Citing health-care vote, Obama delays trip to Indonesia

By Michael D. Shear and Andrew Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 19, 2010; A10

The T-shirts showing President Obama's likeness had been printed. The state dinner was being prepared. And millions of Indonesians were ready -- finally -- to see a U.S. president they claim as their own arrive to a hero's greeting.

The festivities, though, will have to wait.

Bowing to public and private complaints from lawmakers, Obama decided Thursday to delay his overseas trip to Indonesia and Australia so he could be in Washington for a crucial House vote scheduled for Sunday, culminating his year-long effort to pass health-care legislation.

Even though the trip might be rescheduled for June, the last-minute decision is sure to frustrate many Indonesians, who had been eager for a new level of attention and engagement from a U.S. president.

That Obama had once lived in Indonesia as a child, from 1967 to 1971, only heightened the anticipation. Many there had looked forward to the visit as both a sentimental homecoming for the president and as proof that the threat of terrorism has receded in the country, which has been hit by a series of attacks since bombings in Bali in 2002.

"I'm really disappointed. I'm worried the trip will never happen," Yunita Tampubolon, a clothes trader and a graduate of the Jakarta elementary school Obama once attended, said Friday morning in the Indonesian capital.

Obama had already pushed back his departure once. Before that, there had been preliminary plans to visit in 2009. Now, the trip once again falls victim to his health-care agenda at home.

"The president greatly regrets the delay," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. "Our international alliances are critical to America's security and economic progress. But passage of health-insurance reform is of paramount importance, and the president is determined to see this battle through."

Observers said the decision will require a bit of diplomatic pixie dust in Indonesia and in Australia, where Obama was planning to address the parliament. Both visits were intended to demonstrate a new U.S. interest in the region after years of relative neglect by American leaders.

"There will be a certain amount of 'I told you so. The U.S. really isn't sincere,' " said Alphonse La Porta, the former president of the United States-Indonesia Society.

But most Asia experts said the president will be able to ease any tension if he visits this summer.

"Diplomacy is not baseball, and this third strike does not mean that the president is out," said Michael J. Green, an Asia expert for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Meanwhile, the decision to reschedule will please a small but vocal minority of hard-line Indonesian Muslims who had opposed the president's trip and organized a series of noisy protest events. Hizb ut-Tahrir, a group fiercely opposed to Washington and its foreign policy, last weekend held a conference in a Jakarta ballroom under a banner reading: "Reject Obama." Attendees shouted "Allah al-Akbar [God is great]" as speakers denounced Obama as the "real terrorist."

For the White House, unwinding the would-be trip will be a costly endeavor. By the time the call came to stand down, advance staff had already been on their assignments for a week. Secret Service teams were scouring the routes that Obama would have taken and preparing to secure the sites he had promised to visit.

In Jakarta, the U.S. Embassy was also getting ready. Late Thursday, the embassy had even updated its Facebook page with a grinning picture of the president. " 'Bantu Kami Sambut' President Obama," it said. "Help us welcome President Obama."

Higgins reported from Jakarta.

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