Obama's Test

by James J. Zogby Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute 03.08.2009

Barack Obama began his presidency in a rush to put out fires everywhere, at home and abroad. When some have criticized the new President, suggesting that he was "biting off more than he could chew," his supporters would respond that he had no choice, asking "which challenge could he ignore?"-the collapse of the financial sector; a sagging economy; a health care crisis; two major wars; a web of secrecy masking not only violations of human rights and international law, but US law, as well; or a badly tarnished US image, world-wide.

For months the President cruised through these multiple challenges with "the wind in his sails." But the crushing pressure of the enormity of these crises and the failure of the economy to improve, are taking a toll-most visibly seen in a 10 point decline in the President's job approval rating. One precipitator of this change in the public's mood has been the fact that unemployment numbers have continued to rise, as has a growing sense of economic insecurity.

Republicans have seized on these negative indicators and the fact that the President's massive stimulus package ($787 billion) has yet to produce a recovery. For months now they have been repeating the same lines: "he's spending too much," or "he's moving to country in the direction of socialism." But it is with the debate over heath care reform that these Republican attacks have begun to gain traction.

Reform of the US's health care system and universal health care coverage of all Americans, have long been goals of the Democratic Party. Indeed, this issue was a central plank in the 2008 Obama campaign. The President recently noted that this issue "was the cause of my campaign, and it is the cause of my Presidency." But with a federal deficit of $1 trillion, some leading Democrats have become skittish about passing a health care reform bill that will add even more to the deficit. Liberal Democrats remain committed to passing a comprehensive bill, raising taxes if needed to cover its costs, while more moderate Democrats have been working to find a compromise with some Republicans that may severely scale back the reform effort.

Many options are on the table being actively discussed. The President, for his part, has not endorsed any specific plan, only laying down firm markers. The reform effort, he insists must: reduce costs; protect consumer choice; and improve the quality and coverage for all Americans, and he wants it done this year.

Republicans, sensing an opportunity, have become emboldened. Using fear, they have argued that the President's plan will cost too much, deny consumers their choice of doctors or quality care, or, as one outrageous set of ads is suggesting, that the White House plan will be a form of euthanasia! Reflecting the intensity of the GOP challenge, a few weeks ago Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) speaking to a group of conservative activists about the need to fight the President's health care proposal said, "If we can stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him."

While DeMint certainly overstates the case, it is true that an outright defeat or continued stalemate (as good as a defeat) could have the effect of taking more wind out of the President's sails, with consequences. Until now, Obama has been able to take strong stands on some tough issues, keeping his party in tow. His firm position on Israeli settlements, for example, has been supported by most Democrats, with only scant opposition.

By the time 2010 rolls around, however, many members of Congress, including 1/3 of the Senate will be looking to their own reelection bids in November. They will continue to support the President in fighting for his agenda only if they believe he is popular enough to help their reelection. Should the President show signs of faltering or should his approval ratings further decline, some may abandon him, making 2010 a difficult year.

That is why the President has been crisscrossing the country mobilizing support for his heath care proposals, and why the Democratic Party and allied groups have begun a campaign-like ad blitz in support of reform.

It may not be "Waterloo"-but it is important. He can lose this effort and still rebound in the next few years. And, as we have seen in the past, Obama does have remarkable political skills. But a defeat now will have consequences and will slow down or derail other critical Presidential initiatives.

This may sound like a crude oversimplification, but if you want this President to be able to remain firm on settlements and strong in his pursuit of a comprehensive Middle East peace, you better hope he succeeds in passing a health care bill this year. If not, it may be a rough ride.

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