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Obama Faces Growing Political Challenges


President Barack Obama will mark his first 200 days in office this Friday amid opinion polls that show weakening public support for one of his key domestic priorities. It is a far cry from Mr. Obama's first 100 days when he enjoyed strong support in the polls and moved quickly to get an economic stimulus plan through Congress.

Mr. Obama's supporters hope that the president's political fortunes will get a boost in the wake of some improving economic indicators.

"I actually think the recession is ending now and in the next couple months the recession will have finally run its course," says Stuart Hoffman, an economist with the PNC Financial Services Group.

The president has been quick to note the improving economic trends in recent days as he uses campaign-style rallies to build public support for his health care reform initiative.

"There is no doubt things have gotten better. We may be seeing the beginning of the end of the recession," President Obama has said.

But Mr. Obama's desire to take credit for slight improvements in the economy is tempered by continuing job losses, a trend that could take months to reverse.

An improving economy could help the president sell the centerpiece of his domestic agenda --a health care reform plan that is slowly making its way through various Congressional committees.

Lawmakers will spend most of this month on their long summer recess. Democrats will try to sell the outlines of the Obama plan directly to voters during a series of town hall meetings during their break.

Opposition Republicans, meanwhile, will continue to raise objections about what they say is the high cost of the plan and too much government involvement.

This is the Republican House leader, Congressman John Boehner of Ohio.

"On health care it is pretty clear that the more Americans hear about the president's health care plan, the less that they like it," says Congressman John Boehner of Ohio, the Republican House leader.

Political analysts say the next several weeks will be a crucial time for the president's health care initiative.

"If he gets a health care bill by the end of the year, he will look better than he looks today. If he doesn't, I think it is going to be a significant reversal of fortune for him," says Tom DeFrank, a veteran political reporter with the New York Daily News and a guest on VOA's Issues in the News program.

Recent public opinion polls have shown that while the president is still fairly popular with voters, support for his health care plan has declined.

Tom DeFrank says Democrats in particular realize they have work to do in selling the Obama plan to skeptical voters in advance of next year's midterm congressional elections.

"And I think the congressmen are going to be bombarded, and congressmen and senators up for re-election in about 16 months are especially nervous about the prospects of voting for this bill, so it is a problem for Obama," he said.

The main objective of the president's health care initiative is to provide health insurance coverage to the 47 million Americans who currently do not have it. Mr. Obama also wants to bring down the escalating cost of health care, which he says affects consumers and businesses alike.

But in recent weeks Republicans have had some success in raising doubts about the Obama plan, says Washington based political analyst Stuart Rothenberg, who asks: "What has happened over the past few weeks is that the focus has shifted away from the philosophy of covering everybody and wouldn't it be nice to bring costs down, to, is my coverage going to be as good if I already have health care and we have a new program? Is the quality of health care going to be as good?"

Rothenberg was as guest on VOA's Encounter program, as was analyst John Fortier of the American Enterprise Institute.

Fortier predicts a long and difficult political battle ahead over health care.

"I think the odds are more in favor of something getting done than not. But those odds have shifted, Fortier said. "I think a month ago many of us would have said that it was almost certain something would pass. And today it looks a little less certain, still better than 50-50, but I think it is going to be a hard slog for the Democrats and I do think it is likely to spill into 2010 in getting this done."

President Obama has been largely focused on domestic issues in recent months, but simmering foreign policy concerns could become major distractions in the months ahead.

Chief among them is the situation in Afghanistan. July was the bloodiest month for international forces in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion. In addition, recent opinion polls suggest U.S. domestic support for the war effort is slipping even as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan reportedly considers asking the White House for more troops.

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