WASHINGTON » Determined to deepen relations with Asia, President Barack Obama is pouring nine days of valued time into a diplomatic mission away from Washington while Congress struggles toward a crucial budget deadline and a doubtful outcome.
Obama departs Friday for far-reaching summits in Hawaii and Indonesia, with a visit to Australia in between.
The travels will take the president more than 10,000 miles and across many time zones from home at a moment when domestic concerns matter most to the electorate.
His challenge will be to explain to voters how the U.S. role in the Asia-Pacific region is essential to American jobs and security — and then emerge with results to show for his travels.
For a leader who was born in Hawaii, spent boyhood years in Indonesia and hails himself as America’s first Pacific president, Obama’s worldview is shaped deeply by Asia. His administration is showering attention on the Asia-Pacific region as a driver of global politics, prized buyer of American products and central player in protecting world peace.
"If you want America to be a world leader in this century, that leadership is going to have to include the Asia-Pacific," said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser for Obama.
Such a focus is essential to American interests, analysts say, but still a test for a president who is seeking to govern and run for re-election at once.
The White House hopes the world will see Obama’s trip as a pivot point in American policy, as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton put it. The war in Iraq will be over by year’s end, the war in Afghanistan is winding down and Obama is trying to expand trade, security alliances and cultural ties with traditional allies and emerging powers across Asia.
The subtext of the agenda is Obama’s intention to keep the United States as a viable counterweight to a rising China, particularly in the eyes of other leaders in the region.
The element Obama aides don’t mention is the potential political cost of having the president out of the country, half a world away, as other debates rage back home.
The economy is king, from the campaign to Obama’s jobs fights to a legislative supercommittee charged with finding more than $1 trillion in cuts by a Nov. 23 deadline. Republicans and Democrats seem far apart and there is growing pessimism they will succeed.
"I can see the domestic political advisers saying, ‘Ten days in the Pacific while people are out of work in the U.S. — Mister President, you ought to cut this one short," said Douglas Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former national security aide to presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
White House officials say there are no plans to do that. A suddenly shortened trip would be seen as a slap to Asian allies, and the Australian leg has already been postponed twice because of higher-ranking domestic concerns for Obama.
En route to Hawaii, Obama begins his journey by attending an unusual sporting event in San Diego: a high-profile Veterans Day college basketball game between Michigan State and No. 1 North Carolina on the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson. That’s the aircraft carrier that took Osama bin Laden’s body to a burial at sea after American commandos killed the al-Qaida leader in Pakistan.
Over the weekend, the president will host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, or APEC, forum in Honolulu, to promote trade and jobs.
The key push for Obama will be establishing a Pacific-wide free trade zone that is now being negotiated by the United States and eight smaller economies.
The lofty goal is for the trade zone to eventually cover a region accounting more than half of global output. Japan’s foreign minister, Yoshihiko Noda, said Friday that his country will join the talks about joining the free trade zone, and there are hopes that China and others would participate. The expectations at the Obama-hosted summit, though, are not for a deal, but perhaps the announcement of a broad framework and more discussions.
As usual, the more intense diplomatic action will happen on the sidelines. Obama will hold private meetings with the leaders of Japan, Russia and China.
Altogether, Obama will spend four nights in Hawaii and is expected to have a light schedule on Monday — only a fundraiser, a reminder of the domestic politics that follow him.
In Australia, Obama will deliver the key speech of his trip to the Australian parliament in Canberra.
He is also expected to announce a deeper U.S. military footprint in the country during a stop in Darwin, in the northern reaches of Australia. The defense agreement is likely to include positioning of U.S. equipment in Australia, increasing access to bases and conducting more joint exercises and training.
More broadly, Obama will use the trip to try to reassure allies that the United States will not slash its security presence across the Asia-Pacific despite austerity measures at home.
Yet the threat of such defense cuts is rattling Obama’s own administration. If the Congress’ deficit-cutting supercommittee cannot agree on a plan that wins approval from Congress, a new law calls for deep cuts across the government to kick in automatically starting in 2013, including more than $500 billion for the military.
The president caps his trip in Indonesia, where Obama spent four years as a boy.
Obama delivered a speech in the capital, Jakarta, last year in which he declared that "Indonesia is a part of me." This time he will be the first U.S. president to take part in the East Asia Summit, in Bali, known as a tropical paradise for tourism. The U.S. has put its stamp on the summit agenda in the area of security, including halting the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
The trip amounts to Obama’s most extensive travel of the year.
He leaves as his approval ratings have been mired in the mid- to low-40 percent range in many recent polls, including a 46 percent approval number in the latest AP-GfK poll from mid-October. His overall rating outpaces his performance on the economy. On matters of foreign affairs, Obama fares far better, garnering the approval of about 6 in 10 adults.
Obama is expected to underscore the relevance of the trip to Americans by the day. He will be back in Washington on Nov. 20.
"This isn’t a trip to the far-flung corners of Asia," said Daniel Russel, Obama’s senior director for Asian affairs. "This is a trip to the Asia-Pacific. The U.S. is very much an Asia-Pacific nation. We’re a resident power."