Obama Plots Counterattack

WASHINGTON ~ Once high-flying US President Barack Obama will next week launch a fight-back against escalating troubles, heralding an autumn political season that could write the fate of his administration.

Obama will make a joint address to Congress on Wednesday, September 9, in an effort to shore up his stuttering healthcare reform drive, which took a battering in a shrill August of Republican attacks.

The announcement came after Obama, head down and unusually ignoring the cameras, trudged pensively on Wednesday from the Oval Office to his helicopter, en-route to a few days rest at his Camp David retreat.

In that moment, the crisp January day when the beaming Obamas left their inaugural limousine and strolled towards the White House basking in a new political era, seemed a lifetime ago.

As it turns out, the new political era, with its brutal fights over healthcare reform, the economy and foreign policy, is much like the old one.

Obama’s approval rating threatens to slump below 50 percent faster than all but one elected president in modern history, posing the question of whether the transformative presidency he promised will be a mere mirage.

The president’s political woes are a symptom of the “ambition of his agenda and the turbulence of the moment,” said Bruce Buchanan, professor of government at the University of Texas.

“This is what you would expect with this agenda and the kind of political atmosphere that we have now, which I would describe as toxic.

“All these Republicans want to do now is hand him a failure experience.”

Such a failure could severely cramp Obama’s room for political manoeuvre and spell disaster for the rest of his program.

Obama’s latest Gallup approval ratings stood at 54 percent on Wednesday, up from a low of 50 percent but down from a high of 69 percent in February.

Should he fall below 50 percent before November, it would represent the second fastest drop of an elected president to below-majority approval since World War II, behind Bill Clinton (four months).

But the darkest hour may yet be before dawn.

Despite Republican attacks, Obama still seems to have the Democratic votes to pass some kind of health bill.

Even a partial win would cast him as the kind of social reformer unseen since 1960s president Lyndon Johnson and likely unlock a trove of political capital to super charge his agenda.

“We are entering a new phase,” an administration official said, accusing Republicans with whom Obama had been trying to compromise on healthcare of “essentially walking away from the table.”

One potential long term bright spot for Obama is the economy, which he inherited on the edge of an abyss, and is showing glimmers of recovery.

“We are heading in the right direction … the steps we have taken to bring our economy back from the brink are working,” Obama said Tuesday, after the first figures in 18 months showing a growth in manufacturing.

But an unemployment rate projected to hit 10 percent could still mean pain for Democrats in mid-term congressional elections in 2010.

Another decision, meanwhile, looms with fateful implications for the Obama presidency – whether to send more troops into the cauldron in Afghanistan.

Obama’s weekend reading was expected to include war commander Stanley McChrystal’s strategy review, as public anxiety on the fast-worsening war mounts.

The assessment will not include a request for more troops – but that could come within weeks.

More troops could mean higher casualties, would enrage Obama’s liberal backers and fan warnings “another Vietnam” could doom his presidency.

Public support for the war slipped following the deadliest month for US troops in Afghanistan since the conflict began in 2001.

Fifty-seven percent of Americans are now against the war in Afghanistan and 40 percent see it as not winnable, according to a CNN poll – record numbers.

Obama’s job selling the war is not made any easier meanwhile by vote fraud claims rocking Western-backed Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Pivotal moments are also looming in the effort to coax Iran into talks on ending its nuclear program or punish it with new sanctions. Obama’s attempt to restart Middle East talks is also reaching a crucial stage.

At home, the administration is struggling to escape the corrosive legacy of Bush-era war on terror policies, and the clock is fast running on Obama’s self-imposed early 2010 deadline to close Guantanamo Bay.

The fate of his global warming initiative is also uncertain in Congress.

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