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POLITICS-US: Obama Struggles to Regain Early Momentum

Analysis by Eli Clifton and Daniel Luban

WASHINGTON, Sep 8 2009 (IPS) - The United States Congress returns to work Tuesday after a turbulent summer recess that has raised doubts over President Barack Obama’s ability to face down domestic opposition from Republicans and enforce party cohesion on issues ranging from healthcare reform to troop commitments in the increasingly unpopular war in Afghanistan.

Expectations are high for Obama’s address to a joint session of the House and Senate on Wednesday night, when Democrats hope he will push back against attacks from Republicans and moderate Democrats and provide a more cohesive argument for the necessity of health reform and how he intends to deliver it.

Obama has spent the better part of the summer trying to explain his plan for healthcare reform in the face of opposition which claims that the plan smacks of government intervention into the private lives of citizens.

The noisy protests at town hall meetings – and the much-publicised (if unfounded) allegations by prominent Republicans that the healthcare plan would create “death panels” to promote euthanasia – came to dominate media coverage of the healthcare debate.

The White House has been seemingly blindsided by opposition from both Democrats in the Senate – some of whom have come out against a ‘public option’ in healthcare reform and others who have started to voice increasing concern about war in Afghanistan – and Republicans who have opposed almost every initiative Obama has put forward except for a stepped-up war effort in Afghanistan.

Indeed, the administration seemed to be under attack for every policy proposal it made this summer. The trend reached a height last week, when the administration was forced to spend a great deal of time and energy defending Obama’s superficially uncontroversial decision to deliver a televised address to schoolchildren on their first day back at school.

To many political analysts, the ”schoolchildren address” controversy showed both the willingness of the administration’s opponents to offer opposition to even the most innocuous actions taken by Obama as well as the administration’s seeming inability to shrug off attacks or hit back against critics.

A number of Democrats have expressed frustration about the White House’s inability or unwillingness to actively promote its domestic and foreign policy agenda in the face of opposition. Many suggest that the administration has allowed centrist Democrats in Congress (the so-called “Blue Dogs”) to wield too much power in shaping the president’s agenda.

”We all lose as a party if we allow the moderates and the Blue Dogs to continue,” said Obama’s former deputy campaign manager, Steve Hildebrand, at a gathering in San Diego.

“The Republicans are loving it, and they should. When are we going to start standing up to these people? Tell [House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Reid] to start leading and holding the 52 Blue Dogs accountable,” he said.

While the health care debate has dominated the airwaves this summer, the summer has also been rocky for the administration in terms of foreign policy.

Public support for the war in Afghanistan – widely seen as Obama’s most important foreign policy initiative – has been slipping dramatically.

A recent McClatchy poll found that 54 percent of U.S. citizens believe the U.S. is not winning in Afghanistan and 56 percent oppose sending more combat troops.

While the Pentagon is expected to request as many as 45,000 additional U.S. troops to join the 68,000 already committed to Afghanistan, Democratic support for a larger troop commitment is lukewarm, and even some prominent conservatives – such as Washington Post columnist George Will – have turned against the war.

In a sign of the continued turmoil within Afghanistan, the Afghan electoral commission announced Tuesday that it had found “clear and convincing evidence” of fraud in last month’s presidential elections and demanded a recount – a further blow to the unpopular U.S.-backed incumbent, President Hamid Karzai.

The most ardent support for the war in Afghanistan comes from Republican and neo-conservative circles. On Monday, the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) – a neo-conservative group widely seen as the successor to the defunct Project for a New American Century (PNAC), which played a pivotal role in pushing for war in Iraq – issued a statement urging Obama to “fully resource” the war in Afghanistan.

In an illustration of the topsy-turvy state of the Afghanistan debate, one notable signatory was former Alaska governor and Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin – who attracted controversy for propagating the “death panels” myth about Obama’s healthcare plan.

Other foreign policy challenges loom as well – most notably, a likely showdown this month on Capitol Hill over Iran.

In the wake of public outcry over Iran’s disputed Jun. 12 presidential elections and its subsequent repression of demonstrators, the Obama administration gave Tehran a September deadline to respond to diplomatic outreach concerning its nuclear programme, which critics allege is intended for military purposes.

On Monday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad invited members of the so-called “P5+1” group – comprising the U.S., Britain, China, Russia, France, and Germany – to Tehran for talks, but stated that discussion on the nuclear issue is “finished”, the Washington Post reported.

Many experts argue that the continued political disarray within Iran following the election crisis makes it virtually impossible for Tehran to respond to engagement in the near future, and that the U.S. should stand back for the moment to let the Iranian political situation play out.

However, hawks within Congress are pushing the administration to institute harsher sanctions against Tehran. Hardline and influential “Israel lobby” organisations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations are preparing a major lobbying push this month in support of sanctions legislation, according to the Forward.

On another signature foreign policy item, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the administration has also run into obstacles.

The right-wing Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has resisted U.S. demands to cease settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which the administration intended to pave the way for final-status negotiations regarding a two-state solution. The latest flare-up came last week, when the administration criticised Netanyahu’s approval of the construction of hundreds of new West Bank housing units.

While the Obama administration reportedly plans to unveil plans for new peace negotiations this fall, some analysts fear that its peace plans have gotten bogged down in what journalist Tony Karon labeled “roadmapolis” – a reference to the George W. Bush administration’s two failed Middle East peace initiatives, the 2002 “road map for peace” and the 2007 Annapolis conference.

While it remains far too early to write the administration’s political obituary, and much of the media commentary proclaiming Obama a failure has come from ideological opponents eager to make this image into a reality, it is becoming clear that the White House must take a new tack if it is going to keep its most high-profile domestic and international goals alive.

Wednesday’s address to Congress on health care will be a start, as the president attempts to regain possession of a health care debate that slipped out of his control over the course of the summer.

Only time will tell whether this fall will be remembered as a time when the administration recovered its footing – as Obama did last fall during the 2008 presidential campaign – or as a period of continued decline in its political fortunes.

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