For Obama abroad, side issues tend to befall him
That's been the case here on the coast of Colombia, where Obama will wrap up a weekend summit with a news conference that may well force him to confront the latest troubles — misconduct claims against Secret Service and military personnel assigned to make Cartagena secure for his visit.
In the past year alone — in travels to Latin America, to an economic summit in Cannes, France, to Seoul, South Korea and now in Cartagena — Obama's intended message has been sidetracked, interrupted or even buried by bad timing, miscues or, in the case of the allegations in Colombia, outright scandal.
As night fell Saturday, a story that began bubbling late Friday was drowning out Obama's participation in the sixth Summit of the Americas, a conclave of more than 30 heads of government from North, South, and Central America and the Caribbean.
In the end, 11 Secret Service employees were on administrative leave for misconduct and five service members assigned to work with the Secret Service were confined to quarters amid allegations involving prostitutes and heavy drinking. The Secret Service and the U.S. Southern Command said the misconduct occurred at their hotel in Cartagena before Obama arrived in the Caribbean city on Friday.
Waiters interviewed by The Associated Press described the agents as drinking heavily during their stay.
Rep. Peter King of New York, the Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said officials told him the incident began when a woman visiting a Secret Service member failed to leave by 7 a.m. as required by hotel rules. King said hotel staff and police investigated and found the woman with the agent in the hotel room and a dispute arose over whether the agent should have paid her. The agent ultimately paid, King said he was told.
King was briefed on the incident because his committee has jurisdiction over the Secret Service.
For Obama, this scandal is particularly piercing because it goes against type.
When his trip to Brazil and Chile in March 2011 was overwhelmed by U.S. bombing over Libya, it displayed strength even as he carried out a military act from abroad. A live microphone in Cannes captured him and French President Nicholas Sarkozy discussing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with Sarkozy confiding he couldn't stand working with the Israeli leader. But while briefly embarrassing it wasn't wholly revelatory.
In Seoul last month, another live mic caught Obama suggesting to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would be able to negotiate a missile defense deal during a second term because "After my election, I have more flexibility." The incident sparked an uproar among Republicans. But at its heart it reflected a political reality: Presidents in their second terms aren't saddled with election considerations.
But the alleged misconduct in Cartagena clashes dramatically with Obama's image of personal rectitude.
Still, the White House issued no comment on the president's behalf. The issue was almost certain to come up again Sunday when Obama holds a press conference.
White House spokesman Jay Carney dismissed suggestions that the Secret Service story was distracting Obama.
"I think it's been much more of a distraction for the press," Carney said. "He's here engaging in the business that he came here to do with the assembled leaders of the Americas."
Still, Obama was already dealing with other diversions. He began the day complaining about other side issues that were competing with his optimistic message of economic growth in the Americas and the opportunity it presented to both the United States and its neighbors to the south.
U.S. insistence that Cuba not participate in the summit prompted Ecuador's president to boycott the session and other Latin American leaders complained that this would be the last Summit of the Americas unless Cuba was allowed to attend in the future. Some leaders cited old grievances against the United States to illustrate their complaints.
To that, Obama chafed.
He said he felt like he was in a "time warp" of "gun-boat diplomacy and yanquis and the Cold War and this and that" dating to a time before he was born.
"That's not the world we live in today," he said.