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Advisers Deciding Obama Trip Plans

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By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 29, 2009

Now that President Obama has spent a full week settling into the White House, his advisers have a new task: deciding when to send him back out into the wider world.

Obama, who has not gone beyond a four-mile radius from the White House since his swearing-in, may have more competing claims on his travel time than any new president in recent memory, with economically depressed swaths of the country clamoring for his attention, foreign leaders eager to establish personal ties, and a campaign promise to visit a Muslim country within his first 100 days in office hanging over his head.

Advisers said this week that Obama is likely to stay close to his new home for the foreseeable future. He has not yet spent a weekend at Camp David, though he and his family may do so soon. He also has not announced the dates of any specific domestic or international trips apart from a visit to Canada on Feb. 19 announced yesterday, a longstanding tradition for new presidents.

Beyond that, Obama will be delegating a heavier-than-expected share of the travel duties to his most prominent surrogates, including Vice President Biden, advisers said. On Tuesday, officials announced that Biden will make his first foreign trip since taking office, traveling to a key international security conference in Munich on Feb. 6, a gathering traditionally attended by the defense secretary. The appearance instead by Biden, who will travel with national security adviser James L. Jones and Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, signals the importance that Obama places on the event, officials said. (Past vice presidents have stayed local far longer; even the globetrotting George H.W. Bush did not travel abroad until near the end of June during his first term as vice president, in 1981.)

Obama is using prominent surrogates in other ways as well, and is dispatching George J. Mitchell, his Middle East envoy, on a whirlwind trip to at least half a dozen countries over the next week.

The economic meltdown is the long and the short of the explanation for why Obama does not plan an ambitious early travel schedule, officials said.

"It's fairly self-evident the president's going to have to focus on the economic crisis. He said it was his first priority and it will continue to be," a White House official said. "It doesn't mean he won't be doing foreign policy, or traveling domestically. It just means the economy will come first."

Obama's advisers are also discussing the idea of having him take a quick domestic trip focused on the economy, although White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said last Friday that "his work and attention are urgently needed here in Washington." Asked about Obama's travel plans, the only destination Gibbs mentioned was Capitol Hill, where Obama ventured on Tuesday.

Several important dates for Obama are on the calendar. An April 2 meeting in London of the G20, the gathering of nations with the world's largest economies, and a meeting of NATO countries in Strasbourg, France, on April 3 and 4 make a European trip appear certain. Later in April, the president is expected to attend the Summit of the Americas, a meeting of the heads of state from around the hemisphere, in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago.

Most significantly, Obama has promised to visit a Muslim country in the early days of his administration -- a pledge that has spurred ongoing speculation about where he will go, with suggestions ranging from Malaysia to Indonesia to Egypt.

In his first television interview since taking office, with the Arab network al-Arabiya, Obama did not offer any specifics about that trip, except to repeat his promise that it would take place -- and emphasizing the importance of the message he would convey. "We're going to follow through on our commitment for me to address the Muslim world from a Muslim capital. We are going to follow through on many of my commitments to do a more effective job of reaching out, listening, as well as speaking to the Muslim world," he said in the interview, which aired Monday.

In addition to the many obvious trouble spots around the world that are expected to top Obama's travel list, members of congressional committees that handle international relations are eager to see him stretch the map, tending to regions that were neglected during the Bush administration. The list of requests is endless. Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, said that in addition to the Trinidad and Tobago trip, he hoped Obama would visit Kosovo, "a very pro-Western, Muslim nation" that has not been a big presidential draw since the war there ended during the Clinton administration.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), the highest-ranking Republican member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, suggested that Obama add Haiti to his list of destinations. "Sometimes, the impact of that first visit can transcend a particular region and reverberate globally," she said. "I believe this can happen with Haiti." Several members of Congress said they had already lodged their requests with the transition teams or with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Past presidents have varied their travel rituals -- some hitting the road immediately, others not traveling domestically or abroad until they became settled in Washington. A common practice is to hold court at the White House, inviting foreign leaders to visit Washington first. President George W. Bush first went to another country on Feb. 16, 2001, visiting then-Mexican President Vicente Fox's ranch. President Bill Clinton, who came into office facing his own economic pressures, did not take his first foreign trip until early April 1993, when he held a summit in Vancouver with then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

Staff writer Karen DeYoung and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.


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