Obama looks to rebound from tough week

WASHINGTON Sun Jul 26, 2009 5:16pm EDT

1 of 2. U.S. President Barack Obama listens to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton prior to signing a proclamation celebrating the 19th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act in the East Room at the White House in Washington, July 24, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Jim Young

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Barack Obama will look to rebound from one of the most difficult weeks of his six-month presidency, one in which his legislative priority, healthcare, stumbled and he got caught up in a racial controversy.

Obama has the task of keeping up the momentum on his proposed $1 trillion overhaul of the U.S. healthcare system, after internal divisions broke out among Obama's Democrats who control the U.S. Congress.

The Senate delayed action until the fall and the House of Representatives is lurching toward a possible vote before the August recess but may be forced to wait as well.

Obama's soaring rhetoric helped him win the presidency and propelled his first months in Washington. But despite his frequent speeches declaring a healthcare revamp is urgently needed to help rebuild the U.S. economy, Americans are still expressing some uncertainty.

A Gallup poll released on Friday said only 41 percent of those surveyed wanted legislation approved this year, and the poll was done on Thursday night, one day after Obama's healthcare-dominated news conference.

Other poll results paint a picture of an apparent rough patch for the president, as he tries to steer the country out of a lingering recession while pushing an ambitious agenda of making healthcare more affordable and accessible and addressing global warming.

He still has a job approval rating well over 50 percent in most polls, clear evidence the president remains personally well-liked, although his numbers are lower than they were in the national euphoria immediately after he took power.

But Americans are beginning to sour on his economic policies. A USA Today/Gallup poll last week said that by 49 percent to 47 percent, those surveyed disapprove of how he is handling the economy, a turnaround from his 55 percent to 42 percent approval in May.

The poll said the biggest drop came from conservative and moderate Democrats.

Fifty-nine percent said his proposals called for too much government spending, the poll found.

GATES FLAP

At his Wednesday news conference, Obama diverted from healthcare briefly and it got him into trouble.

It was in answer to a question about the arrest of a prominent black scholar at Harvard University, Henry Louis Gates.

Gates, a friend of Obama's, accused Cambridge, Massachusetts, police Sergeant James Crowley of racist behavior when Crowley arrested him after Gates forced open the door of his own home and was mistakenly suspected of a break-in.

Obama, the first black U.S. president and one who projects an image of calmness and rectitude, said police had "acted stupidly."

The remark intensified the controversy and eventually forced Obama to back down in a surprise appearance in the White House press briefing room on Friday in which he said he regretted the remark.

The White House hopes a planned meeting over a beer between Obama, Crowley and Gates in the near future will defuse a contretemps that Obama admitted had become a distraction.

"I don't know if you've noticed, but nobody has been paying much attention to healthcare," he told reporters.

Obama has a trip planned on Wednesday to southern Virginia and to North Carolina to talk up his healthcare plans and White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said he would continue talking about it throughout August.

"August isn't being rejiggered to address healthcare. We always knew for months that we would be discussing this issue," said Gibbs.

Despite the machinations on Capitol Hill, Obama and his aides remain optimistic he will be able to sign healthcare legislation by the end of the year.

"It has taken months to reach this point, and once this legislation passes, we'll need to move thoughtfully and deliberately to implement these reforms over a period of several years. That is why I feel such a sense of urgency about moving this process forward," Obama said in his weekly radio address.

(Editing by Eric Beech)

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