Obama puts off Indonesia trip

WASHINGTON: US President Barack Obama yesterday dramatically postponed his trip to Indonesia and Australia until June, so he can battle for a historic health reform bill that could shape his legacy.

The decision, which will slow Obama’s effort to intensify US engagement with the dynamic Asia Pacific region, was enforced by the need to woo wavering Democratic lawmakers with a knife-edge vote on the plan expected on Sunday.

“We greatly regret the delay of the trip,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said, adding that “health insurance reform is of paramount importance and the president is determined to see this battle through.

“The president believes that right now the place for him to be is in Washington.” Obama, who bills himself as America’s first Pacific president, called both Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to explain his dilemma. Rudd shrugged off Obama’s no-show, and suggested it would allow the president to spend more time in Australia, when he eventually arrives.

“I’m going to be very happy any time the president chooses to visit,” Rudd told the Seven Network TV station. “I know President Obama pretty well. It would be nice to have him and Michelle and the kids.

“He’d like to have a more relaxed visit than the 24-hour whip in, whip out that the last one had come down to.”

Obama took the decision, under pressure from some Democrats, once it became clear that a

crucial House of Representatives vote on

health reform would not take place before Sunday afternoon.

“We did not want, at 10:00 on Sunday morning to make a call to the Indonesians and the Australians and say, ‘I know we were going to be there in a matter of hours, but we’re not going to be there,’” Gibbs said.

The postponement showed how domestic politics can sometimes constrain a US president’s global engagement — especially during his first term when his political plate is piled high. Obama had been due at a state dinner in Indonesia, to hold talks with Yudhoyono and travel to Bali, before heading to Canberra for talks with Rudd and to address the Australian parliament.