Will we or won’t we be hailing the chief?
Update 2.10pm: Reuters is reporting White House sources have confirmed President Obama’s trip to Australia and Indonesia has been canceled.
Confusion still reigns among politicians, diplomats and police in Canberra as to whether US President Barack Obama will in fact pay a visit to Australia in mid-June, with US officials now seriously doubting whether the President will show.
The itinerary is all but locked in. The Punch understands President Obama is set to arrive on the 17th of June with his family, on the 18th to meet with Kevin Rudd the Governor General possibly the cabinet and Tony Abbott, followed by an address to a special sitting of Parliament. A trip to Sydney to see the sites is apparently planned for Saturday the 19th.
The Australian Federal Police are ready. Sources close to the AFP say preparations for President Obama’s visit are in full swing, with police being told to cancel leave and reorganise shifts to ensure everybody will be working ahead of and during the visit. The ACT police are said to be “devoting their full resources” over the period of the 17th and 18th of June.
But there remains uncertainty among American diplomats and the Australian Government as to whether Barack Obama will risk leaving the States in the midst of the BP oil leak, as one US official close to the preparations told The Punch the chances of Obama coming “right now are 50-50, and I’d say he won’t come”.
While a visit to Australia by Barack Obama has obvious domestic advantages for Kevin Rudd, they also exist for Barack Obama, and won’t be as sunny.
Like his decision to cancel his March trip, domestic problems are looking like they’ll force Obama to postpone yet again.
The President himself has described the Gulf of Mexico oil leak as the worst environmental disaster in US history, and despite the repeated claims by BP to have found a solution to stem the flow, latest reports say that it could be as late as Christmas before the leak is plugged .
Journalists in the United States are beginning to question the worthiness of President Obama’s trip to Australia amidst the chaos that the oil leak has caused.
Obama’s deputy spokesman Bill Burton admitted in an interview aboard Air Force One that there have been recent discussions about scrapping the trip.
“Well, obviously, there’s a lot of reasons to take the trip . . . Regardless of any discussions that might have been had on that, as it stands the trip is still on schedule,” he told wire agency AFP yesterday.
While the White House officially says that the trip is still scheduled, that’s quite different from saying that the President is actually coming.
The cheery US ambassador to Australia Jeff Bleich is continuing to tell US embassy staff that the President is coming, but privately staff say that it’s looking less likely.
As another Australian based US official said yesterday: “it would make my life easier if we knew whether the President was coming.”
There’s grumbling around the US press corps too, with White House photographers complaining that there has been no accommodation booked for the trip yet.
US State Department sources say the arithmetic of cancelling the trip is pretty easy, a visit to Australia is not politically significant in the US or on the world stage, and it would not be a good look for the President to be hugging koalas at Taronga while back at home fisherman line up for welfare.
While Australian Foreign Affairs officials remain confident that Obama will not cancel on us a second time from fear of it being interpreted as a snub, the reality is that snubbing Australia is not the greatest diplomatic faux pas, especially given that Obama will be easily forgiven.
The bigger issue for the Americans to consider is whether Obama would risk cancelling on Indonesia as well.
Obama is also set to go to Canada in late June for the G20, a much more palatable trip for the public and the media, but it would be risky to have two in a month, especially if one is on other side of the world.
The Prime Minister’s office won’t officially comment on the trip, saying it’s all a matter for the Americans, but Kevin Rudd’s office aren’t showing signs of being very confident.
Foreign Minister Stephen Smith was asked about the trip and did not sound like a man who’d be putting on his good head of state tie on anytime soon:
We have indicated through the Prime Minister to the President that he is welcome to visit Australia at any time; that whenever it is a convenient time for him he will be welcomed not just by the Government but by the Parliament and the Australian people.
Obama delaying a second time could even mess with election plans here.
Rudd would be keen to capitalise on any popularity that might rub off from the Obama visit by calling an August election, a no-show by Obama could make the prospect of an early election even less likely (although hanging around with Bush and world leaders during APEC in the last election campaign didn’t help Howard).
Either way two weeks from today the President of the United States is supposed to be here in Canberra, and American and Australian officials have no idea whether it’s actually happening. This fact doesn’t inspire confidence that we’ll be hearing Hail to the Chief any time soon.
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