Obama Delays Asia Trip To Push Health Care

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The White House announced Friday that President Obama and his family travel won't travel to Guam, Indonesia and Australia as planned next week. Instead, the president will travel alone, beginning Sunday on an abbreviated trip. The reason: health care.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

President Obama's health care overhaul may soon face a make or break vote in the House of Representatives, which is why the White House said today that the president will delay by three days his scheduled trip to Indonesia, Australia and Guam. He will now leave a week from Sunday.

Mr. Obama wants to be nearby to lobby for any last-minute votes the bill will need to pass.

NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA: The question began building early this week: How can the president leave the country with the single most important item on his legislative agenda coming to a vote? Indonesia does matter to the U.S. It's a secular democracy with the world's largest Muslim population. But the last time Mr. Obama went to Asia at a tense time in the health care debate, Republicans seized the moment. That was his November visit to Singapore, Japan and China when the bill was in turmoil in the Senate.

Brendan Doherty is a presidential scholar with the White House Transition Project.

Professor BRENDAN DOHERTY (White House Transition Project): And when he left, the nightly news about the president was news of him in foreign capitals, in foreign cities meeting with leaders and citizens around the world. And the people who dominated the news about the health care battle were, for the large part, his opponents.

GONYEA: This time, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the Democratic leadership asked the president to stay in town.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (Press Secretary, White House): This came about as a result of a conversation that the president had with Speaker Pelosi, Majority Leader Reid. All three agreed that it would be helpful to have a few extra days here talking to members.

GONYEA: Talking to members is probably a mild way to put it. Dee Dee Myers was press secretary to President Clinton. She says in a vote as tight as this one you cannot monitor it from afar. There's no substitute for having the president in town and ready to leap into the fray in person.

Ms. DEE DEE MYERS (Former Press Secretary, Clinton Administration): It's about that personal touch. It's about being on the phone, jump in the car, drive up to the Hill if you have to, or have a member come down. There's nothing quite as persuasive as bringing somebody into the Oval Office and having the president sit there and look him or her in the eye and say, I'm asking you. I need your vote.

GONYEA: And these are Democrats he needs to do this with.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MYERS: We're not talking about Republicans, right? That was over a long time ago. We're talking about Democrats, many of whom don't want to vote for this bill. But they will do it if the president looks them in the eye and asks them to do it.

GONYEA: That trip overseas will still include all of the planned stops. Everything gets pushed back three days. Delaying it underscores how important the issue is to the White House. But it's also not clear all the big votes will happen next week.

Again, Brendan Doherty.

Prof. DOHERTY: It will send enough of a signal if there's time to get it done. It seems hard to imagine that that will happen by the new postponed departure date. And if he then takes off while the debate is still in its heated midst, it's hard to image that he won't receive some of the same criticism.

GONYEA: Don Gonyea, NPR News, the White House.

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