Welcome back: Big political challenges greet Obama
The president left behind a wave of goodwill in Latin America as he shored up alliances that the White House said would prove pivotal for years to come. Yet the timing made for political and logistical headaches, as his five-day trip to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador took place just as the U.S. and allies launched a U.N.-sanctioned assault against Moammar Gadhafi's menacing regime.
Now lawmakers are questioning the costs and objective of the military action while voicing growing frustration that Obama didn't consult with Congress more thoroughly before authorizing the U.S. airstrikes. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, encapsulated much GOP sentiment by asking in a tweet, "Is Congress going to assert its constitutional role or be a potted plant?"
No sooner had Obama touched down on U.S. soil late Wednesday afternoon that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, issued him a blistering letter demanding more details about the steps ahead on Libya.
"I and many other members of the House of Representatives are troubled that U.S. military resources were committed to war without clearly defining for the American people, the Congress and our troops what the mission in Libya is and what America's role is in achieving that mission," Boehner said.
The criticism comes just not from the right. Liberal Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, has said he intends to offer legislation to block the U.S. from funding military actions in Libya. Moderate Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., an authoritative voice on military issues as a former Navy secretary, said the U.S. strategy lacks clarity and the endpoint is undefined.
Obama, in news conferences from Santiago to San Salvador, has been adamant in saying the main U.S. military role will be limited and front-loaded as allies strive to keep Gadhafi from killing those seeking to oust him. Insisting the U.S. will soon play a supporting role, Obama told Univision, "The exit strategy will be executed this week."
Obama will have more opportunities in the coming days to speak about the fast-changing Libya conflict, if he chooses. No specific address to the nation is planned.
The military challenge comes as the threat of a government shutdown looms again.
Federal operations are churning along on another temporary spending bill, this one expiring April 8. That means Obama has just over two weeks to help broker a deal to keep the government running for the six months left in the fiscal year. House Republicans don't want to budge from the $61 billion in steep cuts they've approved, but that won't fly in the Senate and Obama has threatened to veto it, leaving the path to compromise unclear.
"I can't remember a more action-packed agenda, with two major, urgent items at the top of the list," said Norman Ornstein, who studies Congress and politics at the American Enterprise Institute. "Libya, of course, but with the added twist of harsh criticism of the president's failure to bring in Congress. And the budget battle, which I believe is much more likely than not to lead to a shutdown."
The pressure will be on Obama to intervene in the budget talks.
Also looming is a fight over the federal debt limit, which Democrats cannot increase without some Republican support in both the Senate and House. The administration has warned Congress that failing to raise the debt limit would lead to an unprecedented default on the national debt and wreck the national economic recovery.
The Treasury Department estimates the government will hit the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling sometime between April 15 and May 31. But Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has warned that GOP senators would not vote to increase the federal debt limit unless Obama agreed to significant long-term budget savings that could include cost curbs for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
Republican leaders also are pounding on Obama's policies at the one-year anniversary of his signature health care law, which also occurred just as he returned home. The law divides the nation just as much as it did a year ago.
The administration and its allies celebrated the anniversary, but it came and went without comment from the president.
Obama is operating in a shrinking window of governing until the politics of his 2012 re-election essentially halt cooperation in Washington.
Obama will try to pick right back up with his domestic agenda of cutting spending but redirecting funding to make the country competitive in the longer term. He spent much of March emphasizing education, and that's about to resume: He will conduct a Univision-sponsored televised town hall about education at a District of Columbia high school on Monday.
Although Libya dominated news coverage during the president's absence, it is a broader revolt in the Arab world that keeps bearing down on him. Support for Yemen's U.S.-backed president is crumbling among political allies. Tensions remain high in Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy's 5th fleet. The White House now finds itself routinely condemning violent crackdowns on protests.
And there's this: It won't be long before Obama is overseas again.
In two months, he'll be pushing the U.S. agenda on a trip to England, Ireland, Poland and France.
Associated Press writer Darlene Superville contributed to this report.