"Stay home," demanded Fox News analyst Greta Van Sustern. "To resolve the fiscal cliff requires all hands on deck and the deadline is rapidly approaching," she wrote in a commentary. She suggested he send Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in his place, adding, "Americans deserve our leaders to do their jobs. This is a dropped ball."
But the White House dismisses such criticism. Stressing the economic importance of the trip, Press Secretary Jay Carney noted the president met with congressional leaders on Friday, the day before his departure for Thailand. "I'm absolutely certain that the work that is begun there will continue while he is traveling."
National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon said in a speech Thursday to the Center for Strategic and International Studies that the White House weighed the trip carefully.
"When you're talking about the president's time, which is the most precious resource in the White House, there's going to be a debate about whether or not this is worth the candle. Is it worth that amount of time?" he said. "And we reached this decision in this way. You are either all in or you're not, with respect to this (Asian) strategy. And the president ... (decided) the United States is all in."
In this, the White House gets strong backing from the foreign policy community, which sees Obama's presence at the summits as critical to U.S. interests in Asia. "It would have been a serious, serious blow if he had canceled this trip," said Matthew P. Goodman, an expert on the region at CSIS and a former White House coordinator for Asian-Pacific summits. "The criticism is understandable and not unusual. But I think it is misplaced in this case," Goodman told National Journal. "Presidents can walk and chew gum at the same time even if they are traveling overseas. Air Force One is fully wired and he can continue working on the fiscal issues... I'm sure that a significant part of the work that he does on the trip will be phone calls and staff meetings on those issues."
Goodman said Obama's absence would "seriously undermine" the American effort to "rebalance" its foreign priorities, a policy that has also been called a "pivot" to Asia. After four years of that pivot, American policymakers believe they are seeing a payoff and that those benefits will be evident in the president's interaction with Asian leaders on this trip. "We see this as an opportunity to dramatically increase U.S. exports, to increase U.S. leadership in the fastest growing part of the world and in advancing our values as well as our interests," said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser.
Much attention will be focused on the president's meeting with China's Wen Jiabao, the outgoing premier of China. Chinese leaders were less than thrilled at the often biting attacks on Beijing during the American political campaign and China has bristled every time the Obama administration talks about any "rebalancing" or "pivot" toward Asia, fearing it is cover for a plan to "contain" Chinese power or restrain its growth.