David Usborne: Out of Africa - and into trouble

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The Independent US

It's not quite a six-month itch, but even fans of Barack Obama are getting anxious about his ability to handle the suddenly daunting array of political challenges before him, whether it is stubbornly rising unemployment, trouble in Afghanistan or an increasingly wobbly prognosis for his healthcare reform plan.

Even as he was travelling in Italy and west Africa last week, Mr Obama found himself tending to fires back at home, notably Republican claims that his $787bn (£485bn) economic stimulus programme is not working. This morning, meanwhile, he will preside over a town hall meeting in Michigan to try to give his healthcare agenda an urgent boost. He may hold yet one more press conference this week, and pay visits to New York and New Jersey.

If Mr Obama is pushing a brutal pace, it is because his reservoir of goodwill is showing signs of ebbing dry. A Gallup poll puts his approval rating at 57 per cent, still enviable by most standards, but down from 64 per cent in early June. More shocking was a poll in Ohio last week that gave him a statewide approval rating of less than 50 per cent.

"The guy made big promises and said, 'Yes, we can,' but the question still is, 'Can he?'" noted Doug Schoen, a Democratic consultant and former Clinton pollster. "The reason he is trying to do as much as he can so quickly is he knows his approval rating is a depreciating asset. As soon as that goes below 50 per cent he's in trouble." He added: "Failure begets failure, and failure here would raise questions about his ability to lead on a lot of issues."

Mr Obama has always risked being the victim of expectations raised too high. But beyond that, it may be the economy and the recovery that never quite arrives that will impede him the most. Unemployment has already hit double digits in many states. On Saturday, he used his weekly radio address to fend off Republican criticism of the stimulus programme, insisting it was never "designed to work in four months".

In recent days, he has similarly been obliged to plead for patience in Afghanistan, where 103 Americans have died this year already, even as offensive operations there only just start to intensify.

But nothing haunts the President more keenly than the possibility that his healthcare reform effort might falter. While he was abroad, voices in Congress were warning that an August deadline set by the White House for legislation to be passed – before members leave Washington for the summer recess – will almost certainly be missed.

Any such loss of momentum could spell big trouble for the White House. It will give critics the chance through the summer break to throw their rocks at whatever bill is taking shape and galvanise opposition to block it.

But even Mr Obama's allies think the August deadline has become unrealistic. "I don't think we'll be through the floor during this work period," said Kent Conrad, a Democrat senator. "I think that's too big a lift."

For Republicans, the coming weeks may provide the first real opportunities for chink-picking in the Obama armour.

And so, there in the Rose Garden yesterday was Mr Obama, ostensibly introducing a new US Surgeon General, crossly pushing back. "I want to put everybody on notice, because there was a lot of chatter while I was gone. We are going to get this done. Inaction is not an option. Don't bet against us, we are going to make this happen," he said. "We are now closer to the goal of healthcare reform than we have ever been." Most analysts will say some kind of health reform will happen, but it may not look much like what Mr Obama envisages now.

Meanwhile, another distraction is looming – the clamour for an inquiry into the activities of the Bush administration and the CIA in its "war on terror", spurred by reports that the CIA withheld key information from Congress on orders from the former vice-president Dick Cheney. Mr Obama would rather leave the past alone, lest a lengthy prying into the past saps energy from his main reform agenda. But even his own party may not heed him now.

"To have a massive programme that was concealed from the leaders in Congress is not only inappropriate, it could be illegal," noted Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, one of Mr Obama's most important allies on Capitol Hill.

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