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Obama Faces Political Challenges on Health Care, Afghanistan

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President Barack Obama faces a major political test in the weeks ahead as opinion polls show fading public support for his top two priorities - health care reform and the war in Afghanistan.  

Health care reform remains President Obama's top domestic priority.

But recent public opinion polls show that a growing number of Americans disapprove of his handling of the health care issue, and that in turn has emboldened Republicans trying to block reform efforts in Congress.

"Obama, while a glib and smooth speaker, is not particularly persuasive," said Fred Barnes, editor of The Weekly Standard magazine.  "And so he is having trouble selling this health care policy, which is unpopular, but it is also dragging him down," he said.

Reform supporters found themselves on the defensive during the congressional August recess when opponents used town hall forums with lawmakers around the country to complain about the Obama plan.

"I do not have a problem and I do not know anybody who has a problem.  But the 'boogey man' Obama is trying to state that we have a problem, and he wants to tax us," said an opponent.

The president is now attempting to regain the political momentum in the health care debate by trying to reassure the public.

"For all the scare tactics out there, what is truly scary, what is truly risky, is if we do nothing," he said.

Some recent surveys show the president's overall approval rating at or just above 50 percent - a far cry from higher numbers in the early days of his administration.

Tom DeFrank is a longtime political observer with the New York Daily News and regular guest on VOA's Issues in the News program:

"It is very clear that he has lost control of the agenda," he said. "You get a feeling that events are pulling him along rather than him the situation now.  He has had a bad summer.  His [poll] numbers are down, health care is in peril and he has not been able to work his will on his own [Democratic] party, much less the opposition Republicans."

Political experts say the stakes in the health care debate are huge, not only for President Obama, but also for congressional Democrats who will defend their House and Senate seats in next year's midterm congressional elections.

Former President Bill Clinton knows firsthand about the political consequences of failing to enact health care reform.  Republicans blocked his reform plans early in his presidency and used the issue to retake control of the House and the Senate in the 1994 congressional elections.

"We need to pass a bill.  It needs to be the best bill we can possibly get through Congress.  But doing nothing is not only the worse thing we can do for the economy and the worst thing we can do for health care, it is the worst thing we can do for the Democrats and don't you think the Republicans do not know it," said Mr. Clinton.

Analysts say that Republicans have had some success in raising doubts about the Obama health care initiative by focusing on the impact of the plan on the growing federal budget deficit and by raising the specter of too much government interference in the health care sector.

"And Republicans have really won this message war by tying the issue of health care to spending.  Their chief concerns with this are, number one, the price tag of whatever proposal that Democrats are creating and, number two, the concern that their own health care will not be the same as it was before a bill gets passed," said David Wasserman, who  is with The Cook Political Report and a recent guest on VOA's Encounter program.

The intensity of the health care debate will pick up next week when Congress returns to work after its summer break.

In addition to health care, the Obama administration appears to be facing a growing problem with domestic support for the war in Afghanistan.

A recent poll by ABC News and The Washington Post newspaper found that 51 percent of those surveyed believe the war is not worth fighting, compared with 47 percent who support it.

Matthew Duss is with the Center for American Progress.  He says the discontent in Congress and among the public could grow unless the war effort begins to go better.

"If he does not show some progress and it just seems like we are getting deeper and deeper into an occupation and a counter-insurgency effort without any positive news for a number of months, I think he could face some real opposition," he said.

The U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, said in a report released this week that the situation in Afghanistan is serious, but that success is achievable.   

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