Obama’s pressing agenda

Urgent issues await presidential action this fall. How Mr. Obama handles them will say a lot about his presidency.

Larry Downing/Reuters
President Obama (far left) and his family prepare to board Air Force One to return to Washington from the Cape Cod Coast Guard Air Station in Massachusett, Aug. 18. The president will confront a long list of crucial issues this fall, from Egypt and Syria to the budget and his health care plan.

While some Americans put off getting back to work in earnest until after Labor Day, President Obama has already hit the ground running.

His eight days of golf with buddies and bike rides with his family on the Massachusetts resort island of Martha’s Vineyard ended abruptly Sunday night when he returned to the White House.

Confronting him now is an unusually large and difficult array of issues. And although more than three years remain in his presidency, what he does – or doesn’t do – to address them could go a long way toward determining his presidential legacy.

Any effort to rank these issues is subjective. But here’s one take, including what qualities Mr. Obama might need to succeed:

The most important issue (short term): Reach a new spending plan in concert with Congress (and especially the Republican House majority) by Sept. 30. That’s needed to avoid a government shutdown Oct. 1. The United States must also raise its debt ceiling.

Most GOP leaders probably don’t want to cause a shutdown, though they’d like to see more spending cuts as part of the debt-ceiling deal. The quality the president will most need to express: keeping his cool.

Most important issue (long term): the economy. Obama plans a bus tour of the Northeastern US to put forth at least some of his ideas about what to do. When he leaves office in January 2017, Americans will ask if they’re better off than they were in 2009, when he first took the oath of office. If most of them answer “yes,” he likely will have done his job well.

The quality he’ll most need to get it done: persuasion. Obama and the GOP have substantive differences on how to fix the economy, and the president will need to beat his drum persistently on behalf of his ideas if he wants to pull the majority of Americans into his camp.

Toughest foreign challenge: a tie between Syria and Egypt. Syria is the larger humanitarian crisis, at least for now. But Egypt represents a key player in the region, a traditional force for stability and moderation. And it’s also a neighbor of Israel, America’s closest ally.

Neither clash presents an easy solution. The president has shown caution with each. That’s usually a prudent course when no clear best option presents itself. But both situations demand concerted effort to uncover solutions, reduce human suffering, and move toward peace. The qualities he’ll need: many, but perhaps especially wisdom and courage.

Toughest domestic challenge: the need to fund and smoothly implement the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). Republicans feel they have a good chance to stop the ACA before it starts by withholding funding and slowing implementation at the state level, where the GOP holds the majority of governors’ offices and majorities in most state legislatures.

Runner-up: passing immigration reform legislation. Obama’s GOP opponents are divided among themselves on this issue; Republicans in the Senate want to pass bipartisan legislation. But GOP opponents in the House, who first want to address border security and who find the idea of “amnesty” for those already illegally in the US repugnant, will prove hard to win over. The qualities Obama will need: determination coupled with flexibility and open-mindedness, looking for enough consensus to move forward.

The most enjoyable event for Obama? Entertaining members of the 1972 Super Bowl champion Miami Dolphins football team Aug. 20 will be a welcome relief for an embattled president who’s also a big sports fan. The Dolphins were deprived of their traditional White House visit in 1972 because of the turmoil surrounding President Nixon, who resigned on Aug. 8 of that year.

The most satisfying for Obama? Perhaps when he helps to mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech Aug. 28. The clear line that can be drawn between King’s call for racial equality in 1963 and the nation’s first African-American president, who will stand at the Lincoln Memorial as King did, makes an eloquent statement, no matter what words the president decides to utter for the occasion.

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