Obama back from Pacific break to face sea of troubles

Obama back from Pacific break to face sea of troubles

WASHINGTON - US President Barack Obama swaps the sun-dappled golf courses of tropical Hawaii for a Washington in the grip of an Arctic cold snap this weekend, and faces a tough political season ahead.

With his approval rating languishing at near record lows and locked in a Cold War with a surly Congress, he needs quick victories in the run-up to his State of the Union address at the end of the month.

After 16 days of rest in his home state, Obama must oversee the final implementation of his troubled health care reform and find a way to help thousands of long-term unemployed stripped of their benefits.

His National Security Agency is still under legal and political scrutiny after contractor Edward Snowden leaked details of a surveillance programme which one federal judge dubbed "almost Orwellian."

And, after a year in which he struggled to get Congress to support almost any of his plans, he must now go back to lawmakers to try to push through comprehensive immigration reform.

Obama looked tired when he set off for the island of Oahu before Christmas, but put on a brave face, joking: "I am sure that I will have even better ideas after a couple days of sleep and sun."

Those ideas, whatever they may be, had better bear fruit by November, when mid-term elections will decide whether he has a more cooperative Congress for the final two years of his presidency.

Few observers expect Obama's Democrats to win back the House of Representatives, so he is likely to see out his second term with the same Republican majority seeking to thwart his every initiative.

This will add to his frustration, but the low level of support for his party can in large part be traced back to the White House, a still sluggish economy and the disastrous roll-out of the Obamacare health reform.

Obama's personal approval rating is hovering around 40 per cent, sapped by his broken promise that all those happy with their former medical insurance could keep it under Obamacare.

Many in fact can't, and many more were left angry and bewildered by the technical failures that led to the government's online health insurance portal repeatedly crashing.

After the rocky start the system finally lumbered into gear, and by year's end some two million Americans had signed up for health coverage, still far short of the target of seven million by the end of March.

In the meantime, another vulnerable group will be looking to Obama for help - and it is not clear what he can do for them.

On December 28, 1.3 million of America's long-term unemployed lost their federal checks after Congress refused to prolong the budget for the programme.

Republicans argue that America is getting back to work. Joblessness has fallen from 10 per cent of the workforce in 2009, in the midst of the financial crisis, to seven per cent today.

Democrats argue that it makes no sense to cut off the unemployed while the recovery is still so fragile and the consumer spending-led US economy still needs fuel.

Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council, said cutting the benefits "defies economic sense, precedent and our values" but Obama will struggle to get Congress to agree.

And any fight on the economy could harm his efforts to pass immigration reform.

A version of the proposed law favoured by Obama, who would like to grant legal status to millions of immigrants already living illegally in the United States, passed the Democrat-led Senate last year.

But John Boehner, the Republican leader in the House, has said he plans to divide the umbrella law into separate bills, to be debated and voted on piecemeal, thus threatening to dilute the reform.

Without support in the House, Obama's best hope is the power of persuasion for which he was once famed.

His next big outing will be on January 28, when he will lay out his programme and challenge his critics before both houses of Congress at the annual State of the Union.

One challenge that won't wait until then, however, is reform of the National Security Agency.

Obama promised to use his holiday break to review a lengthy internal report into the spy agencies online and telephone snooping, and to propose reforms to limit the scope of its activity.

But this is unlikely to appease Snowden's supporters, who were this week joined by the New York Times editorial board, who appealed for clemency to be shown to the fugitive leaker.

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