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Obama's foreign policy takes backseat to U.S. issues

WASHINGTON - While President Barack Obama fights do-or-die political battles at home, his ambitious designs to overhaul U.S. foreign policy - from the Middle East to Iran to Russia to North Korea - simmer on the back burner.

A big success abroad would provide a major boost, a public distraction from his battle with a recalcitrant Congress and stomach-wrenching economic troubles that threaten to overwhelm his presidency.

After a major initial thrust to improve America's standing abroad, the domestic agenda has consumed Obama. So far, he has resisted the temptation, as many predecessors have not, to flee abroad to escape bad news at home.

There soon could be a new arms control treaty with Moscow.

Beyond that, the administration is talking confidently about Moscow and Beijing joining a push for new and punishing sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.

Both Russia and China have, in the past three rounds of sanctions, approved measures against Tehran only after UN negotiations, making them almost toothless. Winning over the Chinese, especially, would be a major coup.

"In terms of public attention, the president has to keep things focused on jobs and the economy, thus it appears that less is happening on foreign policy," said Jessica Matthews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

She says Obama has been hamstrung by a "broken Senate" that has frustrated him at most turns, particularly on health care reform and now jobs legislation. And with midterm elections looming in November, domestic issues cannot be set aside - particularly with nearly 10 percent unemployment.

Even so, important foreign issues languish.

But Obama's pressure on Israel and the Palestinians - a bid to restart peace talks - appears stalemated.

Relations with steadfast Asian ally Japan are moving through an uncustomary rough patch over U.S. military installations on Okinawa. China, with its increasing economic and political clout, is peevish about U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and Obama's meeting this week with the Dalai Lama.

Natalie Davis, professor of political science at Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, Ala., said Obama has been only able to deal "with the tips of a lot of foreign policy icebergs," while he tries "to put out domestic fires" started by the Republican opposition.

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