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OFF TO THE RACES

Another Test For Obama

This Week Will Be Critical For Defining The Trajectory Going Into Next Year

It is trite to say that any given week is of critical importance for the president of the United States. In that job, every week either is or has the potential to be pretty critical. However, in terms of defining the trajectory for the next year, the year that leads into the report card known more commonly as the midterm elections, this week is pretty key. Other issues that have been pushed aside by health care reform will come front and center once it is out of the way, most likely next year.

Tonight's speech by President Obama on Afghanistan will seek to lay out a rationale, a set of objectives and a strategy that has not been obvious.

 

Polls show the American people are divided and cross-pressured on this war. They view it somewhat differently than they did the war in Iraq at its lowest point, but they have similar concerns that it can turn into a quagmire.

They are seeking to understand what the president wants to do and why, how he plans to do it, how we ultimately get out of there and what the costs will be.

The business community does not have enough confidence in the durability of this recovery to begin meaningful hiring, and banks are not providing enough lending to finance it.

 

Whether the president was being extremely deliberate in this policy formulation process or if he was dithering, the public needs to have confidence in knowing that he and his top military and civilian leadership are doing this right. By this time next week, we might know if he has succeeded.

On Thursday, the president has the jobs summit, where he will be challenged to show that he didn't just "check the box" on the economy with his stimulus package early this year, only to move on to issues nearer to his heart like health care, as some critics suggest. Democrats now seem to understand that they need to bring the health care bill to a close and move on. Most Americans do not recall health care as the pillar of his campaign last year, nor do they see it as what should be the centerpiece of a presidency and a country facing a tough recession.

While, to a certain extent, the job summit is a media event designed to show the president's concern and commitment to creating jobs and reducing the ranks of the unemployed, it is also very real.

There are legitimate fears that although the U.S. economy is coming out of this recession, the recovery is so fragile that once the economic stimulus is pretty much spent sometime next year, the economy might not be able to stand on its own and create jobs, and might even tumble into another recession.

 

The business community does not have enough confidence in the durability of this recovery to begin meaningful hiring, and banks are not providing enough lending to finance it. To that extent, this summit will be real; an attempt to cast a broad net for any ideas that can stimulate real job creation beyond what was created in the stimulus package.

Lost amid the holidays are some interesting dynamics involving the president's job approval ratings. Let's focus exclusively on the Gallup Organization's three-night moving average tracking polls. The first polls were conducted Jan. 21-23.

Obama received a 68 percent job approval rating in that first survey. The 300th track, conducted Nov. 16-18, gave him a 50 percent approval rating. That made 300 consecutive three-night moving averages with the president's approval rating at or above 50 percent. That was, until the Nov. 17-19 average, when he dipped to 49 percent, and remained at either 48 or 49 percent each day until the November 25-28 average -- Thanksgiving Day was skipped -- which showed him back above 50 percent at 51 percent approval, with 41 percent disapproving. Those same numbers were reported Monday, as well.

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With Obama spending just over a week below 50 percent, the question is whether the president's approval ratings have ratcheted down one notch and found a new, slightly lower floor than before, or whether this was just a temporary dip from what has been a very steady level since August.

Two nights in a row are not enough to show that the president's numbers have not reached an inflection point, but it is important to note that a floor was penetrated and that there has been some strong downward pressure on his approval ratings in recent weeks. Thus, this week's events are important on a second level as well.

One unfortunate aspect of the likelihood of health care reform spilling over into next year is that it interferes with the end of this year. The year-end retrospectives could help create a reset point for this president, a clean break between this first admittedly messy year and next year, when the agenda looks likely to be pretty different from what we saw this year. It would obviously be cleaner to turn the corner over December and January, but that will be more difficult now.

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