Oil spill forces Obama to postpone foreign travel

WASHINGTON Fri Jun 4, 2010 8:27am EDT

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama arrive at Sidwell Friends School in Bethesda, MD, June 3, 2010, which their daughter Sasha attends. REUTERS/Jason Reed

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama arrive at Sidwell Friends School in Bethesda, MD, June 3, 2010, which their daughter Sasha attends.

Credit: Reuters/Jason Reed

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With the worst oil spill in U.S. history presenting a key test of his presidency, President Barack Obama postponed a trip scheduled for this month to Australia and Indonesia, the White House said early on Friday.

It was the second time in a little more than two months that Obama canceled a trip to the two countries. He previously was due to have gone in March but postponed to stay at home to give a final push to his healthcare overhaul plan in Congress.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told Reuters in an email that Obama postponed the trip again in order to deal with the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and other important issues.

The president is due to travel to the Louisiana Gulf coast to visit affected communities on Friday, his third trip there since an April 20 offshore oil rig explosion that killed 11 workers and triggered the huge spill.

After a series of failed attempts to plug the gushing mile-deep BP-owned oil well, the Obama administration has come under growing pressure to take a more direct role in the oil spill crisis. Opinion polls show many Americans are unhappy with Obama's handling of the disaster so far.

In an already difficult congressional election year for Obama's fellow Democrats, a foreign trip in the midst of what the president himself has called an unprecedented environmental catastrophe would have been hard to sell to Americans frustrated and angered by the six-week-old crisis.

The White House said in a statement that Obama had spoken on Thursday night to Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to inform them of his decision. The trip had been scheduled for June 13-19.

"President Obama underscored his commitment to our close alliance with Australia and our deepening partnership with Indonesia. He plans to hold full bilateral meetings with Prime Minister Rudd and President Yudhoyono on the margins of the G-20 meeting in Canada," the White House said in a statement.

RARE CANCELLATION

The rare double cancellation of a presidential trip abroad underscored how Obama's challenges at home have begun complicating his activity overseas.

The trip would have been his first major foreign travel this year and was aimed at deepening U.S. ties in the Asia-Pacific region in the face of rising Chinese influence.

Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim nation and where he spent four years as a child. Australia is a stalwart U.S. friend in the Pacific and key military ally in Afghanistan.

There was no immediate response from the two countries to the White House announcement.

Cleaning up the biggest oil spill in U.S. history and capping the well has become Obama's top priority, complicating his efforts to keep the focus on job creation in an economy in which unemployment is still close to 10 percent nationwide.

The White House announcement on the trip came shortly after BP managed to lower a containment cap onto its ruptured deep-sea wellhead to siphon off some of the billowing oil. U.S. authorities called it a positive development.

Obama said in an interview with CNN's Larry King broadcast on Thursday night that he was furious at the situation in the Gulf of Mexico and again vowed to hold BP accountable.

"It's imperiling not just a handful of people," he said of the oil spill. "This is imperiling an entire way of life and an entire region for potentially years."

From the beginning of the crisis, the Obama administration has sought to show that it is control, but it has struggled to shake off a public perception that it has been too reliant on BP for solutions and too slow to bring the full force of the federal government to bear on the crisis.

Obama said on Thursday that his administration had mobilized scientists, hundreds of ships and thousands of military personnel to deal with the disaster.

Analysts say Obama's fellow Democrats risk being punished in November congressional elections that are already expected to erode their majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

(Reporting by Ross Colvin; Editing by Will Dunham)