After Election, Obama to Flee US

After Election, Obama to Flee US

By David Paul Kuhn - October 30, 2010

Barack Obama is fleeing the United States after the Republican landslide. But hold the excitement conservatives. It's only temporary.

Winners might go to Disneyland. But defeated presidents seemingly favor Asia.

Bill Clinton fled to Asia not long after Democrats suffered their historic blowout in 1994. George W. Bush was Asia bound following his famous declaration of the GOP's "thumpin'" in the 2006 midterm election. Now Obama shall do the same. And in record time.

A mere three days after Tuesday's election, President Obama leaves for a 10-day sojourn abroad. Obama's taking more time away than Clinton or Bush. But Obama will likely have more to recover from. Tuesday's election could be the largest landslide since FDR's day.

White Houses dependably claim these trips are coincidence. It's pro forma spin. Administrations cite this occasion or that summit. More though is always at play.

In March, amid the brutal healthcare fight, Obama postponed his Asia trip until June. Obama postponed it yet again in June. It was the BP oil spill then. The president cannot be abroad when his signature legislation is on the line. Nor when there is a crisis at home. It's poor political theatre. But the long-foreseen wave comes next week. The president's party is to be swept. No president wishes to prolong that narrative.

Yet will Obama first recognize the event? Both Bush and Clinton stood before reporters the day after. They took the hard questions.

This is when all presidencies want to change the subject. Modern presidents tend to escape overseas. There was Richard Nixon in Egypt in 1974 during Watergate. There was Bill Clinton in Africa for 10-days as the Monica Lewinsky scandal languished on. There was George W. Bush in Africa and the Middle East in the last year of his presidency, with his approval rating in Nixonian territory.

Obama is escaping in haste. Bush fled to Asia more than a week after the 2006 storm. Clinton left six days after. Obama's cutting Clinton's time in half. It will be Obama's longest tour overseas this year.

Midterms inevitably concern presidents. A clear majority of Americans say their vote for Congress will be "for" or "against" Obama, according to Pew Research Center polling. That's equal to Bush in 2006 but larger than it was for Clinton in 1994 or Ronald Reagan in 1982.

Reagan did not leave town. His midterm losses were small compared to what we expect Tuesday. Reagan also spoke to reporters. He wrote in his diary later that day: "Did a press conference in Rose Garden re the election returns. I'm sure they were sorry I was so happy."

There is an odd ritual to electoral disasters. The press pushes for the president to take responsibility. There will be calls for heads. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stepped down only one day after the midterm elections. Bill Clinton wavered for two months before declaring the "era of big government is over."

It would be stunning if Obama does not face the inquisition. It's inside baseball. It's also, however, what's done. The gravity of moment calls for sincere comment. It would look worse to cower from the spotlight and split town.

Contrition is the hard part. Escaping overseas is psychic relief. Presidents savor their time abroad. It makes them feel presidential. And images come home of them looking presidential. When presidents are smallest, diplomacy enlarges (with notable exceptions, see Kennedy-Khrushchev).

Bill Clinton was popular in Europe even when not stateside. Tony Blair was popular stateside even when not in England. Foreigners do not to see the warts from afar. Indonesia will offer Obama that relief above all others. There he is a rock star. He lived in Indonesia for four years as a boy.

The trip will also include an extended stay in India. The more necessary stops come about a week after the election. It's the G-20 summit in South Korea. Then Japan, for the Asia-Pacific Economic Council summit. These are occasions presidents attend. Certainly Obama wanted to get an early start. It's a working vacation. But compared to the political reality about to hit this president, it's still a vacation.

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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