Obama on Asia Tour, Leaving Fiscal Cliff Momentarily Behind

Air Force One, left, and the back-up aircraft, await the arrival of President Barack Obama at Andrews Air Force Base, Md. at sunrise, Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012, for his trip to Southeast Asia.National Journal

President Obama will try over the next few days to show he can advance more than one U.S. priority at a time. Just a day after opening time-sensitive discussions on tax and spending issues, Obama starts a trip that takes him 9,000 miles from Washington and its intense focus on the looming fiscal cliff. He'll be talking about political prisoners, maritime disputes, emerging markets, and trade policy in public while keeping a hand in the capital's fiscal debate from afar.

The president will be in Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia, attending Asian regional summits, celebrating the easing of repression in the nation formerly known as Burma, and meeting with Chinese leaders after an American political campaign that featured lots of criticism of Beijing. It is a trip that the White House views as crucial to the continued "rebalancing" of American foreign policy to reflect Asia's growing political, economic and military clout on the world stage.

He will be absent from Washington for only five days "“ during a time when Congress is not at work negotiating a needed agreement on taxes and spending. Still, the trip has drawn criticism from the right and calls for Obama to cancel the travel until a deal is struck to avoid the tax increases and spending cuts collectively known as the fiscal cliff.

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"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.

Goodman said he expects Obama to ask the Chinese premier to convey to the leaders who will soon replace him that "the United States intends to continue its approach to Asia, the rebalancing strategy, and that that is a positive thing that is good for China." But he said the president can be expected to stress as well that continuity also means a continued insistence that China obey "the rules of the road" on trade and economic matters.

First, the president will meet in Bangkok with King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. In Phnom Penh, the final leg, he will attend two regional summits "“ the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the 16-nation East Asia Summit. In all, Obama will meet with 17 foreign leaders in the summits and hold one-on-one meetings, including a session with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda.

The trip will make history when Air Force One sets down in Rangoon on Monday. For six decades, Burma "“ as the United States and other Western countries still call it "“ has been under the thumb of military dictators who presided over genocide, child labor, slavery, systematic rape, and the denial of basic freedoms. But under pressure from the world community and facing punishing sanctions, the military junta was officially dissolved in 2011 after an historic 2010 election. Obama's trip, the first to the country by a U.S. president, is meant to mark a blossoming of freedom and human rights after so many years of repression.

It will also include a highly publicized trek to the home of Myanmar's best-known dissident, Aung San Suu Kyi. For more than two decades, she was under house arrest at that residence, bringing her international fame and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. Now, she is the leader of the main opposition party in the House of Representatives.

But even with that pilgrimage, the visit is not without controversy, as some human rights groups have noted that not all political prisoners have been released and some ethnic groups continue to be persecuted. They fear that Obama's trip will lessen the pressure for more reforms. The White House is aware there is risk in the trip. "This is not a victory celebration," said Danny Russel, the NSC's senior director for Asia. "This is a barn raising. This is a moment when we believe that the Burmese leaders have put their feet on the right path and that it's critical to us that we not miss a moment to influence them to keep them going. It's an uphill climb and we want to make progress irreversible."

Most analysts are cautiously supportive of the trip. "The broader risk is that it will not pan out and the positive progress will not continue and the president will not be seen as helping the process," said Goodman. "But they've obviously thought hard about that and decided to take a calculated risk that this is more likely to encourage positive progress than discourage it."