Barack Obama
Darron Cummings  /  AP
President Barack Obama at the Chrysler Indiana Transmission Plant II in Kokomo, Ind., on Tuesday. Obama promised a frustrated public to focus squarely on the economy after midterm elections setbacks, but national security and foreign policy problems have sharply intruded.
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updated 11/27/2010 2:13:49 PM ET 2010-11-27T19:13:49

Foreign policy challenges are intruding on President Barack Obama's promise to focus on the economy after the Democrats' election debacle and threatening to knock the White House off message altogether.

The escalation of tensions between North and South Korea this past week capped a postelection period that included two presidential trips abroad, discussions about America's future in Afghanistan and a debate in Washington over Senate ratification of a nuclear treaty with Russia.

The risk for Obama is that the capital and energy spent on a foreign crisis can undermine the perception that he's working on the public's top priority: finding jobs at home for Americans.

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White House officials say the international focus hasn't diminished the amount of time Obama spends working on the economy. Aides acknowledge that events abroad can make it more difficult to spotlight Obama's economic message — one of an economy on a slow but steady march toward recovery, and a president aware that his political future rests on his ability to speed that recovery.

Take Obama's trip to Kokomo, Ind., last Tuesday, his first domestic trip since the Nov. 2 elections.

By the time Obama arrived at a Chrysler plant to promote the revival of the U.S. auto industry, attention had turned to how the White House would respond to North Korea's artillery attack against a South Korean island.

"You learn quickly as president that there are events that happen like North Korea that you have to address as they happen, not how you would plan for them to happen," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

Obama aides say they see opportunities for the president's economic message to break through, starting with a bipartisan meeting with lawmakers this Tuesday. The top issue will be what to do about the Bush-era tax cuts set to expire at year's end. Obama also plans to take a few more domestic trips through the end of the year to discuss the economy.

White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said he doesn't believe the public is looking for the president to take an all-or-nothing approach to the economy.

"The American people understand that we have both domestic and international issues that have to be dealt with," Pfeiffer said. "The public expects that's what he's doing."

The recent burst of activity on the foreign policy front comes after an election that saw international issues seldom discussed, and a year that saw Obama spend just three days abroad, having traveled to the Czech Republic and Afghanistan in April.

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Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary for President George W. Bush, said it's too soon to tell whether a November filled with foreign policy following an election focused on the economy will hurt the current administration. But he said the ease with which world events can trump an administration's agenda is "a vivid reminder of how much more complicated and multifaceted governing is than campaigning."

Mixed reactions, results
While incidents such as North Korea's attack on South Korea were out of the administration's control, some of the shift toward foreign policy has been of the White House's making, most notably Obama's 10-day, four-country trip to Asia. Officials hoped Obama could use his popularity abroad to improve his standing following his self-proclaimed "shellacking" in the vote this month.

Former presidents have used a similar playbook, in part because political opponents at home traditionally refrain from criticizing the commander in chief while he's representing the U.S. on foreign soil.

But Obama's trip to Asia produced mixed results at best. While he made progress toward the U.S. gaining a foothold in emerging economies such as India and Indonesia, he failed to secure a highly sought-after free trade agreement with South Korea and couldn't rally wide-ranging international support for action against China's currency manipulation.

Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, said Obama could have better kept the focus on the U.S. economy when he was overseas if he had delivered on some of those objectives.

"It's OK to send the president abroad if he brings back agreements that are good for the U.S.," he said. "The president's problem was that he wasn't able to bring back the good news he had hoped."

The White House was more pleased with the results of the recent NATO summit in Portugal, where Obama was seen as playing a pivotal role in the alliance securing agreements on the Afghanistan war and missile defense. Obama also received overwhelming international support for Senate ratification of a new arms control treaty with Russia.

Yet that treaty has proved to be another example of foreign policy threatening to trump Obama's message on the economy. Despite the White House's insistence that the lame-duck session of Congress would focus on initiatives to help the recovery, much of the conversation in Washington now is about whether lawmakers will hand Obama a victory on an issue he says is vital to the future of the U.S. relationship with Russia.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Insult to injury: Presidents can’t hide mishaps

  1. Closed captioning of: Insult to injury: Presidents can’t hide mishaps

    >>> the president of the united states taking in a college basketball game today showing he hasn't sworn off the game entirely after getting that elbow to the face yesterday. for this president or any other a minor injury is major news. here's nbc's mike viqueira.

    >> reporter: accidents can and do happen to all of us, even presidents. the difference is for a modern president.

    >> in stitches the press ices down an injury.

    >> reporter: mr. obama's split lip quickly became news on a slow holiday weekend. but it's only the latest in a long line of presidential mishaps caught on camera. many are embarrassing. and all are now part of american lore. president ford fell going down and up the stairs of air force one. jimmy carter got light headed while running a 10-k. and bill clinton an avid golfer, fell and injured his knee at the home of tour pro greg norman . there was george h.w. bush throwing up on the japanese prime minister in tokyo. and his son had his share of accidents. george w. bush choked on a pretzel while watching football, passed out and landed on his face leaving a nasty mark.

    >> chew before you swallow. listen to your mother.

    >> reporter: even they happen in private, news of presidential illnesses and accidents become public sooner rather than later. but before the internet, cable news or even television, the white house and press kept very big secrets like the is he verpt of fdr's polio and his frequent use of a wheelchair.

    >> and there was an unwritten rule among the photographers in the press corps that they would never show him in his wheelchair, never show him with his crutches, never being helped to walk if he couldn't walk on his own.

    >> reporter: now president obama 's split lip is front page news. one journalist who has faced him on the court says his game can be physical.

    >> there was one incident i'm thinking of where he essentially bodychecked a guy in midair and the guy tumbled to the ground.

    >> reporter: before yesterday some suspected that mr. obama was getting off easy.

    >> i mean, come on, nobody is going to give the president a hard foul with the secret service standing there.

    >> reporter: but in sports, as in politics, injuries are all just part of the game . mike viqueira, nbc news, the white

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