwaku Duncan contributed to this story.