- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Even as President Obama is meeting in Washington this week with world leaders — 49 of them — his administration has been taking on the more mundane tasks such as steering the first stages of health care implementation and vowing to make more progress on cutting pork-barrel spending.

Mr. Obama may have pivoted to international affairs after a long struggle over health care, but the White House is well aware that domestic issues likely will determine the outcome of this year’s midterm congressional elections. And Mr. Obama has plenty of issues piled up.

His administration is making a full-court press on a financial regulatory overhaul while eyeing other priorities such as the budget, energy and immigration, not to mention the latest addition to the mix of nominating a new Supreme Court justice. Analysts say Mr. Obama has to push through all the big-ticket items he can this year, considering his party is slated to suffer losses in November.

“The reason Obama is doing so much in such a short period of time is because he’s already accepted reality — he knows he will never again have close to this number of Democrats in either house, even if he serves eight years, so if he can’t get the tough things done now he’s probably never going to get them done,” said Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

Indeed, Mr. Sabato’s latest predictions peg the GOP at picking up seven seats in the Senate and 27 in the House, if the elections were held now.

Mr. Obama is finding that juggling domestic and foreign policies is a reality of his job. Even in a first year dominated by arguments over the stimulus and health care laws, Mr. Obama had to make a key decision on troop levels in the war in Afghanistan and grapple with an attempted terrorist attack suspected to be linked to al Qaeda in Yemen.

Brookings Institution scholar Stephen Hess said that recent weeks, in which Mr. Obama signed an arms reduction treaty with Russia before hosting dozens of leaders in Washington to discuss nuclear security, shouldn’t distort the fact that the president has spent the majority of his time on national issues.

“By and large, a very substantial majority of the president’s first year, if you were measuring it with a stopwatch, would have been spent on domestic affairs,” said Mr. Hess, a senior fellow emeritus at the think tank.

Presidents are more likely to focus on global issues later in their terms for two main reasons, he added.

“The rule of thumb is the longer a president stays in office, the more of their time and effort is spent on international affairs and partly it has to do with their legacy or their place in history because historians seem to honor the foreign policy presidents and the longer they’re in office the more they think about that,” he said. And, “in some ways, they have a good deal more control. They can get on a plane and go to Warsaw and everybody gets out and waves to them when they march down the street. When they come home, everyone is booing and saying bad things and so forth.”

Coincidentally, the White House announced Tuesday afternoon that Mr. Obama would be traveling to Poland this weekend to attend the funeral of the Eastern European ally’s president and his wife, who died in a plane crash along with key government officials last weekend. The late addition to the president’s schedule underscores how quickly new obligations can arise.

While Mr. Obama had planned to turn his focus to jobs and the economy once he pushed through his marquee health care overhaul, his attention to international security has yielded some high-profile successes. In addition to signing the arms treaty with Russia, Mr. Obama has won concessions from world leaders at the nuclear summit in Washington this week, including a pledge from Ukraine to give up its weapons-grade uranium and a decision by Russia to shut down its final plutonium reactor.

The White House has even claimed progress this week on pushing China to back tougher U.N. sanctions against Iran over the nation’s suspected nuclear-weapons program, though Chinese leaders have publicly given mixed signals.

On the domestic front, analysts cite financial reform as a requirement in the coming weeks — a sentiment that the White House itself has echoed. But the time for legislating is shrinking.

The House and Senate have just begun work on budgets for fiscal 2011, and are certain to miss the April 15 deadline for passing the measure. With elections looming, lawmakers in both chambers will want to spend ever more time back home campaigning.

Most political analysts say this year’s congressional elections will turn on major domestic issues such as health care, the state of the economy and the growth of federal spending.

With health care reform completed and with Congress in charge of spending, Mr. Obama’s roles are limited. But this week, his administration did take some action. On the new health care law, the Department of Health and Human Services began to take public comment on how to implement the initiative, while on spending, the White House’s budget director announced a final tally of pork-barrel projects included in the spending bills Congress passed last year, while vowing to crack down in future appropriations bills.

Part of Mr. Obama’s domestic challenge is making good on his campaign promises to various constituencies. He told gay-rights supporters he would end the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gays serving in the military, and promised Hispanic and immigrant-rights groups that he would complete a bill that legalizes illegal immigrants.

Efforts are under way in Congress to follow through on those pledges but are likely to face resistance.

“There’s not enough time and a lot of the Democrats feel like they’ve already taken enough tough votes for the White House,” Mr. Sabato said.