For Obama, the hardest part is yet to come

McClatchy NewspapersJune 5, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Forget the first 100 days.

How hard was it, after all, for President Barack Obama to get a Democratic Congress to spend gobs of money? Now come the first real political tests of his presidency, a summer of mounting challenges that will be much more difficult than anything he's faced and that will force him to navigate through pressures from both right and left.

Among them, he's:

  • Tackling the Middle East and putting pressure on Israel, looking to change the status quo but risking political backlash at home and in Israel.
  • Trying to get universal health care, a dream that's eluded Democrats for 60 years and which might require broad tax increases.
  • Pushing a plan to limit emissions that cause global warming, one that has fellow Democrats excited — but also increasingly worried that they could pay a political price if Republicans are right and prices jump as a result.
  • Facing a growing rebellion from his party over the fact that he still has no plan for what to do with the detainees once he closes the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

There will be plenty of other challenges too, including resistance from Republicans to his Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, objections from Democrats to his proposed meager budget cuts and complaints from liberals about his escalation of the war in Afghanistan.

And he's got to do it all while trying to sell more Chevys as the new owner of General Motors.

"There's no question he's heading into a tougher time. Now is when we can determine if he can really be a successful president," said Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota.

Whether Obama will get all he wants is far from clear. Internationally, he has no power to bend countries to his will, whether it's allies such as Israel or belligerents such as North Korea. At home, where he does have power given his party's control of Congress, he'll still find more resistance than he did in his first few months as he pursues a dramatic, even radical, agenda.

Having so many big proposals at one time, said Senate Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin, D-Ill., "is uncharted territory for most of us."

Take Israel.

In his speech to the Muslim world from Cairo this week, Obama again pressed Israel in blunt language to stop adding to settlements in the disputed West Bank. "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements," he said.

That tough talk, arguably the strongest stand against the Israeli settlements since President George H.W. Bush, drew applause from the largely Muslim audience in Cairo.

However, it sparked angry protests outside the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, where one poster featured photos merged together to make it appear that Obama was shaking hands with a smiling Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in front of a mushroom cloud.

It's also raising concerns among Israel supporters in the U.S. "There are people unhappy with the way the settlement issue has been elevated above and beyond all the other issues," said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y.

On health care, Obama this week said that the coming weeks are the "make or break period" to finally enact a plan for universal health care that's been the goal of Democrats since Harry Truman.

In the House of Representatives, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the chamber would pass a health care plan by the end of July. Senate approval of a plan also seems likely, given that the Democrats have pushed through rules that allow them to bypass the threat of a filibuster and pass a plan this fall with 51 votes.

There are political challenges ahead, however, most notably how to pay for it. Perhaps the most controversial idea would make at least some Americans pay income taxes on the value of the health care insurance they receive from their employers — an idea Obama opposed as a presidential candidate. His Republican election opponent, Sen. John McCain, supported it.

Obama told Democrats this week he's now willing to consider it — though he still prefers not to take that step. "It's on the table," said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., after a White House meeting on Tuesday.

Obama also wants a major environmental initiative to cap the emissions that cause global warming. House leaders have told their committees to produce legislation by June 19.

They could be stymied by concerns from Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, and as many as 40 farm-state Democrats that the plan would hurt corn ethanol producers.

At the same time, Republicans argue that it would amount to a tax on energy and drive up costs for everything from gasoline to groceries. That's taking a toll. "People think Republicans are making good points," said Rep. G. K. Butterfield, D-N.C.

On his plans to close Guantanamo Bay, Obama said in Germany Friday that, "look, this is a very difficult issue. It's difficult in my country. It's difficult internationally."

The challenge for Obama is figuring out what to do with the suspected terrorists held there. Obama's not had much luck getting other countries to take them — he said Friday that he didn't even ask German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"We have not asked her for hard commitments, and she has not given us any hard commitments beyond having a serious discussion about are there ways that we can solve this problem," Obama said.

At home, Democrats are balking at giving Obama money to proceed with the prison shutdown unless and until he can assure them that the detainees won't be sent to U.S. prisons.

The Senate voted 90-6 last month to reject his request for funding to start the shutdown process. Even as Obama headed to Germany on Thursday, the House voted 412-12 to bar Guantanamo detainees from flying on commercial aircraft in the U.S. if they're released here.

On Afghanistan, where he's sending more troops to fight a resurgent Taliban, Obama's facing complaints from the party's liberal wing. Last month, 51 House Democrats voted against the $96.7 billion emergency war spending bill, largely because they objected to the lack of a plan for the Afghanistan war.

"I get a sense of mission creep," said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.

Ultimately, these summer tests could determine just how much Obama will be able to remake America's economy and foreign policy.

"His biggest ambitions are really up in the next year," Schier said. "They're also extremely difficult to achieve. Even if he succeeds, it's going to be far more costly and difficult than anything he's done before."

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