Washington Rooms were booked, limousines waiting, snipers staking out positions. Then President Barack Obama ditched plans to visit Guam, Indonesia and Australia — health care trumping Asia, an expected House vote today grounding Air Force One’s planned departure that day.
Obama’s decision Thursday morning to call off his first international trip of the year left scores of White House aides holding briefing books in Jakarta, Indonesia, and Sydney; motorcades lined up with nowhere to go; and security personal in place at sites Obama wouldn’t visit.
Come back home, those advance teams were told, as Obama focused away Pacific matters and on ensuring that his cherished health care overhaul didn’t fall apart during his absence.
In an interview that aired Friday on RCTI, Indonesia’s largest commercial television network, Obama said it makes sense to wait to travel to the region until June so he and his family are not rushed when they visit Indonesia, where he lived for four years as a child.
Obama first delayed his departure from Thursday to today. Then it became clear to White House officials that a vote in Congress — Obama wanted to stick around for that — probably would delay his schedule even more. At that point, he decided to throw in the towel on the trip.
Suitcases unpacked, Air Force One in the hangar.
Whenever the president leaves Washington, a mobile White House moves ahead of him.
Cargo planes ferry presidential limos, defensive SUVs and emergency response units. Secret Service agents know the lowdown on each stop. Specialty communications equipment is in place to connect the president, at a moment’s notice, to the White House Situation Room, where officials across government can update him on developments.
For instance, Obama received secure updates from his rented vacation home in Hawaii about the Christmas bombing plot on a Detroit-bound airplane. A suite of hotel rooms on Waikiki Beach was transformed into a secure briefing room for staff.
When Obama vacationed off the Massachusetts coast last summer, military helicopters waited to shuttle him. When he wanted to go golfing, armored SUVs carried him there. When he chose to nominate Ben Bernanke to a second term as Federal Reserve chairman, Obama visited a high school that had been converted into a press briefing room.
With the fate of health care in the balance, Obama’s advisers decided against making a call at the final minute — and risk offending his would-be hosts.
“We did not want at 10 o’clock 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,”’ White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.
“I think that would cause some problems, just on common sense and manners.”