Syria debate on hold, Obama refocuses on agenda
WASHINGTON — With a military strike against Syria on hold, President Barack Obama tried Thursday to reignite momentum for his second-term domestic agenda. But his progress could hinge on the strength of his standing on Capitol Hill after what even allies acknowledge were missteps in the latest foreign crisis.
“It is still important to recognize that we have a lot of things left to do here in this government,” Obama told his Cabinet, starting a sustained White House push to refocus the nation on matters at home as key benchmarks on the budget and health care rapidly approach.
“The American people are still interested in making sure that our kids are getting the kind of education they deserve, that we are putting people back to work,” Obama said.
The White House plans to use next week's five-year anniversary of the 2008 financial collapse to warn Republicans that shutting down the government or failing to raise the debt limit could drag down the still-fragile economy. With Hispanic Heritage Month to begin Monday, Obama is also expected to press for a stalled immigration overhaul and urge minorities to sign up for health care exchanges beginning Oct. 1.
Among the events planned for next week is a White House ceremony highlighting Americans working on immigrant and citizenship issues. Administration officials will also promote overhaul efforts at naturalization ceremonies across the country. On Sept. 21, Obama will speak at the Congressional Black Caucus Gala, where he'll trumpet what the administration says are benefits of the president's health care law for African-Americans and other minorities.
Two major factors are driving Obama's push to get back on track with domestic issues after three weeks of Syria dominating the political debate. Polls show the economy, jobs and health care remain Americans' top concerns. And Obama has a limited window to make progress on those matters in a second term, when lame-duck status can quickly creep up on presidents, particularly if they start losing public support.
Obama already is grappling with some of the lowest approval ratings of his presidency. A Pew Research Center/USA Today poll out this week put his approval at 44 percent. That's down from 55 percent at the end of 2012.
Potential military intervention in Syria also is deeply unpopular with many Americans, with a Pew survey finding that 63 percent opposing the idea. And the president's publicly shifting positions on how to respond to a deadly chemical weapons attack in Syria also have confused many Americans and congressional lawmakers.
“In times of crisis, the more clarity the better,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a strong supporter of U.S. intervention in Syria. “This has been confusing. For those who are inclined to support the president, it's been pretty hard to nail down what the purpose of a military strike is.”
For a time, the Obama administration appeared to be barreling toward an imminent strike in retaliation for the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack. But Obama made a sudden reversal and instead decided to seek congressional approval for military action.
Even after administration officials briefed hundreds of lawmakers on classified intelligence, there appeared to be limited backing for a use-of-force resolution on Capitol Hill. Rather than face defeat, Obama asked lawmakers this week to postpone any votes while the U.S. explores the viability of a deal to secure Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles.
That pause comes as a relief to Obama and many Democrats eager to return to issues more in line with the public's concerns. The most pressing matters are a Sept. 30 deadline to approve funding to keep the government open — the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1 — and the start of sign-ups for health care exchanges, a crucial element of the health care overhaul.
On Wednesday, a revolt by tea party conservatives forced House Republican leaders to delay a vote on a temporary spending bill written to head off a government shutdown. Several dozen staunch conservatives are seeking to couple the spending bill with a provision to derail implementation of the health care law.
The White House also may face a fight with Republicans over raising the nation's debt ceiling this fall. While Obama has insisted he won't negotiate over the debt limit, House Speaker John Boehner on Thursday said the GOP will insist on curbing spending.
“You can't talk about increasing the debt limit unless you're willing to make changes and reforms that begin to solve the spending problem that Washington has,” the Ohio Republican said.
AP Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta and Associated Press writer Charles Babington contributed to this report.