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Recess to Give Obama the Floor

President Barack Obama will enter the August recess with a series of challenges and disappointments, but also with ownership of the public square as his Congressional opponents scatter for the month.

The president is battling declining approval ratings and growing public concerns about his top domestic priority, health care reform. With Congress heading into recess, the president has a four-week stretch to own the airwaves and try to regain momentum.

But he has his difficulties. Two major polling outfits, Zogby International and Rasmussen, recently put Obama’s approval rating among likely voters at just below 50 percent.

Obama plans to continue pushing his message on health care, even if with slightly less intensity than his feverish pace in July.

“August is an important month, and you’ll see the president talking about health care,— White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday. “I don’t think anyone should assume that we’re leaving the playing field.—

However, the time available for Obama to focus on health care and other issues after the Senate adjourns on Aug. 7 amounts to just a little more than two weeks. Obama will be in Guadalajara, Mexico, for the North American Leaders’ Summit Aug. 9-10 and will spend the last week of August on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard. And a planned visit to at least a couple of national parks by the president — aides will not yet discuss the details — will eat up another few days.

Little if any makeover of Obama’s health care message will be done in August, according to several aides, even though there is evidence the message is not completely getting through.

“It will be the same stuff,— one senior White House official said.

The latest polling, released last week by Fox News and Opinion Dynamics, found less than a ringing endorsement for an overhaul. Forty-nine percent of those polled want health legislation this year, while 48 percent want Congress to do nothing. Thirty-six percent disagree with Obama on timing, saying that Congress is moving too fast, while 30 percent said it is not moving quickly enough and another 30 percent think the pace is about right.

These results come even though Obama has repeatedly emphasized that health care reform is an imperative that must happen this year and that Congress must hasten its pace to get it done. The Senate has already punted the issue to September, while the House is unlikely to get a deal and pass a bill before its Members head home for the recess.

Critically, the Fox News survey shows that people are not buying the White House’s arguments about the cost of health reform. Fifty-four percent said it is unlikely the legislation can be passed without increasing the deficit. Obama’s arguments that the legislation will be deficit-neutral and that he is going to achieve savings are either not being believed or not sinking in, according to this poll — one that found Obama more popular than some others did, with a 54 percent approval rating.

And by a wide margin, people believe the Democratic health proposals will be bad for their own health care, with 45 percent saying their care will get worse compared with 29 percent who think it will improve.

Obama may also have his work cut out for him on climate change legislation. A Washington Post-ABC poll released in June shows that opposition to the cap-and-trade plan has grown. While 52 percent support the legislation, the number of those who oppose it has increased to 42 percent from 34 percent in July 2008.

Another challenge for Obama in August will be to reconcile the latest deficit numbers with his health care plans. The White House has delayed release of the annual Mid-Session Review until August, and the picture isn’t going to get any rosier than it is now.

“I think it’s likely that our budget challenges have become greater, not lesser,— Gibbs said during a briefing last week. “My assumption is you’ve got unemployment which is higher; you’ve got tax revenue which, by definition, because of the lagging economy, is going to be lower. I would assume again that the budget challenges have only become greater.—