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Obama's Asia trip: Should he stay or should he go?

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks from the White House about the shootings at the U.S. Navy Yard in Washington September 16, 2013. REUTERS/
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks from the White House about the shootings at the U.S. Navy Yard in Washington September 16, 2013. REUTERS/

By Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With Washington paralyzed by a government shutdown, time is running out for President Barack Obama to decide whether to leave the stalemate behind and fly halfway around the world to attend two international summits in Indonesia and Brunei.

On Thursday, the White House was still officially hoping the shutdown would end quickly, allowing Obama to avoid having to choose between looking after things at home, or advancing his trade and foreign policy goals in Asia on a trip beginning on Saturday.

If the House of Representatives approves a stopgap funding plan already passed by the Senate - something that did not appear imminent - that would make Obama's travel plans a lot less complicated, White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

"Obviously, that would affect the way we determine presidential travel," Carney told reporters, explaining Asia was important to Obama's economic and strategic goals.

Carney declined to say whether Obama would rule out the trip if the government remained shut down.

"I'm not going to speculate about, you know, what would happen if, because there is still time for that question to be moot," he said.

Earlier this week, Obama canceled visits to Malaysia and Philippines, two of the four stops on his four-nation Asia trip, because of the shutdown.

As of Thursday, Obama was still scheduled to depart on Saturday for Bali, Indonesia where he is slated to meet with leaders of Asian economies negotiating a trade deal, and later travel to Brunei, where summit participants will talk about security issues like disputed territories in the oil- and gas-rich South China Sea.

TIMING IS EVERYTHING

Obama could still attend the meetings, but he may feel pressure to stay closer to home given the shutdown and a looming October 17 deadline to raise the country's debt ceiling, said Elaine Kamarck, director of the Center for Effective Public Management at Brookings Institution.

"The consequences of failing to end the shutdown or avert a default are likely to be much bigger than the consequences of not making these trips," Kamarck said.

The decision is similar to one faced by former President Bill Clinton during the last government shutdown in 1995. Clinton opted to skip an Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Japan, recalled Mike McCurry, who was then Clinton's press secretary.

Still, there can be an advantage to being seen as presidential on the world stage, McCurry said.

"Timing is everything, and if the moment is right to contrast leading on the world scene to being stuck in Washington gridlock, going on the road makes some sense," McCurry said.

In Indonesia, Obama was scheduled to attend the APEC leaders' meeting - a milestone in the negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which Obama wants to finalize by the end of the year.

If he does not attend the summit, Obama would also miss a potential meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the Syria crisis.

In Brunei, Obama would miss the East Asia Summit, and discussions about a maritime code of conduct for disputed territories in the oil and gas-rich South China Sea.

Southeast Asian allies involved in the dispute had hoped that Obama's participation could provide "geopolitical ballast" to convince China to abide by the new code, Ernest Bower, chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told reporters earlier this week.

"If he decides indeed that he has to cancel this weekend, it would leave a big geopolitical mark," said Bower.

(Additional reporting by Paul Eckert; Editing by Peter Cooney and Eric Walsh)

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