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POLITICS: White House

Obama skips potentially awkward UN meetings

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Politics,White House,Hayley Peterson,Politics Digest

In a break from presidential tradition that further outraged his critics, President Obama chose not to meet individually with any of the world leaders convening in New York this week for the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly.

Obama is in New York and will address the U.N. on Tuesday, but he spent Monday taping the television talk show "The View" and will spend the rest of the week campaigning in Ohio and Virginia.

Republican nominee Mitt Romney's campaign says Obama's compressed U.N. schedule shows he is more preoccupied with his re-election than with his job as commander in chief.

"As anti-American protests rage in the Middle East and Iran moves closer toward nuclear weapons capability, President Obama seems more focused on winning a second term than rebuilding America's strength and position in the world," said Romney spokesman Ryan Williams.

The attack underlined Romney's broader foreign policy message: that Obama has made the U.S. appear weak in the eyes of other global powers.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama's decision not to hold one-on-one meetings with foreign leaders during the U.N. session is not so unusual, even though Obama held 13 such meetings at last year's U.N. gathering.

"I think his engagement with foreign leaders has been, and will continue to be, extremely robust," Carney said. "His attendance at [the U.N. General Assembly] is in keeping with attendance by past presidents engaged in a re-election campaign, and we'll be there overnight in New York."

Political analysts disagreed, however, saying no president in recent history -- even those running for re-election -- has skipped the opportunity to meet privately with world leaders at the U.N. The one-on-one diplomacy of the so-called bilateral meetings is often used by presidents to solidify personal relationships and to talk directly and confidentially with other leaders.

"I certainly don't recall a president who went to the U.N. and did not have bilateral meetings," said Darrell West, vice president at the Brookings Institution, a D.C. think tank.

Analysts said the president may be skipping meetings with other leaders to avoid any potential embarrassments just six weeks out from Election Day, particularly at a time of international tensions over unrest in the Middle East and the financial instability of the European Union. Even if the meetings went well, it's not clear Obama would get much credit from voters, who are focused far more on their own economic concerns than foreign affairs.

"We're in the height of an election season, and spending time at the United Nations simply doesn't do a candidate much good," said David Bosco, assistant professor at American University's School of International Service.

Bosco described the U.N. gathering as a "circuslike" atmosphere that provides myriad opportunities for a candidate to get thrown off message.

"With dozens of other world leaders around, you have a lot less control of the narrative than you would in a lot of other environments," Bosco said. "There's always the possibility of some awkward encounter with a world leader you don't want to meet or be seen with at this point."

"Anyone running for president," he said, "is somewhat allergic to those kinds of environments."

hpeterson@washingtonexaminer.com

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