Obama's Test

by James J. Zogby

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

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.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Added 04.07.2008

"Would it not make eminent sense if the European Union had a proper constitution comparable to that of the United States?" In 1991, I put the question on camera to Otto von Habsburg, the father-figure of the European Movement and, at the time, the most revere

Added 29.06.2008

Ever since President George W. Bush's administration came to power in 2000, many Europeans have viewed its policy with a degree of scepticism not witnessed since the Vietnam war.

Added 26.06.2008

As Europe feels the effects of rising prices - mainly tied to energy costs - at least one sector is benefiting. The new big thing appears to be horsemeat, increasingly a viable alternative to expensive beef as desperate housewives look for economies.

Added 26.06.2008

What will the world economy look like 25 years from now? Daniel Daianu says that sovereign wealth funds have major implications for global politics, and for the future of capitalism.

Added 22.06.2008

Winegrower Philippe Raoux has made a valiant attempt to create new ideas around the marketing of wines, and his efforts are to be applauded.

Added 16.06.2008

One of the most interesting global questions today is whether the climate is changing and, if it really is, whether the reasons are man-made (anthropogenic) or natural - or maybe even both.

Added 16.06.2008

After a century that saw two world wars, the Nazi Holocaust, Stalin's Gulag, the killing fields of Cambodia, and more recent atrocities in Rwanda and now Darfur, the belief that we are progressing morally has become difficult to defend.

Added 16.06.2008

BRUSSELS - America's riveting presidential election campaign may be garnering all the headlines, but a leadership struggle is also underway in Europe. Right now, all eyes are on the undeclared frontrunners to become the first appointed president of the European Council.

Added 16.06.2008

JERUSALEM - Israel is one of the biggest success stories of modern times.

Added 16.06.2008

The contemporary Christian Right (and the emerging Christian Left) in no way represent the profound threat to or departure from American traditions that secularist polemics claim. On the contrary, faith-based public activism has been a mainstay throughout U.S.

Added 16.06.2008

BORDEAUX-- The windows are open to the elements. The stone walls have not changed for 800 years. The stairs are worn with grooves from millions of footsteps over the centuries.

Added 16.05.2008
We know from experience that people suffer, prisons overflow and innocent bystanders are injured or killed in political systems that ban all opposition. I witnessed this process during four years as a Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Added 16.05.2008
Certainly the most important event of my posting in Moscow was the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. It established the "Brezhnev Doctrine", defining the Kremlin's right to repress its client states.
Added 01.01.2008

What made the BBC want to show a series of eight of our portrait films rather a long time after they were made?

There are several reasons and, happily, all of them seem to me to be good ones.