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The Rose Garden: Obama’s Christmas Not Quite So Merry as Last Year

It was Christmas 2008 for Barack Obama, and there was not a Grinch in sight. The newly elected president spent much of the week sequestered with his family in gorgeous Kailua, Hawaii, soaking up the warmth of Oahu and wading in the blue Pacific. Or perhaps, given his popularity and the expectations for his presidency, Obama might have simply been walking on water instead.

[IMGCAP(1)]But what looms this year is a decidedly un-merry Christmas. While Senate passage of a health care bill would help keep the measure alive, there will be few other presents under the tree. The man who could do little wrong on the campaign trail has run

into the reality of governing and a Congress with a lot of its own ideas about what needs to be done.

As progress on his agenda has slowed, the president’s approval rating has fallen below 50 percent in two of the most recent major polls, lower than any modern president except Bill Clinton one year after first being elected. His initial approval mark of 68 percent, according to Gallup, ranked him almost at the top of postwar presidents at the beginning of their presidencies.

The decline makes it more difficult for the president to apply pressure on lawmakers to back his agenda. Had the health care bill been heading into its last lap with Obama’s numbers in the stratosphere, his urgings would have been nearly impossible for Democrats — and maybe even some Republicans — to resist.

Obama this December plans to continue the type of personal lobbying of Senators that he has done in recent weeks on the health care bill, according to one White House aide. With solid Democratic backing for the measure uncertain, Obama is likely to work his charm on Republicans, too.

“He will continue to meet with influential Senators on both sides of the aisle,— the aide said. “He [met last Tuesday] with Speaker Pelosi one on one,— the aide noted. “I would anticipate he will do more of that kind of thing.— Another visit to Capitol Hill is not out of the question, aides say.

Obama’s popularity has declined even though the economy has come back from the precipice since he became president. But many Americans facing a gloomy Christmas want their stockings stuffed with jobs, not just improving gross domestic product figures.

Most economists believe job growth is still months away — probably the second quarter of next year. Meanwhile, Obama will be dogged by his economic advisers’ disastrous prediction early this year that the stimulus would keep unemployment below 8 percent. It’s currently just above 10 percent.

And speaking of the stimulus, the president is facing growing demands in his Caucus for another one. He will be tagged by Republicans as a big spender if additional expenditures are not offset by cuts. But if it is “paid for,— it will be hard to define as a stimulus, since the measure will no longer be a net infusion of new cash into the economy.

And then there are the annual appropriations bills. Most of them are long overdue and arriving with spending totals well over Obama’s request. If the president is forced to sign an omnibus spending bill, as some expect, he and Democrats will be open to the charge that they can’t run the government. And if he does not veto spending bills that come in with a higher price tag than he requested and hundreds of earmarks, Republicans will have a new reason to charge that Obama is not serious about reducing the deficit.

Another top priority for the president — climate change legislation — is on life support. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) made the grim news official with his announcement that the Senate would not consider the measure until spring of next year.

Putting aside the Senate’s well-established track record of letting deadlines slip, the prospect of passing what Republicans call the “cap and tax— bill would seem uncertain at best just as the campaign season begins heating up.

And Obama’s decision to send more troops to Afghanistan is likely to invite at least as much criticism as praise. The president is jammed from both ends of the political spectrum. His liberal allies want no escalation of the war, while conservatives have sought no less than the 40,000 troops requested by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.

In a clear signal that his Afghanistan policy will require some serious salesmanship, the president has decided that he will deliver his speech officially announcing his decision at West Point on Tuesday. Obama will first meet with House and Senate leaders to discuss his strategy.

The big box under the tree this year — passage of a Senate health care bill — would be a lonely gift. And it won’t be ready for unwrapping. The measure would still need to be reconciled with the House bill and then be cleared again by both chambers.

Obama will be back in Oahu this year for Christmas, sources say. He will have less to be merry about than last year. But at least it will be warm, pleasant and 5,000 miles from Washington.

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