WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama returned from Afghanistan to the uncertainty of election year politics and the complications of foreign policy Wednesday after traveling halfway around the world on the anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death.
No doubt, the ground beneath the president is perpetually shifting.
A suicide bombing in Kabul shortly after Obama's pre-dawn departure from Afghanistan and new bluster from the Taliban illustrated the fragility of conditions in the country after 10 years of war. Elsewhere, U.S. officials wrestled with a diplomatic crisis with China.
And at home, economic circumstances remain in flux with a vexing mix of positive and not-so-positive signals that suggest that a recovery of fits and starts will be far more dominant than international affairs in this election.
Underscoring the tug of politics, the president attended two fundraisers Wednesday just hours after getting back to the Oval Office, collecting about $1 million at each high-dollar gathering.
In Afghanistan Tuesday, Obama sought to forge together the foreign and domestic components of his presidency in an unusual national television address promoting a path to ending the war in Afghanistan.
"As we emerge from a decade of conflict abroad and economic crisis at home, it's time to renew America — an America where our children live free from fear and have the skills to claim their dreams," he said.
But those conflicts abroad and the crisis at home are sure to linger.
About 90 minutes after Obama lifted off from Bagram, the Taliban struck at a foreigners' housing compound with a suicide car bomb and militants killed at least seven people. The fundamentalist Islamic movement then announced that its annual "spring offensive" would begin Thursday.
In China, a blind Chinese activist who sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy for six days emerged Wednesday after U.S. officials said China had assured his safety. The activist, Chen Guangcheng, was reunited with his family in a hospital where he was to receive medical treatment for injuries he suffered during his escape from house arrest in eastern China. But Chen told The Associated Press that he agreed to leave the embassy and stay in China after being informed his wife would be killed if he left the country.
Also occupying Obama's foreign policy time have been North Korea's failed rocket test and negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, both of which have tested the president's attempts at diplomacy.
Still, Obama's high-security, six-and-a-half hour visit to Afghanistan to sign long-term partnership agreement with President Hamid Karzai sought to reassure a war-weary American public and to capitalize on the one-year anniversary of the special forces raid that killed bin Laden, providing a message to audiences abroad and at home.
"It is a happy marriage of grand strategy and diplomacy and domestic politics for the president," said former CIA officer Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institute.
Obama is trying to set conditions for a planned pullback next year and full withdrawal of combat forces in 2014. He's also trying to clear the decks for a smooth meeting of NATO leaders later this month that will focus on the alliance's goal of handing off to the Afghans over the next 18 months.
The Taliban are boycotting peace talks that the U.S. sees as a key political buttress to US withdrawal plans, but neither Obama nor his advisers said much about that this week.
Obama returned to the capital ready for campaign politics. Besides his fundraising Wednesday, Obama was also preparing for back-to-back re-election rallies Saturday in Ohio and Virginia, his first official rallies of the campaign.
The anniversary of bin Laden's death has figured prominently in the Obama camp's political strategy this week, drawing criticism that he was exploiting the killing to boost his re-election chances.
But even as foreign policy has faced elevated attention at the White House, it doesn't rank high in the public's attention, ensuring that both Obama and his likely Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, will soon return to economic themes that preoccupy voters most.
Obama, however, finds the economy no less volatile than the international scene.
The first quarter of the year grew at a less than expected 2.2 percent rate. A private survey released this week found that the manufacturing activity grew in April at the fastest pace in 10 months. The news helped the Dow Jones industrial average close Tuesday at its highest level in more than four years. Then Wednesday, the payroll processor ADP showed that U.S. businesses sharply reduced their hiring pace in April.
The government's own new unemployment rates will come Friday. That's one day before Obama heads out for his campaign rallies.