WASHINGTON — As he retreats to Camp David for a final summer getaway, President Barack Obama is mapping out a post-Labor Day plan to regain the political offensive, including a private meeting next Tuesday with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
After taking office with a two-thirds approval rating, Obama has watched it slip closer to 50 percent. Over the summer, he lost ground on the health care debate and other aspects of his crowded agenda, and his dealings with Congress — controlled by fellow Democrats — also worsened as worries increased about losses in next year's midterm elections.
The most important domestic political gambit of Obama's nearly eight-month-old presidency — to expand government's role in health care coverage and increase regulation of private insurers — faces an iffy prognosis after a tough August.
The public also has lost some enthusiasm for the war in Afghanistan, even as Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. military commander there, is pushing for more troops.
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A McClatchy-Ipsos poll released Tuesday found that 40 percent of Americans favored the sort of health overhaul that Obama's been talking about and 45 percent opposed it. In the poll of 1,057 adults conducted Thursday through Monday, three-fourths also wanted incremental change versus fixing everything at once. Asked about the war in Afghanistan, only 29 percent thought that the U.S. is winning. Just 40 percent of Americans thought that things are moving in the right direction.
The $787 billion economic stimulus may have staved off a depression, but taxpayers resent it. The federal budget is a mess. Attorney General Eric Holder's decision to appoint a prosecutor to investigate possible criminal charges over Bush-era CIA interrogations put Republicans more at odds with Obama than they already were.
Although they, too, were part of the president's ambitious 2009 agenda, negotiating financial industry revisions and a cap-and-trade global warming policy right now may be too much. Immigration's already off the table until at least next year.
Obama's challenges reflect the complex problems and the federal budget deficit that he inherited from the Bush administration, and they parallel the struggles of past presidents in the autumns of their first years in office.
Obama also owns some of the blame, however, for taking on so much at once, and for his tactical decision to float above the health care debate and wait for Congress to come up with a plan.
"If it's health care he wants, push everything else to the side. Then we can move on financial regulation. Then we can move on climate change," said Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. By pushing so many agenda items, "We're scaring the country half to death for fear of too many Washington takeovers and too much debt."
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said he wanted to see "no more wavering" from Obama. "We need clear signals on what the president believes. ... A clear, articulate president will do the trick."
Bob Dole, the former GOP Senate majority leader from Kansas, who's part of a high-level bipartisan group that's promoting health care restructuring, is pushing publicly for Obama to do what he's resisted for months: write his own health care bill, and ask Pelosi and Reid to manage it in Congress.
"The American people have a lot of respect for the office. ... I think it's time for the president to be the president," Dole said in a telephone interview.
Obama's supporters and critics expect him to try to get back in the game starting next week, including appearances at a union Labor Day picnic in Cincinnati and the congressional meeting the next day. White House aides declined to confirm the meeting, which hasn't been announced.
Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Tuesday that the president had no meetings scheduled with staff or outsiders during his family retreat beginning Wednesday at Camp David, and he wouldn't comment on a report that Obama would unveil a specific health care plan next week to rally Democrats.
The president will take McChrystal's new Afghanistan report with him, but he probably won't decide for several weeks on any additional resources, Gibbs said. Obama also is planning a town hall-style meeting, on a date to be announced, with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and troops in the Central Command.
H.W. Brands, a University of Texas professor who was among a small group of historians who joined the president earlier this summer for a private dinner, said that much of what had happened to Obama this summer had been "entirely predictable."
Presidents often don't get enough credit for averting economic or other disasters. Congressional majorities get wobbly-kneed when voters blink. Americans resist change unless they think there's something in it for them.
"He sometimes sounds as if he's still running a campaign. But once you get to be president, you've got to figure out who the bad guys are," Brands said. "And you've got to convince Americans that the ones you think are the bad guys really are the bad guys."
Harold Cox, a presidential scholar and archivist at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania, recalled how Ronald Reagan had great success in his first eight months, winning approval of a major tax cut and the nomination of Sandra Day O'Connor to the U.S. Supreme Court. When Congress returned in September, however, budget fights and a staggering economy made it hard for Reagan to control policy, and his approval numbers slipped.
Bill Clinton suffered a similar fate in 1993 after he won approval of his massive deficit-reduction bill early in his term. Cox recalled how Clinton was distracted by the gays-in-the-military debate.
Obama "needs to understand the glow can disappear awfully fast," Cox said. "Even now, I'd say he's got only a 50-50 chance at getting health care."
Obama needs congressional Democrats unified to pass legislation, but liberals are demanding that he act more liberal, while the moderates who give the party its edge worry that more aggressive liberalism in their swing districts will cost them their seats in next year's elections.
"Unless a president lays down a very visible, strong marker, Congress tends to wander," said Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University. "Congress is historically a ship without a keel, and the president provides the keel. There comes a time when he has to step up and put his imprint on policy."
(Steven Thomma and William Douglas contributed to this report.)
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