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With new priorities, Obama and Democrats can recover in 2010

By Dan Balz
Sunday, December 27, 2009; A02

No president gets a fresh start after just one year on the job. But given the size of the problems President Obama inherited and the battles he chose to take on during his first year, 2010 could provide an opportunity for something close to hitting the reset button -- if he and his team are prepared to seize the opening.

The long and acrimonious legislative fight over health-care reform is nearing an end. Barring unforeseen circumstances, Obama will begin his second year in office with a signing ceremony on a historic piece of social welfare legislation. That won't end the controversy over its provisions, but it will move health care from its dominant position in the national debate. What comes next will determine how well Obama can rebound after the hits he has taken.

The president, say his advisers, viewed health care as a once-in-a-lifetime struggle and a fight that could not wait. To have postponed it until 2010 would have meant trying to pass the bill in an election year. To have waited until 2011 would have risked having to take on the battle with reduced majorities in the House and Senate.

Like Democrats everywhere, White House officials are keenly aware that, after two elections in which the party made significant gains, losses will be inevitable in November. The health-care debate has damaged the president's approval ratings and the cohesiveness of the coalition that elected him. The question is how significant.

Neither the president nor his advisers believe the political outlook -- for Obama or the party -- is as gloomy as some forecasters are projecting. They see the first months of the new year as a time for a pivot that will help restore his standing and help hold down losses in the midterm elections in November.

What are the elements that might allow that to happen?

First is to refocus on the economy. White House officials think the anger toward Washington around the country is far more the result of the economy and high unemployment than the health-care debate. But unemployment remains a pernicious political problem. Obama and congressional Democrats will make job creation their top priority in 2010.

Many Democrats have complained that Obama allowed the health-care debate to distract his attention from the economy. In their estimation, the most important thing he can do, for the country and for the party's political health, is to spend considerably more time working to create jobs and going around the country to show he is paying attention. If the unemployment rate drops, White House officials think, Obama's approval ratings will rise and Democrats' electoral prospects will improve.

Second is to move Congress off stage. The legislative struggle over health care has dominated Washington for more than six months, often eclipsing the president in attention, to the detriment of Obama and lawmakers. The final dealmaking in the Senate looked tawdry, though perhaps not atypical for any closely fought legislative battle.

But the longer Congress remained in the spotlight, the more disapproving the public was of its performance. With the health-care battle almost complete, Congress may play a less-central role in setting the 2010 agenda. From the White House's perspective, that can't come soon enough.

Third is for Obama to get serious about the deficit and spending. This has been the unfulfilled pledge of his administration and one that has cost him politically, particularly among independent voters. Six in 10 independents give Obama negative marks on the deficit, according to a mid-December Washington Post-ABC News poll.

White House officials said that preventing an economic depression required a great deal of spending on unpopular causes, such as bailing out bankers and automakers. They also argue that much of the structural deficit that exists is the result of decisions by previous administrations. All of that is true, but it is now Obama's problem. His State of the Union address and upcoming budget will provide tangible evidence of how serious he is about the problem.

Obama also may look for an opportunity to take on congressional earmarks. He blinked earlier this year on a major spending bill filled with special provisions for lawmakers back home, fearing a veto would rupture his relations with Capitol Hill and significantly lessen the chances of getting other priorities enacted. Whether he's prepared to challenge congressional spending habits in 2010 could be a major test of his commitment to reforming Washington as he promised.

Fourth is to avoid overloading the circuits. White House officials concede that happened this year, but out of necessity. Obama pushed a huge stimulus package and the bailouts in his first months, then a huge health-care package that has consumed the rest of the year. He also prodded Congress to take on controversial climate-change legislation, among other issues. The House took tough votes on the energy bill. The measure is awaiting action in the Senate.

Democrats outside the White House worry that the administration will rush ahead with plans to enact energy legislation in 2010 and that it will also try to force action on comprehensive immigration reform, another politically volatile issue. The administration and members of Congress have been working on both issues out of sight. There will be political pressures to deal with these from parts of the Obama coalition.

But there appears to be far less appetite to try to force Congress to enact measures that could come at a high cost politically, unless there is clear bipartisan support. At a minimum, the cap-and-trade provisions of the energy bill will probably have to wait for another year.

In year-end interviews, the president has said his legislative record stacks up well with those of his predecessors. He also thinks that, given what he had to take on, his approval ratings were going to suffer significantly. He will begin the new year with the economy in better shape than it was last year, with health care -- but with much unfinished business and still much to prove.

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