Obama Faces Daunting Political Challenges at Home

President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama

In the wake of his trip to Asia, U.S. President Barack Obama returns home to a challenging political agenda.  Among the issues that Mr. Obama will refocus on in the coming days is the future of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, an all-out push in the Senate for health care reform and continuing worries over job losses and the economy. 

The upcoming decision on whether to send additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan is seen by many analysts as Mr. Obama's most important foreign policy decision to date.

During his trip to Asia, the president told NBC News that the decision will come within the next several weeks and will lay out in clear terms what is at stake in the conflict and how he plans to succeed.

"This decision will put us on a path towards ending the war," said President Obama.

But public opinion polls suggest that Americans remain divided over the war in Afghanistan, including its cost and the length of the U.S. commitment there.

A recent Quinnipiac University survey found that voters narrowly believe that continuing the war is the right thing, by a margin of 48 to 41 percent.  In addition, 47 percent of those asked support sending 40,000 more combat forces to Afghanistan, while 42 percent oppose it.  The 40,000 troop figure is one of several options reportedly being presented to the president by U.S. military commanders.

Peter Brown is with the Quinnipiac poll.

"Generally, enthusiasm for the war in Afghanistan is waning and support for the president's handling of it is dropping," said Peter Brown. "There are a number of Afghan-related questions where you have seen movement - all in the same direction - in which voters are more skeptical, less committed to the idea of a long-term U.S. presence in Afghanistan."

As important as the decision on Afghanistan is, it will compete for the president's attention along with his top two domestic priorities - improving the job market and following through on his promise for health care reform.

"Every day, I wake up and I'm thinking how can I get those folks who are out of work now a job?, said Mr. Obama. "How can I make sure that the people who don't have health care can get health care?"

In October, the national unemployment rate rose to 10.2 percent - the highest since 1983.

Political analyst Tom DeFrank of the New York Daily News says turning around the economy remains the president's top priority as he looks ahead to midterm congressional elections next year.

"The White House has been saying the economy is everything and the reason we are going to be fine in 2010 is that the economy will be recovering," said Tom DeFrank. "Yet, the economic reality is that, I think, unemployment will probably still be above nine percent a year from now.  And that is never good for incumbents, never good."

At the same time, the president's Democratic allies in Congress are trying to push a health care reform bill through the Senate - a major step in trying to enact the most sweeping health care changes in decades.

This is the Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid of Nevada:

"Opponents of reform and their defenders, I think - they can see the handwriting on the wall.  America is serious about reforming health care," he said. "For the first time since [former President] Harry Truman, we are going to be able to do that."

But opponents like Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky remain nearly unanimous in fighting the health care proposal, arguing that its heavy cost and increased government role would be a mistake.

"I think the public is saying to all of us, 'Quit passing thousand page bills; concentrate on trying to improve the economy'," he said. "And why are you trying to pass this health care bill?  I mean, I run into people every day who say, 'Please, don't do it.'"

Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg says the weak economy plus fears of a growing budget deficit have made it much more difficult to pass health care reform this year.

"The American public is very concerned about the U.S. economy, about jobs and that frankly they still want change," said Stuart Rothenberg. "That is something very consistent over the past two and four years.  Except at the moment now, suddenly, it is the Republicans who benefit from that desire for change where it was the Democrats who benefitted in the previous two election cycles."

The recent Quinnipiac poll found that President Obama's job approval rating was now at 48 percent - the first time it has slipped below the 50 percent threshold in the university's national survey.

But the poll also found that 74 percent of voters still like President Obama, even though only 47 percent like most of his policies.

Again, pollster Peter Brown:

"They like him," he said. "Personally, Americans like Barack Obama.  They are a good deal less supportive of his policies.  But despite all the problems that the president may have in public opinion, it is very clear that Americans trust President Obama a lot more than they trust Republicans."

The latest survey says voters trust the president more than Republicans to handle the health care issue by a margin of 45 to 36 percent.  

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