WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has abruptly scrapped a trip to Indonesia and Australia for the second time this year, as he grapples with the calamitous oil spill at home.
The president informed both countries' leaders of the change in plans in Thursday night phone calls, offering his "deep regret" and pledging to reschedule soon, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs announced in a statement just after midnight. Obama was to depart on a weeklong trip to the two countries, along with a quick stop in Guam, on June 13.
Asked the reason for the delay, Gibbs told The Associated Press that Obama was staying home "to deal with important issues, one of which is the oil spill."
Obama had to weigh the risk of again putting off two allies in a strategic part of the world against the problems of crossing the globe while the devastation from the nation's largest oil spill continued – including the expectation of a political backlash at home.
The domestic agenda proved dominant.
Already, his administration faces scrutiny for its leadership in trying to end the oil spill in the Gulf even as the White House insists it has been forceful from the start. What began with an exploding oil rig on April 20 has turned into an environmental disaster.
Obama had planned this Asia trip in March – first shortening it to be in Washington and lobby for health care legislation and then scrapping it altogether to stay for the final crucial days of debate on that top domestic priority.
Congress ultimately passed the health care law after a huge investment from Obama.
Obama called Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to explain his decision.
Both leaders said through spokesmen they were disappointed by the turn of events, but understood it was necessary for Obama to stay home and deal with the crisis.
"The president indicated that he remained keen to visit Australia, and looked forward to rescheduling so that he could make the visit in the future," a Rudd spokesman said.
The latest delay is sure to disappoint many in Indonesia, where Obama spent part of his childhood.
"President Obama has explained that the postponement of the visit is solely because he had to focus his attention on government efforts to manage the environment disasters of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico waters," said Dino Patti Djalal, a spokesman for the Indonesian leader.
"President Yudhoyono responded that he fully understands that President Obama should to be in his country to address the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history," the spokesman said.
Gibbs said Obama planned to meet with both leaders separately on the sidelines of the G-20 meeting, which is to be held near the end of June in Canada.
As the trip drew closer and attempts by the BP oil company to plug the gushing oil well proved futile, speculation grew that Obama would be forced to delay the visit for a second time.
AP National Security Writer Anne Gearan contributed to this report from Singapore.