WASHINGTON (AP) — Attend a black-tie gala? No. Meet with business leaders who oppose a government shutdown? Yes. Jet off to Asia for a four-country tour? Maybe, but shorten the trip and keep the option to cancel.
President Barack Obama’s strategy during the partial shutdown of the federal government is aimed at keeping up the appearance of a leader focused on the public’s priorities and avoiding looking tone deaf to the hundreds of thousands of Americans forced off the job. He’s also trying to maintain what the White House sees as a political advantage over Republicans, with nearly all the president’s events providing him a platform to blast House GOP lawmakers for opposing a Senate bill to keep the government running.
Republicans have sharply criticized the president’s approach, saying that if he were serious about ending the shutdown, he would be negotiating a solution. Obama did summon congressional lawmakers to the White House to discuss the shutdown Wednesday evening, but neither side appeared ready to make concessions.
“We’re a little confused as to the purpose of this meeting,” said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
The president’s allies say Obama is best served by staying away from the negotiating table and letting Republicans argue among themselves.
“I think if you’re the White House, you just sit back and watch,” said Robert Gibbs, former White House press secretary and a longtime Obama adviser. “I don’t think there’s anything for you to do. I don’t think there’s anything you should do.”
The government shut down after Congress failed to pass a spending bill by Monday’s midnight deadline, forcing about 800,000 federal workers off the job, shuttering national parks, and halting a range of government services. House Republicans are demanding changes to Obama’s health care law in exchange for funding the government, a tactic the White House opposes.
Most polling ahead of the shutdown shows Republicans taking more of the heat than Obama for the political impasse. No polling on the shutdown itself has been completed.
The power of the presidential bully pulpit does give Obama one distinct advantage over Republicans. He can streamline the message coming from the White House, while GOP leaders must contend with the different factions of their party airing competing and sometimes contradictory views.
In the opening days of the shutdown, Obama’s message has been squarely focused on the economic impact of the shutdown and the benefits of the health care law Republicans are seeking to curtail. On Tuesday, he met with Americans who say they’re being helped by the new health law. On Wednesday, he met with business executives — traditionally a core Republican constituency — to discuss the impact of the shutdown and the upcoming debt-ceiling debate on the economy. And on Thursday, he plans to visit a construction company in nearby Maryland to highlight how small businesses are affected by the shutdown.
But Obama canceled an appearance Wednesday night at the glitzy Congressional Hispanic Caucus gala, an event he has attended every year since winning the White House. The White House also announced that the president was scaling back his upcoming trip to Asia, canceling stops in Malaysia and the Philippines — two of the four countries he had planned to visit.
The White House also left open the possibility that the whole trip might be canceled. Obama is scheduled to depart Saturday night for economic summits in Indonesia and Brunei.
National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said the White House “will continue to evaluate those trips based on how events develop throughout the course of the week.”
Even a shortened trip abroad could be risky for Obama. Presidential travel is a high-dollar endeavor that may not sit well with Americans facing financial burdens because of the shutdown. A trip to Asia would also require Obama to spend long stretches on an airplane, limiting the amount of time he can be making his case to the public for restarting the government. And the time difference would mean that nearly all of his events would take place when most Americans are sleeping.
Chris Lehane, a Democratic consultant who worked for President Bill Clinton during the 1995 government shutdown, said Obama needs to strike “a very fine balance” between overseeing the shutdown and his other obligations as president.
“You’re the president of the United States, you have a thousand things you need to do and you need to continue to be in position to do those things,” Lehane said. “But the optics of being in Washington, D.C., ready to move the government forward are important.”
Further complicating the president’s travel plans: Most of the staffers who help plan and manage the logistics of foreign trips have been furloughed because of the shutdown.
Canceling a presidential foreign trip — even a long-planned one — is hardly unprecedented. Clinton canceled a trip to Asia during the 1995 shutdown. Obama canceled two trips to Asia in 2010, once to stay in Washington for votes on his health care law and once to deal with the devastating BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
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