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Obama persists on a broad front as polls dip

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Obama persists on a broad front as polls dip
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President Barack Obama has so loaded up the policy circuits this month that you'd expect a govern-ment-wide blackout any minute.

Still, in spite of declining approval ratings for him and most of his policies, he's decided to persist -- on Afghanistan, health care, jobs, climate change and deficit reduction. Give him credit for courage and tenacity, even if all the details aren't right.

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For instance, in his otherwise well-balanced Afghanistan speech Tuesday night, the president ought to have made more than a one-word reference to aiding democracy in Pakistan.

Even though the year-old civilian government there is strongly anti-terrorist, it's besieged by adversaries, including elements in the army, the media and the intelligence services who claim it's a "lackey" of Washington.

Even though the Afghan-istan-Pakistan speech and health care are at the front of the media agenda, I'd say Obama's most important activity this week was Thursday's jobs summit and what might flow from it.

Job creation -- legitimately -- is the No. 1 issue in the minds of voters and members of Congress.

The mid-November Washington Post/ABC poll showed that Obama's approval rating on the economy has dropped from 60 percent in March to 51 percent, though, objectively, he's probably not getting the credit he deserves.

Obama inherited what amounts to an economic 9/11 and his stimulus package, plus bank bailouts and action by the Federal Reserve, really did stave off calamity -- at least so far.

As a White House official told me in an interview, "I've heard a lot of criticism about how we did all this spending to no effect.

"The truth is, most economists from right to left agree that the stimulus package had a great deal to do with growth in the third quarter.

"Now the same people who were criticizing us for doing something that had no impact are saying 'Yeah, we had growth, but it was only because of the stimulus package.' Well, you've got to choose a horse and ride it."

Indeed, on Monday, the Congressional Budget Office reported that the stimulus raised GDP in the third quarter by between 1.2 and 3.2 percent above what it would have been and increased employment by 600,000 to 1.6 million.

But unemployment still was at 10.2 percent in October and may be higher when November figures come out.

Even though liberal economists and members of Congress are arguing for a new stimulus package, a White House official told me, "there's a limit to what government can do in terms of these cycles. Some of it just has to work its way through the system.

"We also have a fiscal crisis, so if we overspend to create minimum effects, it just adds to another problem," he said.

Still, Obama has to -- and presumably will -- do something to stimulate job creation, and it might help if he tried tax cuts for small business as well as possible infrastructure spending and aid to state and local governments.

A tax credit or corporate tax reduction for firms that add jobs to their payrolls might even pay for themselves in tax revenue.

My opinion is that Obama should have concentrated in his first year on the economic crisis and financial services reform to prevent it from happening again -- plus Afghanistan and Iran -- but he's determined to push forward on a broad front.

Financial reform is unconscionably delayed, and banks are paying out big bonuses while not lending, but it's probable Obama will get a health-reform bill to sign by the time he delivers his State of the Union address.

Polls show that a majority of voters disapprove of the health-care bills making their way through Congress, but administration officials say they are delighted with their progress and with the contents, especially, of the Senate's measure.

On Wednesday, Obama Budget Director Peter Orszag declared, "We stand on the verge of a dramatic accomplishment--not only meeting the moral imperative as the world's foremost economic power in dramatically (reduced) the rates of its uninsured, not only doing it in a fiscally responsible way, but also putting in place the key tools that will lead to the health system of the future, emphasizing quality and not quantity."

He's relying on features of the Senate bill -- a commission to impose Medicare cuts, taxation of high-priced insurance plans, digital medical records and tests of provider payment reforms -- to hold down costs, but some of them are opposed by House Democrats.

Democrats in both the House and Senate, too, are resisting his 30,000-troop surge in Afghanistan -- now widely labeled "escalation" -- even though he tried to assure them he has an exit strategy in mind.

And on it goes -- Obama will be heading off to the Copenhagen climate summit even though his cap-and-trade bill seems dead in the Senate. He'll make commitments there to go along with new promises won from China and India, but it remains to be seen whether any action will lessen emissions.

Obama has sent so many policy ships out to sea that at least some of them should return successfully. But some could crash on the rocks -- and if that includes job creation, he's in trouble.

Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.

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