President Barack Obama is about to embark on a nine-day trip to Hawaii, Australia and Indonesia that will take him away from Washington at an important time, but White House officials said Wednesday it's all about U.S. jobs.
The trip also will underscore the economic, political and security importance of the fast-growing Asia-Pacific region, which the U.S. sees as critical to American interests in coming years.
"The president's No. 1 priority is job creation, and our efforts to create American jobs are tied very directly to our engagement in the Asia-Pacific," said Ben Rhodes, a White House deputy national security adviser.
"Increasingly the center of gravity in the 21st century is going to make the Asia-Pacific critical to all of our interests," Rhodes said.
Obama leaves Friday for Hawaii, where the U.S. will host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, bringing together 21 member nations which together comprise 40 percent of the world's population.
From there, he makes a long-delayed visit to Australia, after canceling Australia trips twice last year, once so he could stay in Washington to lobby for his health care overhaul and a second time because of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The president ends his trip in Indonesia, where he spent several years as a boy, to attend meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the East Asia Summit, with a focus on political and security challenges.
Obama returns to Washington Nov. 19, just before a congressional supercommittee faces a pre-Thanksgiving deadline to recommend more than $1 trillion in deficit cuts. The trip also comes as the 2012 presidential campaign heats up amid continued economic doldrums in the U.S. and pressure on Obama to take action.
That makes it a tough time for Obama to be tending to foreign rather than domestic affairs. But White House officials said that U.S. voters want to see the president show leadership in an important region of the world and that increased trade with burgeoning Asia will pay economic dividends back home as Obama seeks to make good on plans to double U.S. exports.
"The American people want to know that the United States is going to play the historic role that it's always played in terms of being the anchor of stability in this part of the world and being able to project our influence on behalf of American interests," Rhodes said.
Priorities for the trip include working on a new trade agreement with Asian nations following long-sought congressional approval of a Korea free trade pact. There is likely to be discussion of China and its rising military might, which other Asian nations look to the U.S. to counter.
In Australia, the president visits the capital, Canberra, as well as Darwin, site of an Australian military base, where discussion is expected to focus on an emerging defense agreement that would let the U.S. to expand its military presence in Australia.
Kim Beazley, Australia's ambassador to the U.S., said in an interview Wednesday, "The fact that he's turning up is in itself enormously important" after canceling two previous trips.
"The main point of the visit is a sort of reinforcement of our relationship. The relationship is changing," Beazley said. "It's basically being changed, not so much by how Americans and Australians see each other but by geopolitics. Australia's geographic location is becoming increasingly important to the U.S."