NEW YORK - A stack of international problems piling up six weeks before election day has been competing with the campaign for President Obama’s time. Critics were quick to note on Monday which side appears to have won this week.
As Obama headed to New York for the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, the president has no meetings with other leaders scheduled during his day and a half in New York. The low-intensity approach to the gathering was only underlined by the sitdown the president did make time for – an interview with the women of ABC’s daytime talk fest “The View.”
The choice of a light diplomatic load seemed to reflect the Obama administration’s attempt to tightly control its message and keep up the campaign momentum as the president appears to be making strides toward winning reelection. So-called bilateral meetings can yield unpredictable story lines and sometimes little real progress on the diplomatic front.
White House spokesman Jay Carney was defending the schedule on Monday, stressing that the president speaks often and at length with other world leaders by phone and hinting that Obama will have informal opportunities to connect.
“I can’t give you a minute-by-minute account of the president’s schedule,” Carney told reports on Monday.
But the absence of face time with world leaders was glaring. Obama held 13 meetings with leaders at last year’s meeting, according to CBS Radio’s Mark Knoller, the unofficial White House stat keeper.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is slated to handle the load of one-on-one diplomacy in New York, including a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanhayu, who had requested a meeting with the president.
The White House said the meeting was impossible because the leaders’ visits to New York did not overlap.
The scheduling skirmish was just one area that put the president on defense as he was headed to the U.N. As an incumbent president welcoming the world to his doorstep in an election year, Obama might have hoped to use this week’s meeting as a stage for his foreign policy accomplishments.
But after two turbulent weeks in the Mideast and North Africa, continued “insider” killings in Afghanistan, no path to peace in Syria and a public rift with Israel over Iran’s nuclear program, Obama was on the defensive in several arenas.
As he campaigns on his policy of winding down the war in Afghanistan, the killings of NATO troops by Afghan allies reached a breaking point– forcing NATO to halt joint patrols with Afghan soldiers and change training policies.
When it comes to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Netanyahu has amped up the pressure on the White House with a series of complaints about the Obama administration’s strategy.
And hanging over all discussions is the death of a U.S. Ambassador to Libya and the subsequent protests that rattled cities in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. The scene of angry demonstrators burning America flags not only appeared to undermine Obama’s claim of restoring the U.S. standing in the world, but also opened up debate over the success of his approach toward the fledgling democracies born of the Arab Spring.
The president will address each area in a speech before the world leaders Tuesday morning, Carney said, calling the speech “ a real moment for the United States to assert its values and its leadership role” in the Middle East.
Obama will have to answer critics who claim the administration has bungled the shift to democracy. He recently sought to minimize the anti-American demonstrations that erupted in response to a trailer of an anti-Islamic video posted online.
In an interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes” that aired Sunday, Obama defended his support for new governments and said he expected there to be “ bumps in the road” in the path to democracy. Obama’s Republican rival seized on the comment and tied it to the president’s economic record.
“After nearly four years in office, President Obama is eager to make excuses for his failed policies at home and abroad by declaring ‘bumps in the road,’” said Andrea Saul, spokeswoman for the Mitt Romney campaign. “But it’s clear Americans can’t afford four more years like the last four years under the president’s policies.”