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Analysis: For Obama, the summer vacation is over

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STEVEN R. HURST
August 31, 2009
— President Barack Obama confronts a tortuous September and it's not just the divisive political fight over health care.

Back from his first presidential vacation, a break truncated by the death and remembrance of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and the nomination of the Federal Reserve chief to a new term, Obama settles back into the Oval Office well aware his approval ratings have fallen.


He now must spend heavily from that shrinking fund of political capital with a highly uncertain outcome if his vision of a health care overhaul is to emerge from Congress.


The White House has confusingly indicated, then backed away from the possible abandonment of the government-run public option designed to cover the 50 million or so Americans who have no health insurance. Such a lower-cost plan would embrace those who can't afford insurance or don't have it through their workplace. It also, the argument goes, would force private companies to lower the cost of insurance premiums to stay competitive.


That plan faces fierce opposition among Republicans and many conservative Democrats, and it will take a huge amount of White House muscle to keep it alive.


Then there is Afghanistan and declining support nearly eight years after the U.S. invaded and drove the militant Islamic Taliban from power, forcing its al-Qaida allies including Osama bin Laden, it is believed to scatter to mountain hideouts across the border in Pakistan.


The administration has said it plans this month to finish a reassessment of the war to which Obama has already dispatched nearly 20,000 additional troops, raising the total to about 68,000 by year's end.


As part of the study, commanding Gen. Stanley McChrystal is widely expected to ask for even more forces, as he tries to implement the kind of counterinsurgency strategy that prevented Iraq from descending into all-out civil war two years ago.


While American support for the Bush administration's conduct of the Iraq war quickly vanished after the 2003 invasion, backing for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan had held steady. But a recent Washington Post-ABC news poll shows that only 49 percent of Americans now think the fight is worth it. Sliding confidence may diminish further as American troop deaths increase.


That would put Obama at odds with a slim majority of Americans who doubt the U.S. mission and his promise to free Afghanistan from the brutal and resurgent grip of the Taliban while making the region unsafe for al-Qaida.


There also is growing unease about Iraq, where a Bush administration-negotiated plan will have all U.S. combat troops out of that country a year from now. Political upheaval awaits as the Shiite majority has shoved Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki out of its coalition in advance of national elections. Sunni bombers many say they represent al-Qaida in Iraq are again making the country very unsafe with increased attacks that have killed hundreds of Iraqis.


September, therefore, may be a very difficult month in Iraq, an unwelcome distraction for Obama as he confronts an already overwhelming agenda of decisions that will be key to success in the remainder of his administration. That's especially so for congressional Democrats who face re-election next year.


Just as important but less spoken of: Obama has set a Sept. 15 deadline for Iran to respond to U.S. overtures about negotiating over its nuclear program. The United States and many allies contend that Iran is trying to produce a nuclear weapon under the cover of a civilian program that it says is designed only to generate electricity.


The president, while trying to engage the Iranian leadership, is under heavy pressure from Israel to step up every attempt to combat the possibility that Tehran will achieve nuclear-armed status. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called for Israel's obliteration.


Ahmadinejad's tainted re-election this summer left the country's leadership in chaos and likely unable to focus on Obama's call for negotiations. Failing a positive response, the administration has vowed to seek onerous international sanctions, but Russia and China have balked throughout the sanctions process Russia fearing loss of lucrative trade deals, China because it depends heavily on Iranian oil.


Depending on how or whether the Iranians respond to the Obama overture, he could become embroiled late in the month at the U.N. General Assembly session in trying to persuade Russia and China to join the international community in tough actions against Tehran likely a monumental task.


For added spice to Obama's plate, there's an economy that may or may not be pulling out of its closest brush with collapse since the Great Depression.


Oh, and don't forget Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi will be turning up on U.S. shores for the General Assembly shortly after giving a hero's welcome to the only one of his countrymen convicted in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. Scotland set him free so he could go home to die of prostate cancer. Americans are outraged. So is Obama, but he can't deny Gadhafi access to the United Nations.


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EDITOR'S NOTE Steven R. Hurst reports from the White House for The Associated Press and has covered international relations for 30 years.



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