Obama faces showdowns on health, Afghanistan, jobs
On Saturday, two days after his return to Washington, the Senate plans a make-or-break vote on his hard-fought plan to overhaul the nation's health care system. Obama also confronts a difficult choice on strategy and troop levels in Afghanistan, which will be criticized no matter what he decides.
His bid to re-regulate the financial industry faces stiff opposition in Congress. The decision to try high-profile terror suspects in federal courts has drawn withering Republican attacks. And he faces a problematic push by House Democrats for a new and costly jobs bill.
A president's job is always busy. But Obama's plate is piled so high that Thanksgiving seems to have come early at the White House.
His immediate concern is whether the Senate's 58 Democrats and two independents will stick together to block a Republican filibuster of the massive health care bill. No GOP senators are expected to help, and it's not clear that any Republicans will vote for the final bill itself later this year.
Before he left for Asia on Nov. 12, Obama met with wavering Democratic senators, including Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, whose vote on health care remains in doubt. Asked if the president might call Lincoln soon after returning from South Korea on Thursday, top White House adviser David Axelrod said: "I'm quite certain that if called upon, he's able to do whatever is needed."
"Jet lag is not a barrier here," Axelrod said in a phone interview from Air Force One as it headed to Washington.
Failure to bring the health care bill to the Senate floor would severely damage Obama's prestige and agenda, and it would prompt a mad scramble by Democratic leaders to pick up the needed votes, probably by tweaking the legislation to the holdouts' liking.
Assuming the measure eventually reaches the full Senate, weeks of debate and amendment attempts will follow.
That would dominate much of December, always a hectic month for presidents as they plan their annual budgets and State of the Union address, said Bruce Reed, the top domestic adviser to President Bill Clinton.
"This December, in his spare time, the president gets to help the Senate get to the finish line on health care, unveil his decision on Afghanistan and make clear that the recovery and job creation are job one," Reed said.
Despite the heavy GOP opposition, he said, prospects for enacting a health care bill are good because so many interest groups and ordinary Americans want changes.
Obama's most wrenching decision involves Afghanistan, Reed said. "The decision to put troops in harm's way is the toughest decision any president can make," he said.
Obama has pressed advisers for a comprehensive strategy to address terrorism, the Taliban threat and a realistic scenario for an eventual U.S. withdrawal.
"I will announce my decision over the next several weeks," Obama told NBC News during his Asia trip. "I'm confident that at the end of this process, I'm going to be able to present to the American people in very clear terms what exactly is at stake, what we intend to do, how we're going to succeed, how much it's going to cost, how long it's going to take."
While they await an Afghanistan decision, Republican lawmakers are attacking the administration on economic fronts, saying February's $787 billion stimulus package failed to stanch the loss of U.S. jobs. Obama is reacting cautiously to House Democrats' talk of extending aspects of the February bill, such as unemployment benefits.
GOP leaders are blasting away.
"Americans are asking, 'Where are the jobs?'" said House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio. "But all they are getting from out-of-touch Washington Democrats is more spending and more debt piled on our kids and grandkids."
It's a similar story with Obama's push to re-regulate the financial sector after a mortgage meltdown helped spur this year's deep recession. Senate Republicans said they will not support the effort, arguing it could make it too hard for Americans to borrow money.
Obama said in Asia that he understands Americans' frustrations about jobs, tight credit and home foreclosures.
"The American people have gone through a very tough year," he told CNN. "My job as president is to help navigate through this tough year. And people who don't have a job right now, people who have lost their home, I would be mad, too. And they expect me to do something about it. "
A bulging inbox awaits him in the Oval Office.