Congress Is Distracting Obama From More Important Business

The president is trying to conduct foreign policy, but gridlock in Washington makes him look weak.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 24: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the 68th United Nations General Assembly on September 24, 2013 in New York City. Over 120 prime ministers, presidents and monarchs are gathering this week for the annual meeting at the temporary General Assembly Hall at the U.N. headquarters while the General Assembly Building is closed for renovations.  (Getty Images)

Amid all the furor in Washington about the looming government shutdown, almost no attention has been paid to the international consequences of a failure to reach a deal. And no one has talked about a crucial foreign policy decision it would force President Obama to make in the next seven days. Republicans who are hell-bent on forcing a shutdown have been silent on the impact it would have on America's standing abroad. But Obama, fresh off meetings with other world leaders at the United Nations and set to meet 23 more heads of state next week, has no choice but to confront the fallout.

That's why the decision he may have to make in the coming days is so tough. The president has to decide whether to go ahead with a long-planned week of Asian summitry, flying 2,400 miles to meet with the leaders of 23 countries, including seven of the United States' largest trading partners. The current itinerary has Obama on the road from Oct. 5 to 12, with stops in Bali, Indonesia, for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit; Brunei for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and Manila, the Philippines.

The administration sees this trip as crucial to the president's announced "pivot to Asia," a needed reassurance to the region that the United States will not surrender the Pacific to China's growing influence. Perhaps most important, it's an opportunity to give a badly needed personal push to the critical final talks on the nine-nation trade negotiations known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, something American businesses have long desired. The trip is also part of the president's desire to do big things in foreign policy in his second term, an aim that was evident in his speech this week to the U.N.

But because of the continued dysfunction in Washington, Obama faces long-term obstacles in achieving that goal. If the government shutters and he still goes ahead with the trip, he risks stinging criticism back home and face-to-face scoldings from other world leaders horrified that the world's superpower would risk upsetting a fragile global recovery with such irresponsible governance. But if he cancels, he risks snubbing key allies and trading partners, losing face internationally, and giving a propaganda gift to the Chinese.

The only way Obama, and U.S. prestige, can win is if Congress and the White House avert a shutdown or, at the least, postpone the face-off until after he returns to American soil. On that slight hope, administration planners are delaying a go/no-go decision. But, privately, aides acknowledge that scrubbing the trip is a distinct possibility. If that happens, it will be but the latest sign of how much things have shifted in Washington in the two decades since George H.W. Bush's presidency. "It is mind-boggling how much it has changed in the 20 years since he left," says Roman Popadiuk, the career Foreign Service officer who worked in the Reagan and Bush administrations before becoming ambassador to Ukraine. Back then, he said, the president could talk with congressional leaders of the other party and ask them to delay any showdown until after such important international summits were concluded. But not today. "It's a whole different environment now, and that's sad, because it really undermines us overseas."

Popadiuk was there when Democrats attacked Bush for paying too much attention to foreign policy at a time of domestic economic distress. He shudders at the attacks that will come if the president goes overseas during a shutdown. "If he arrives at the meeting and the government is shut down, he is going to look silly. What kind of pivot to Asia is it when you can't control your own government?" Showing up at a summit at such a time also "sends a wrong signal to those countries," Popadiuk says. "And the Chinese will look at this and say, "˜Well, talk about a giant with weak knees.' "

Obama's dilemma has a precedent, but it came at a decidedly less critical time in U.S.-Asian relations. In November 1995, a government shutdown forced President Clinton to cancel his trip to an APEC summit in Tokyo. The Japanese felt snubbed. But the biggest consequence of that impasse turned out to be Clinton's first encounter with Monica Lewinsky, whom he would not have met had he been in Tokyo.

Popadiuk believes strongly in the importance of these summits. But he said the president just cannot afford to be seen spending three or four days at a posh oceanfront resort in Bali. "He is going to have to stay home and show that he is in charge."

Similar advice comes from P.J. Crowley, who had Popadiuk's job at the National Security Council in the Clinton administration and was State Department spokesman for the first two years of the Obama presidency. "The optics would be devastating," he told National Journal. He sees the president losing face no matter where he is during a shutdown. "The United States is hemorrhaging political credibility whether the president shows up in Bali or not," Crowley says. "In this case, most major world leaders will actually prefer the president solve the problem sooner rather than later because in any government shutdown or government default, the ripple effects on the global economy are potentially profound."

For that reason, Crowley joked, the Chinese may be more interested in Obama finding a way out of the current mess than in taking advantage of his perceived weakness. "Their reaction might be, "˜What the hell are you doing here? Go home and protect the value of my T-bills that I bought from you!' "

What is missing is the realization in Congress that embarrassing Obama on the eve of two important summits — or forcing him to keep Air Force One in the hangar — hurts the global economy and weakens American prestige. It is why the president this week may face a decision he really does not want to make.