Despite all increasingly alarmed concern over his approval numbers, President Barack Obama is still flying high with the American people—even as we watch to see if his presidency runs aground as a result of his efforts to reform the nation's health care system. The doom and gloom story of August was that health care was in trouble, and as health care goes, so goes the Obama presidency.
September, though, has been all about the rebound. The president acknowledged in word and deed last Sunday when he appeared on five—count 'em—Sunday morning talk shows that he has not yet been able to adequately sell the American people on health care.
“I think there have been times where I have said, 'I've got to step up my game in terms of talking to the American people about issues like health care,'" he said. The Sunday morning blitz was supposed to constitute part of the stepped-up game.
But this week, the president has been about everything but health care. He's been dealing with a wide range of issues from David Letterman to climate change, to the future of Middle East to the appropriate compensation for CEOs. This week he will became the first American president to chair a meeting of the U.N. Security Council. Today, he delivers his first remarks as president to the U.N. General Assembly. Then it's on to Pittsburgh for the G20 on Thursday, where he’ll deal with the fate of the world financial system.
Whither health care, you might ask, at this crucial time?
The Senate Finance Committee this week is working its way through a much-disputed health care proposal known as the Baucus plan, which by necessity, will have to be at the heart of any realistic health care reform package. This, essentially, is the only avenue for compromise because it is the one proposal that seeks to incorporate all the conflicting concerns from both Democrats and Republicans. Conventional wisdom would have it that the president should be in Washington, shepherding the Baucus plan to safer ground. And yet, the president's schedule is too important and too complicated to be used intentionally for political misdirection. This shift in focus, away from health care to international issues, however brief, is exactly what Obama needs politically. It may even help him with the health care free-for-all by lowering the temperature around the debate of the Baucus proposal.
This week, Obama will have the opportunity to remind Americans what they like about him—his leadership. In a recent Gallup Poll, released Monday, 72 percent of Americans said that they thought Obama was willing to make hard decisions; 66 percent said he was a strong and decisive leader and 64 percent of them said he can get things done. Those are remarkable numbers given the beating he has taken on health care this summer.
And there is little doubt that these high marks are the results of the president's performance in the darkest days of the financial crisis and his meticulous, early globe-trotting aimed at repairing the U.S. image in the world. This week, he get to step into that role again.
Following Tuesday’s speech on climate change and his gentle tongue-lashing of Mideast leaders for their recalcitrant approach to peace, Obama's speech today to the General Assembly is expected to focus on his four priorities: nonproliferation, peacekeeping, development and more climate change. It is a 15-minute speech that will deal with North Korea and Iran, conflict in the Middle East and Africa, and global economic development. It'll be a chance to talk tough and look tough—important currency for a president so embattled on health care at home.
In Pittsburgh, the focus of the G20 will be further stabilization of the global financial system. This will provide Obama with the opportunity to remind Americans of the crisis he inherited nine months ago, and how he dealt with it—bringing us “back from the abyss,” as the White House likes to describe it.
Back in April, following the first meeting of the G20 in London, Obama delivered a speech that was intended to calm fears about his plans for the economy. “In just under three months,” he said, “we have responded to an extraordinary set of economic challenges with extraordinary action—action that has been unprecedented in both its scale and its speed.”
His big brag, however, was this: “I think even our critics would agree that at the very least, we've been busy.”
Now in the 34th week of his presidency, there are more critics, but they still have to agree that, at the very least, he’s keeping busy.
Terence Samuel is The Root’s deputy editor.