RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) â€” A week of international prodding, outreach and reassurance behind him, U.S. President Barack Obama is returning to Washington amid looming domestic and foreign challenges, from a fast-approaching deadline for health care enrollment to renewed worries about Russia’s intentions in Eastern Europe.
Obama is set to leave Saudi Arabia on Saturday, a day after meeting with the country’s aging monarch, King Abdullah. But tensions between Russia and Ukraine, which dominated his visit earlier in the week to the Netherlands and Belgium, continue to dog him, and his health care apparatus is dealing with an influx of last-minute sign-ups.
Before leaving Riyadh, Obama met with the Saudi winner of a State Department Women of Courage award, presented for her role in combating domestic violence and winning landmark legislation on protecting women. The winner is Maha Al Muneef, the executive director of the National Family Safety Program, which she founded in 2005 to combat domestic violence and child abuse in Saudi Arabia.
Obama, in remarks during the award at his hotel in Riyadh, praised her for not only being able to “set up services here in the kingdom, but also more importantly in some ways, being able to pass laws providing protections for women and children for domestic abuse and to provide a safe space and shelter for those who are suffering from domestic abuse.
“To see that kind of progress that’s been made, her ability to work with the kingdom to persuade many that this is an issue that is going to be important to society over the long term, I think makes this award fully justified.”
The fallout of Russia’s annexation of Crimea away from Ukraine has been a persistent worry. Russian President Vladimir Putin called Obama on Friday evening and Obama urged Putin to pull troops away from Ukraine’s eastern border, the White House said. The Kremlin said Putin told Obama that various regions of Ukraine were facing a “continued rampage of extremists who are committing acts of intimidation towards peaceful residents, government authorities and law enforcement agencies.”
Despite the differing summaries, both sides said the presidents agreed to have U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov discuss further steps. Both men could meet as early as Tuesday or Wednesday in Brussels, where Kerry will be for a NATO foreign ministers meeting.
Earlier in the week, in meetings with world leaders in The Hague, Netherlands, and with European leaders in Brussels, Obama pressed for unified response against Russia that would isolate Putin for his brazen acts in the Crimean Peninsula.
Congress, meanwhile, has been finalizing a package of $1 billion in loan guarantees for Ukraine and sanctions against Russia that could get to Obama’s desk for his signature next week.
Obama, who also visited Pope Francis while in Rome this week, will be back at the White House late Saturday, two days before the sign-up deadline for health insurance coverage.
The Obama administration says its health care sign-up website was taken down briefly Friday as consumer interest surged. Earlier in the week, the administration provided extra time to sign up for people who had already started an application but were unable to finish before the deadline and for people who had not been able to sign up due to certain special circumstances.
“There’s an all-out push, it’s going to continue right up to the end in terms of reaching audiences out there, including young adults,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Friday.