Consumed by concerns at home, President Barack Obama turns back to the world stage this week, hoping to remind anyone listening of his efforts to reshape the image and diplomacy of the United States. Yet even this moment is shadowed by economic woes.
Obama's trip to the United Nations in New York, which begins Wednesday afternoon, does not offer the sense of anticipation that came with his first presidential address to the General Assembly last September. That event was about defining his new brand of U.S. engagement; this one is more about defending it.
In his centerpiece speech to world leaders Thursday, Obama is expected to describe what he sees as clear progress since he took office — a "cover the waterfront" reminder, as one aide put it, of how the U.S. has ditched unilateral leadership and worked with the world over the last 20 months. He is less likely to unveil anything significantly new as he is to recount the international efforts to keep Iran in line, slow the spread of nuclear weapons and revive plodding economies.
The president will also devote critical time to the African nation of Sudan, a political tinderbox, and to his relationship with leaders in Asia. On Wednesday, in his only official first-day business at the U.N., Obama will offer his vision of U.S. aid to impoverished parts of the world, speaking at an anti-poverty conference.
More broadly, this is Obama's best chance in quite some time to grab the world's attention and pull together all the episodic pieces of his international agenda.
"It's a natural moment to have a stock-taking," said Stewart Patrick, a senior fellow and expert on global governance at the Council on Foreign Relations.
As a new president, Obama made 10 foreign trips his first year in office, many of them lengthy. He has made only three quick trips abroad in 2010. He twice canceled a trip to Indonesia and Australia to deal with domestic priorities — first his health care legislation and later the oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
As always, the world's troubles will be on display at the U.N. gathering, and that includes setbacks in the Mideast peace process Obama has championed.
Just three weeks after Obama restarted direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians, the effort appears stalled over familiar disputes. The quest for peace will surely be a central Obama message in his speech and his sideline meetings, but he has no talks scheduled in New York with the key players.
Obama heads to New York as the attention of a frustrated American electorate is stuck on the economy. Millions remain unemployed while he labors to explain that an economic recovery is happening but will take time, given the toll of the recession. He got his latest reminder of American pain at a town hall just this week: One person asked if the American dream was dead for him, and another said she was tired of defending him to her friends.
On Tuesday, the White House announced that Obama's top economic adviser, Lawrence Summers, was leaving at year's end.
Even Obama's first U.N. day is a sign of his juggling act. He planned to promote the six-month mark of his health care law before leaving Washington and to cap his first night in New York by raising money for Democratic congressional candidates ahead of difficult midterm elections.
"The interest in the U.N. waxes and wanes, and it's going to be waning now, given the economic crisis and the election coming up," said Mark Quarterman, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who served for 12 years at the U.N. in a variety of roles. "People are rather preoccupied."
Still, Obama's moment at the General Assembly lectern can help, with international peers seated before him and audiences watching around the world. He used the occasion last year to declare a new era in which the U.S. does not seek to go it alone and should not be expected to solve all the world's problems.
Obama is expected this time to talk more about results, including tougher international pressure on Iran and North Korea over their nuclear pursuits. Obama has reached a new nuclear treaty with Russia, pending Senate ratification, and ended the United States' major combat role in Iraq. Since he last addressed the U.N. body, he won the Nobel Peace Prize and significantly increased U.S. forces in Afghanistan, trying to regain control of the troubled war in that country.
While in New York, Obama will hold individual meetings with leaders of China, Japan, Colombia, Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan.
The president will also host Southeast Asian leaders. And he will put his weight behind an U.N. effort to secure two safe referendums in January 2011 about the future of Sudan. One of those votes in Sudan, Africa's largest country, will determine if it splits in two by giving the south independence. The circumstances surrounding the north-south vote have grown so perilous that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has called the matter a "ticking time bomb."