FACTBOX-Healthcare, war, climate on Obama's tough agenda

Sun Sep 6, 2009 8:01am EDT

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Sept 6 (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama returns from vacation on Tuesday facing a long list of challenges on his foreign and domestic policy agenda. Here are where things stand on some major issues:

HEALTHCARE REFORM - Obama's top domestic priority, the plan to overhaul the costly U.S. healthcare system, has drawn intense fire from opponents and cut into Obama's approval ratings as Americans worry about what the nearly $1 trillion scheme could mean for the growing U.S. budget deficit.

Three committees in the House of Representatives have approved their sections of a comprehensive healthcare bill, but no Republicans have backed them. The Senate Health Committee also approved a bill with no Republican votes. But the focus has been on the Senate Finance Committee, where months of negotiations with three Republican senators to produce a bipartisan bill have not yielded a deal, signaling a nasty battle to pass a plan after Congress returns from its break on Tuesday.

Obama is completing work on a new strategy aimed at countering opposition to an overhaul, a senior administration official said. The president will address a joint session of Congress on Wednesday to revitalize his push for healthcare reform.

One option is for Obama to lay out a more specific vision of what he wants for healthcare reform, an official said. A CBS News poll this week said most Americans think Obama has not clearly explained his plans to overhaul the system.

THE ECONOMY - Obama signed his $787 billion economic stimulus plan in February, and has started to cautiously claim credit for some improved data. But with most economists expecting U.S. unemployment to reach 10 percent, it is too soon to talk with confidence of recovery.

There is still periodic talk that another stimulus plan may be needed, but the administration was waiting and watching -- and hoping for a better jobs picture.

U.S. unemployment data released on Friday showed the jobless rate climbed to 9.7 percent in August, a bigger-than-expected jump that suggested weak consumer spending could impede recovery from the worst recession in seven decades. But the pace of layoffs has eased from early this year.

CLIMATE CHANGE - The Obama administration would like to have a climate change law in place before international talks in Copenhagen in December. But oil, agriculture and manufacturing firms have lined up in opposition, saying it would add costs without guaranteeing environmental gains.

The House narrowly passed legislation to cut carbon emissions and Senate Democrats are expected to introduce their version of a sweeping bill. But it was unclear whether the full Senate will pass anything this year, despite the White House expressing a willingness to be flexible on its wish list.

Senate Democrats said they would not unveil their legislation until later this month, a timetable that has slipped several times since July as the Senate became bogged down in the struggle over healthcare reform.

FINANCIAL REGULATORY REFORM - The Obama administration's plan to overhaul U.S. financial regulation is bogging down in Congress. Analysts say Democrats will be hard-pressed to enact tighter bank and capital market rules by the end of the year, a deadline imposed months ago by the White House.

Analysts see two possible outcomes. One would be that financial regulation reform simply drags into 2010. Another possibility could be passage of a 'reform lite' package containing proposals that already enjoy wide support, plus watered-down versions of more controversial measures.

AFGHANISTAN - U.S. combat deaths have risen since Obama announced a new strategy and ordered a troop buildup to Afghanistan, where a resurgent Taliban has confounded NATO-led efforts to stabilize the country.

The situation is deteriorating, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, acknowledged. Support for the war among Americans is also declining. U.S. officials were awaiting the outcome of the Aug. 20 Afghan election, which still had unclear results.

The top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal, said this week that the situation was serious but winnable. He is expected to ask for more troops, which could be politically difficult for Obama, with Democrats increasingly uneasy about the war and as congressional elections come up next year.

IRAQ - Obama has declared that the Iraq war will end for the United States by 2012, when remaining U.S. troops are due to withdraw after invading in 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein. But a recent surge in bomb attacks that have killed scores of Iraqis and targeted government ministries has raised questions about the Iraqis ability to combat al Qaeda and other militants before elections due in January.

Obama's efforts to extricate U.S. troops on schedule could be complicated if Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki asks Washington for military help. Obama is banking on saving billions of dollars from winding down U.S. operations in Iraq to help cut a record budget deficit.

IRAN - Obama has set late September as a deadline for Iran to respond to his diplomatic overtures. However, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was severely weakened by a disputed election and Iran watchers say he is too preoccupied with shoring up his base and getting a restive parliament to approve his Cabinet to engage with Washington.

Obama's policy of engagement contrasts starkly with the Bush administration's efforts to isolate the Islamic Republic, but so far has not yielded noticeable results. Senior administration officials have warned of tougher sanctions if Iran does not respond to the offer of talks by late September.

Iranian state television this week quoted Tehran's chief nuclear negotiator as saying Iran has prepared an updated nuclear proposal and is ready to talk to world powers.

But a senior U.S. official was dismissive of the remarks, saying there was "not a hint of substance" in them.

ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN CONFLICT - Obama has made jump-starting Middle East peace talks a top foreign policy priority but so far has made little progress.

Moderate Arab states have rebuffed his appeal to make conciliatory gestures to encourage Israel to halt settlement building in occupied territory, and the Jewish state's right-leaning government has ignored his call for a freeze on settlement construction.

On Friday the White House reacted with dismay to word that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will authorize the building of several hundred new settler homes on occupied land before considering a freeze.

A settlement deal would end the most serious rift in U.S.-Israeli relations in a decade and could lead to an announcement by Obama, during the U.N. General Assembly later this month, of a resumption of Middle East peace talks. A breakthrough would boost Obama's efforts to rebuild the U.S. image in the Muslim world.

CIA PROSECUTIONS - U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder named a special prosecutor to probe prisoner abuse cases, after the Justice Department's ethics watchdog recommended considering prosecution of CIA employees or contractors for harsh interrogations in Iraq and Afghanistan during former President George W. Bush's administration.

The decision is likely to roil Washington, as Obama wrestles with other issues on his agenda. But the White House said the president was leaving the matter in the hands of Holder, whom Obama appointed to be an "independent" attorney general.

APPROVAL RATINGS - Obama is struggling to maintain popular approval as Americans express doubts about his handling of the U.S. economy, healthcare and Afghanistan. Opinion polls show Obama's approval rating has drifted down to about 50 percent from 68 percent when he took office in January. Pollster John Zogby says to some extent Obama is a victim of high expectations. "Here's a new president, young and dynamic, lots of promise and promises, and this is what happens," he said. (Compiled by Ross Colvin, Patricia Zengerle and Eric Beech; Editing by Xavier Briand)

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