WASHINGTON — With no end it sight to the federal government shutdown, President Obama now faces a difficult decision on whether to travel to Asia for two important summits next week as his administration faces increased scrutiny over his first-term vow to rebalance its foreign policy focus toward Asia.
The White House on Wednesday announced that Obama was scratching visits to Kuala Lumpur and Manila, which were on the tail end of what was scheduled to be an eight-day Asia trip, because of the government shutdown.
The president — at least for now — is still scheduled to depart Washington on Saturday to participate in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Bali, Indonesia, and the East Asia Summit in Darussalam, Brunei. But the White House acknowledges that Obama's attendance is far from a certainty.
"The geopolitical ramifications of the president not making the trip, if indeed he decides he has to cancel, it would leave a big geopolitical mark," said Ernest Bower, a Southeast Asia analyst the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The White House placed blame on Republicans on Wednesday for forcing Obama to cancel the Malaysia and Philippines legs of his trip and said that Obama's participation in the Bali and Darussalam meetings are under review.
"This completely avoidable shutdown is setting back our ability to promote U.S. exports and advance U.S. leadership in the largest emerging region in the world," said National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden.
Yet, as important as the trip may be for a long list of trade and diplomatic priorities, the sight of Obama spending days away from Washington as hundreds of thousands of federal workers find themselves shut out of their jobs could open the White House to unwanted criticism at home.
The White House looked to this long-planned trip as crucial to the Obama administration's so-called "Asia pivot," a proposed increased focus on the region because of its growing economic importance and the rise of China.
While Obama has build up some good will in the region by merely underscoring the need for American policy to shift to Asia, canceling the entire trip could raise new questions about whether the U.S. is truly committed to a sustained focus on the region.
In his address to the United Nations General Assembly last week, Obama spent little time talking about Asia and said that in the near term American diplomatic efforts would focus primarily on stopping Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Even before the U.N. address, Asian diplomats were raising concerns that U.S. budget cuts and Secretary of State John Kerry's increased focus on Syria and reviving Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are undercutting Obama's first term push for a rebalance to Asia, said Michael Green, who served as an Asia adviser in the George W. Bush administration.
"The narrative is building pretty strongly that the pivot has lost its mojo because there is no champion," Green said.
The trip to Kuala Lumpur, where Obama was scheduled to take part in an international entrepreneurs' conference, would have marked the first visit to Malaysia by a sitting U.S. president since Lyndon Johnson's stop there in 1966.
Obama told Prime Minister Najib Razak in a phone call Monday night that he was committed to visiting Malaysia later in his second term and that Kerry, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and U.S. Trade Representative Mike Froman would take part in next week's entrepreneurs conference in his place.
In the Philippines, the United States is in the midst of negotiations for broader access to military bases, and Obama's visit was seen as an important goodwill gesture that would have helped those efforts as well as make his case to Aquino for the Philippines to sign on to the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would establish an 11-nation free-trade zone.
Talks on the TPP also are expected to be a central part of the APEC conference, which brings together representatives from 19 Pacific countries as well as Hong Kong and Taiwan.
President Clinton experienced a similar dilemma as Obama in the fall of 1995, when he faced a government shutdown. He ultimately decided to skip APEC, which was being hosted by Japan that year.
Clinton's quandary came as the U.S.-Japan alliance was frayed at the time by trade tensions as well as the rape of a school girl in Okinawa by a U.S. Marine stationed there.
Clinton, however, would assuage Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto concerns about Marines stationed there, and the 42nd president traveled to Japan in April 1996, leading to a pact they signed to extend the military alliance between the two countries.
In 1998, Clinton again skipped APEC, this time in Malaysia, as he pondered a military strike against Iraq for Saddam Hussein's refusal to cooperate with U.N. arms inspectors, and sent Vice President Al Gore in his place.Gore would draw the ire of the summit's host— Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad — as well as some other Asian leaders for criticizing Malaysia's human rights record at a banquet for leaders.
In the days ahead, Obama will have to decide the best way forward, which seems likely to come at a steep cost whether he stays in Washington or goes to Asia.
"If the president doesn't go to any of these Asia stops, it would be very damaging," said Matthew Goodman, who served as White House coordinator for the APEC and East Asia Summit during Obama's first term. "It is possible to recover, but it is also possible it could have lasting implications. "