Can Obama drink his way out of trouble?

 President Barack Obama hosts a white police officer and an eminent black scholar at the White House on Thursday, hoping in the process to quell a heated national furor over racial profiling.

Obama was to welcome distinguished Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates and police sergeant Jim Crowley for 6 pm (2200 GMT) beers at the White House, hoping to turn the page on a controversy over race that erupted during a July 16 incident at the scholar’s home.

The contretemps flared when Gates — America’s foremost scholar on African American affairs — was arrested after police received a call that two men might be attempting a break-in at a house in the Boston suburb of Cambridge.

As it turned out, the "break-in" by Gates was an attempt to enter his own home when the door lock jammed.

Gates and Crowley exchanged heated words, and the professor was ultimately arrested for disorderly conduct during a heated exchange.

Obama, the first black US president, added to the controversy when he said the police had "acted stupidly" by arresting his friend after establishing that Gates had been in his own home.

The incident sparked an intense national discussion as to whether police rushed to stereotype a black man as a potential criminal — even a bookish one such as Gates — solely based on his race.

But public outrage also swelled over Obama’s choice of words, and his hasty characterization of what had happened.

Some critics say the president maligned Crowley, a well-regarded officer in Cambridge — where Harvard is located — who trained others in his department on the perils of racial profiling.

Last week Obama telephoned Crowley to express regret over his statement, and to invite the police officer and Gates to the White House for a reconciliation beer.

Obama later said that blame in the standoff was probably shared, suggesting that Gates "probably overreacted" — as did police, by booking a middle-age professor for being hot-headed.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs has described the White House make-up session as "a chance to talk and a chance to have a dialogue," adding that it offered a "teachable moment" for all involved — and the country at large.

Just bringing the players together will show "we can still sit down and discuss issues that are important like this, that we can, I think, as the president has said many times, disagree without being disagreeable," he said.

The controversy ends the first six months of Obama’s presidency in which he managed not to be defined by his race, but Gibbs said the president hopes that the "beer summit" can be an important symbol of reconciliation.

"Despite the incident, despite what happened, despite what was said after that, we can still sit down and discuss issues that are important like this," the spokesman said this week.

"We can, I think as the president has said many times, disagree without being disagreeable, and I think it will be a poignant moment."

Obama, lobbyists get cozy on health care

A strong force, perhaps as powerful in Congress as President Barack Obama, is keeping the drive for health care going even as lawmakers seem hopelessly at odds.


The drug industry, the American Medical Association, hospital groups and the insurance lobby are all saying Congress must make major changes this year. Television ads paid for by drug companies and insurers continued to emphasize the benefits of a health care overhaul — not the groups’ objections to some of the proposals.

"My gut is telling me that something major can pass because all the people who could kill it are still at the table," said Ken Thorpe, chairman of health policy at Emory University in Atlanta. "Everybody has issues with bits and pieces of it, but all these groups want to get something done this year." As a senior official at the Health and Human Services department in the 1990s, Thorpe was deeply involved in the Clinton administration’s failed effort.

President Barack Obama on Saturday continued his full-court press to pass health care reform legislation. In his weekly Internet and radio address, Obama cited a new White House study indicating that small businesses pay far more per employee for health insurance than big companies — a disparity he says is "unsustainable — it’s unacceptable."

"And it’s going to change when I sign health insurance reform into law," Obama said, adding that he has "a sense of urgency about moving this process forward."

This time, the health care industry groups see a strategic opportunity. As lawmakers squabble, the groups are focused on how to come out ahead in the end game.

"We’re still optimistic that we can get health care reform accomplished," said Robert Zirkelbach, spokesman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, the main insurance industry trade group. "There is strong support from policymakers and from across the health care sector. "

It’s all got to do with shifts in the economy. Even before the recession hit, employer-sponsored health coverage had been steadily shrinking, and many people couldn’t afford the premiums for individual policies. Meanwhile, government programs have been expanding — and they’ve gotten increasingly friendly to private insurance companies. Insurers now play major roles as middlemen in Medicare, Medicaid and the children’s insurance program.

And if the government requires everybody to get coverage — just what the overhaul legislation calls for — it could guarantee a steady stream of customers subsidized by taxpayers not only for insurers, but for all medical providers.

What I’m concerned about is the damage that’s being done right now to the health of our families, the success of our businesses, and the long-term fiscal stability of our government," Obama said in his address.

Obama criticized what he said were tactics by opponents to block health care overhaul "as a way to inflict political damage on my administration. I’ll leave it to them to explain that to the American people."

"Today, after a lot of hard work in Congress, we are closer than ever before to finally passing reform that will reduce costs, expand coverage and provide more choices for our families and businesses," Obama said.

The industry groups have invested heavily to make sure their views get taken into account. The health care sector gave $167 million in campaign contributions to congressional candidates in the 2008 election cycle, according to the watchdog group Health care companies poured $484 million into lobbying efforts in 2008, and are on pace to exceed that this year.

Separately, the drug companies have offered up $80 billion over 10 years to reduce prescription costs of seniors if a deal goes through, while major hospital groups agreed to a $155-billion reduction in Medicare and Medicaid payments to free up funds that would help subsidize coverage for the uninsured.

The political infighting on Capitol Hill has strengthened the hand of the health care groups, since liberals have been thwarted so far in their attempts to win speedy passage of the legislation through the House and Senate.

One of the liberals’ main objectives is to include a strong government-sponsored insurance plan in the legislation, to compete against private insurance. Stopping or weakening the government plan is a top priority for the insurance industry. Other health care interest groups are also leery because the public plan could put a dent in their budgets. The House version, modeled on Medicare, would pay doctors and hospitals less than private insurance.

All eyes are now on Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., who has never been friendly to the idea of a government-sponsored insurance plan. Baucus is trying to broker a bipartisan deal with a handful of Republican colleagues.

It’s not clear if Baucus will succeed, but his group is looking at creating nonprofit co-ops that would lack Medicare’s power to dictate payment levels and tell providers to take it or leave it. Instead, the co-ops would have to negotiate payment rates with hospitals, doctors and drug makers — just like private insurance plans do.

"We are hopeful at the end of the day a bipartisan plan will emerge that benefits both patients and the U.S. economy," said Ken Johnson, senior vice president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the drug industry lobby.

Obama has endorsed the notion of a strong public plan, the kind liberals want to see. But if Baucus gets a bipartisan deal, the president may have to swallow hard and embrace it — or accept defeat of his top domestic priority.

"There is a way out of it — a bipartisan compromise_ but so far the liberals have found that to be anathema," said Robert Laszewski, a health care industry consultant.

Laszewski is pessimistic about the prospects for overhaul legislation this year. But he thinks insurers in particular look like they’re in a win-win situation.

"The health insurance industry is in a fantastic position," he said. Democratic liberals overreached and can’t move a bill over the objections of their moderate and conservative colleagues.

"Democrats can’t blame the industry if this goes down," Laszewski added. "So the health insurance industry is happy to let this thing take its course."

Obama ups the pressure on health care

President Barack Obama, citing a new White House study suggesting that small businesses pay far more per employee for health insurance than big companies, said Saturday the disparity is "unsustainable — it’s unacceptable."

"And it’s going to change when I sign health insurance reform into law," the president said in his weekly Internet and radio address.

A new study by the White House Council of Economic Advisers said small businesses pay up to 18 percent more to provide health insurance for their employees. As a result, fewer of them do so and the number has been shrinking further in these hard economic times.

It was released Saturday as part of the administration’s aggressive campaign to build public and congressional support for Obama’s health care efforts

Obama had called for Congress to vote on health legislation by the August recess, but when it became clear this week lawmakers would miss that deadline, he said he expects a bill by year-end.

The White House study said only 49 percent of businesses with three to nine workers and 78 percent of companies with 10 to 24 workers offered any type of health insurance to their employees in 2008. In contrast, 99 percent of companies with more than 200 workers offered health insurance.

Small companies pay proportionately more than big ones because they lack bargaining power and face higher administrative costs, the study found. It said that effectively levied a "heavy tax" on small businesses and their employees.

"Right now, they are getting crushed by skyrocketing health care costs," Obama said, citing the report.

Republicans dismissed the new report as more political propaganda by the administration as it struggles to win approval of its centerpiece domestic priority.

"There’s a reason why almost every employer and small business group is opposed to the Democrats’ government takeover of health care, and that’s because it would impose new job-killing taxes during a recession," House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said. "No report can change that."

And in the weekly GOP address, Rep. Cathy McMorris of Washington state, vice chair of the House Republican Conference, said, "America’s small businesses will pay a high price." Citing a study by the National Federation of Independent Business, she said Democratic-written proposals would destroy a million more jobs than the economy has already lost.

She called the Democratic efforts "a prescription for disaster — one that will put Washington bureaucrats in charge of your family’s personal medical decision."

A proposal in the House calls for employers with a total payroll above $250,000 to offer health insurance to their workers or face a surtax of as much as 8 percent. A Senate committee version would require all businesses, except those with fewer than 25 employees, to provide health coverage or pay a $750 fine per year for each worker.

Congress is weighing plans to bring small businesses into the program that would exempt them from such stiff penalties.

Among the provisions in draft legislation viewed favorably by the administration are: an "insurance exchange" allowing small businesses that meet certain criteria to be able to purchase health insurance from a multitude of plans; and tax credits to help small businesses pay for the coverage.

Christina Romer, head of the Council of Economic Advisers, said such provisions would enable small businesses to be "more able to compete with the big boys" in selling their goods and services and "able to compete fairly on a level playing field with big businesses to attract the best workers,"

"The vast majority of small businesses, they’ll see their burdens absolutely lessened by the expansion of coverage," Romer said in a conference call with reporters. "So they are absolutely going to be more competitive."

Obama decried what he said were tactics by opponents to block health care overhaul "as a way to inflict political damage on my administration. I’ll leave it to them to explain that to the American people."

"Today, after a lot of hard work in Congress, we are closer than ever before to finally passing reform that will reduce costs, expand coverage and provide more choices for our families and businesses," Obama said.

Meanwhile, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House Republican whip, invited small business owners from across the country to a round-table discussion with senior GOP officials on Tuesday to discuss the struggles facing small business. Among those invited, said Cantor spokesman Brad Dayspring, are those with businesses in the congressional district of conservative "Blue Dog" Democrats, who have raised questions about the cost of the health care efforts.



Obama told many health care lies

President Barack Obama’s assertion Wednesday that government will stay out of health care decisions in an overhauled system is hard to square with the proposals coming out of Congress and with his own rhetoric.

Even now, nearly half the costs of health care in the U.S. are paid for by government at all levels. Federal authority would only grow under any proposal in play.

A look at some of Obama’s claims in his prime-time news conference:


OBAMA: "We already have rough agreement" on some aspects of what a health care overhaul should involve, and one is: "It will keep government out of health care decisions, giving you the option to keep your insurance if you’re happy with it."

THE FACTS: In House legislation, a commission appointed by the government would determine what is and isn’t covered by insurance plans offered in a new purchasing pool, including a plan sponsored by the government. The bill also holds out the possibility that, over time, those standards could be imposed on all private insurance plans, not just the ones in the pool.

Indeed, Obama went on to lay out other principles of reform that plainly show the government making key decisions in health care. He said insurance companies would be barred from dropping coverage when someone gets too sick, limits would be set on out-of-pocket expenses, and preventive care such as checkups and mammograms would be covered.

It’s true that people would not be forced to give up a private plan and go with a public one. The question is whether all of those private plans would still be in place if the government entered the marketplace in a bigger way.

He addressed some of the nuances under questioning. "Can I guarantee that there are going to be no changes in the health care delivery system?" he said. "No. The whole point of this is to try to encourage changes that work for the American people and make them healthier."

He acknowledged then that the "government already is making some of these decisions."


OBAMA: "I have also pledged that health insurance reform will not add to our deficit over the next decade, and I mean it."

THE FACTS: The president has said repeatedly that he wants "deficit-neutral" health care legislation, meaning that every dollar increase in cost is met with a dollar of new revenue or a dollar of savings. But some things are more neutral than others. White House Budget Director Peter Orszag told reporters this week that the promise does not apply to proposed spending of about $245 billion over the next decade to increase fees for doctors serving Medicare patients. Democrats and the Obama administration argue that the extra payment, designed to prevent a scheduled cut of about 21 percent in doctor fees, already was part of the administration’s policy, with or without a health care overhaul.

Beyond that, budget experts have warned about various accounting gimmicks that can mask true burdens on the deficit. The bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget lists a variety of them, including back-loading the heaviest costs at the end of the 10-year period and beyond.


OBAMA: "You haven’t seen me out there blaming the Republicans."

THE FACTS: Obama did so in his opening statement, saying, "I’ve heard that one Republican strategist told his party that even though they may want to compromise, it’s better politics to ‘go for the kill.’ Another Republican senator said that defeating health reform is about ‘breaking’ me."


OBAMA: "I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that. But I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home, and, number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there’s a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately."

THE FACTS: The facts are in dispute between black scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the white police sergeant who arrested him at his Cambridge, Mass., home when officers went there to investigate a reported break-in. But this much is clear: Gates wasn’t arrested for being in his own home, as Obama implies, but for allegedly being belligerent when the sergeant demanded his identification. The president did mention that the professor was charged with disorderly conduct. Charges were dropped.


OBAMA: "If we had done nothing, if you had the same old budget as opposed to the changes we made in our budget, you’d have a $9.3 trillion deficit over the next 10 years. Because of the changes we’ve made, it’s going to be $7.1 trillion."

THE FACTS: Obama’s numbers are based on figures compiled by his own budget office. But they rely on assumptions about economic growth that some economists find too optimistic. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, in its own analysis of the president’s budget numbers, concluded that the cumulative deficit over the next decade would be $9.1 trillion.

Associated Press writer Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.

Obama held secret meetings with health execs

Administration officials began talking privately to major players in the health care industry within a few weeks of President Barack Obama’s inauguration, a newly released list of White House visitors shows.

Obama on Wednesday night released the list of visits by health care executives after a government watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, announced it planned to sue to try to get White House visitor logs. Only names and dates were released, not the visitors’ titles or employers.

So far, the Obama administration is following a Bush administration policy of refusing to release the logs, which are maintained by the Secret Service.

The list shows that Richard Umbdenstock, president of the American Hospital Association, was at the White House on Feb. 4 and has been back at least a half-dozen times since then, most recently May 22. Other industry executives making February visits included health insurance company chief executives Angela Braly of WellPoint Inc. and Jay Gellert of Health Net Inc.

Gellert, a $500 donor to Obama’s presidential campaign, was there Feb. 10, twice in March and on May 11, while Braly visited on Feb. 13.

In recent weeks, the White House has announced agreements under which hospitals and the pharmaceutical industry promised cost savings in return for an expanded base of insured patients. The deals were struck in private meetings, drawing comparisons to Vice President Dick Cheney’s secret talks with the energy industry as he helped President George W. Bush draft a national energy policy. Cheney’s 2001 meetings were criticized by Democrats throughout the Bush years.

During his presidential campaign, Obama promised to hold lobbyists at arm’s length and make his administration the most transparent ever.

Obama was asked at a news conference Wednesday night about his administration’s refusal to say who has been to the White House to discuss a national health care overhaul.

"On the list of health care executives who visited us, most of time you guys have been in there taking pictures," he told the assembled reporters, "so it hasn’t been a secret. And my understanding is we just sent a letter out providing a full list of all the executives. But, frankly, these have mostly been at least photo sprays where you could see who was participating."

CREW said it was pleased that the White House had provided the list but that it didn’t consider it a sufficient response to its Freedom of Information Act request for the visitor logs themselves. It plans to continue pressing for them.

"The actual visitor records likely would indicate with whom each official met, the administration official who requested clearance for the visitor, the time of the meeting, the duration of the meeting and, in some cases, the purpose of the meeting. In addition, no information was provided regarding any visits to the vice president’s residence," CREW said in a written statement.

Gregory Craig, White House counsel, told CREW in a letter that the White House was continuing to review the group’s open-records request, "as well as the White House’s general policy governing the discretionary release of visitor records.

Other health care industry representatives named in the list and the dates they visited were:

  • Registered lobbyist Billy Tauzin, a former Louisiana congressman who heads the drug industry lobby, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. He went to the White House on March 5, the day of a summit on health care, and again on May 11, 19, June 2 and June 24.
  • Registered lobbyist Karen Ignagni, president and CEO of America’s Health Insurance Plans, an industry trade association, March 5, 6 and 11, May 11 and June 30.
  • Dr. J. James Rohack, president-elect of the American Medical Association, March 25, May 11, and June 22 and 24.
  • William Weldon, CEO of Johnson & Johnson health care product and pharmaceutical company, May 12.
  • Jeffrey Kindler, CEO of drug maker Pfizer Inc., March 5, May 6 and June 2.
  • UnitedHealth Group Inc. chief executive Stephen Hemsley, May 15 and 22.
  • George Halvorson, head of Kaiser Foundation Health Plan Inc., March 27, May 11 and June 5.
  • Thomas Priselac, chief executive of the Cedars-Sinai Health System, April 3 and May 11.
  • Richard Clark, CEO of the Merck & Co. pharmaceutical company, March 24 and May 11.
  • Wayne Smith, chief executive of Community Health Systems, June 4.
  • Registered lobbyist Rick Smith, a senior vice president of PhRMA, May 11 and 19 and June 2.
  • David Nexon, senior executive vice president with trade association AdvaMed, May 11.


On the Net:

White House:

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington:

Obama sells out to drug, hospital lobbyists

In cutting deals with hospitals and drug makers, President Barack Obama is giving a private inside track to special interests that’s at odds with his promise to make policy in the open.

Obama promised Americans he would hold special interests at arm’s length — that it would no longer be business as usual in Washington. He pledged to open government and let the public and press hold his administration accountable.

And just over two months before the 2008 election, Obama promised before an audience in Chester, Va., to hash out a health care overhaul in public. "We’ll have the negotiations televised on C-SPAN, so that people can see who is making arguments on behalf of their constituents, and who are making arguments on behalf of the drug companies or the insurance companies," he said then.

That didn’t happen.

Instead, the administration’s multibillion-dollar deals with hospitals and pharmaceutical companies have been made in private, and the results were announced after the fact. Both industries promised Obama cost savings in return for an expanded base of insured patients; beyond that, the public is in the dark about details.

In some ways, it resembles what his party criticized President George W. Bush for doing with oil and gas companies as Vice President Dick Cheney wrote a national energy plan in the early days of the Bush administration.

As the Bush White House did, the Obama White House is refusing to release visitor logs that would let people see everyone going in and out during the thick of discussions over major national policies.

Just as environmentalists complained they were shut out as Cheney drafted energy policy, employers now complain that the Obama administration isn’t giving them enough say in health care policy. Like the environmentalists, employers fear a new policy will come at their expense.

"There’s beginning to be a little bit of, ‘Where are all these deals getting us?’" E. Neil Trautwein, chief health care lobbyist for the National Retail Federation, said recently, referring to business concerns that the hospital and drug company pacts would force employers to pay more for workers’ medical benefits. "Is this going to add to the process or subtract from it?"

The White House had no immediate comment.

So what happened to the promises?

When cutting special interests out of his campaign and then his administration, Obama targeted people currently registered as Washington lobbyists. He never said he would cut off the companies, unions, trade associations and others that employ lobbyists — just lobbyists themselves. And even then, he has made exceptions here and there.

Presidents, regardless of party, prefer to keep their dealmaking private, obscuring what’s being said, what’s being taken and given, and by whom. It’s messier and less practical to open the door to a lot of public input, particularly on a national scale. It’s much easier to use polls to gauge what the public thinks.

That means the interests whose ideas make it into national policy are usually those with the money and clout to press their case in Washington and the power to block any idea they haven’t helped shape.


Sharon Theimer has been an investigative reporter in the AP’s Washington bureau since 2001.

Barack Obama’s collectivist vision for America

Despite occasional talk of pragmatism — of simply doing what works and is necessary — the Obama administration has veered to the far left with a hang-the-expenses, collectivist agenda that will turn our society upside down while likely wrecking its economy, and here comes the big question.

Is America going to say yes?

The issue of the moment is health care legislation that, according to a survey of Democratic proposals by the Congressional Budget Office, would dramatically increase health costs instead of lowering them at a time when we are clearly headed for a fiscal apocalypse fostered by entitlements. Health insurance for everyone would be another entitlement — a "right" extended to everyone by a coercive government abusing the real rights of many citizens in order to bring about calamity.

But the rush to this cliff’s edge — let’s pass bills by August, shouts our president — is hardly the only sign of a socialist agenda. Clues have included the federal takeover of auto companies and banks, a regulatory scheme that would allow no corporate hiccup to go unregistered, unabashed business bashing, other plans to extend the welfare state, spending to equal and then surpass what you find in Europe and a nanny-state aggressiveness that would render us all children answering to Big Daddy in D.C.

The excuse has been an economic emergency that required extreme but temporary measures. The facts are that the $800 billion stimulus bill was not needed, at least not in its ill-considered, politically instructed, non-stimulating form; that it’s far from certain just how temporary some actions will be and that administration ambitions far exceed recovery from the recession. Take a look at cap-and-trade, an industry-crippling, prices-increasing idea that will accomplish nothing without international cooperation about as likely as ice cubes in biblical hell.

The enthusiasm for all things leftist does not end with domestic affairs, but extends to foreign affairs, as in assuming that the United Nations is actually a strong, positive, reliable force in the world, in giving mea-culpa speeches in Europe and elsewhere, in a presidential presentation to Russian students that seemed to sum up the Cold War as two sides failing to see things the same way, in weapons negotiations that would give up too much, in failing to be the least bit reflective about what’s at stake in Honduras’s difficulties, and even in plans for a diminution of defense at a time of danger.

But when the economy is in turmoil, that’s what people focus on — will they have a job next week, can they pay the mortgage, will their health insurance lapse? And when a president is brand new — especially if he is as brilliantly articulate and as everlastingly reassuring as Barack Obama — they give him the benefit of the doubt. Polls nevertheless do show the public is beginning to have at least some trepidation about the direction we’re headed even though the adversarial political reporting they must rely on has been a whole lot less adversarial than once it was.

If enough people get worried enough, maybe at least some parts of the Obama program can be derailed before they become permanent fixtures of the American scene, transforming us from a generally thriving, individualist, self-reliant, liberty-loving nation to one that supposes the extraordinary accomplishments of free-enterprise could have been centrally planned, that you can get something for nothing and that there is no price, no oppression to be paid for governmental extravagance.

The opinion rebellion — if there is to be one — must start on health care reform, not with a stance that nothing can be done to fix a system that malfunctions in manifold ways, but with a determination that Congress will work out solutions slowly, carefully and in keeping with principles that have served the nation extremely well.

(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)

Americans increasingly doubt Obama

Six months into his historic presidency, Americans are beginning to show the first real signs of doubt that President Barack Obama can deliver on his promise of change.

A new poll out Monday suggested that amid the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, rising unemployment, and a ballooning deficit, the honeymoon could be waning for Obama.

And the president’s determination to push through a radical reform of the creaking US healthcare system could come to define the success or failure of his fledgling presidency.

Obama has invested much personally in his high-stakes campaign, a cornerstone of his 2008 White House race which saw him defeat Republican rival John McCain to become America’s first African-American president.

But the far-reaching plans to afford health insurance for all Americans have left many worrying who will end up footing the bill.

Six months after his January 20 inauguration attracted record crowds and television audiences, Obama remains popular at home with a 59 percent approval rating according to a poll by ABC News television and the Washington Post.

But it was the first time that the rating had slipped below 60 percent. And it marks a six percent fall since June.

Obama’s detractors meanwhile have plenty of fodder to fuel their discontent.

Unemployment has hit more than 10 percent in 15 states and in the capital Washington, the promised economic recovery has still not arrived and the nation’s deficit has passed a trillion dollars.

While 52 percent of Americans said they still supported the Democratic leader’s economic policies, that is down on 56 percent last month.

And 46 percent told the pollsters that they did not back Obama’s proposals, with for the first time the numbers of people who strongly disapprove surpassing those who strongly approve.

Those voicing confidence in Obama’s plans to kickstart the ailing economy have also tumbled from 72 percent before his inauguration to 56 percent today.

Despite frequent White House reassurances that "the green shoots" of economic recovery can be seen, many ordinary Americans are still hurting, rocked by job losses, a credit crunch and seemingly unending home foreclosures.

The Obama administration admitted Monday that it would delay releasing budget figures for a day, but denied it was to hide the true scale of the deficit.

Obama unveiled in February massive plans to restimulate the world’s largest economy and create or save some three million jobs within two years.

He was met by a wave of skepticism notably among his Republican critics who have accused him of aggravating the deficit with his 787-billion dollar stimulus, burdening generations to come with a huge debt.

So more than anything it is likely to be the final cost which could scupper his plans to reform the healthcare system, one of the most expensive and least performing among the world’s industrialized nations.

Former president Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary know too well the political cost of trying — and failing — to find a solution to the problem.

But Obama is determined to get his message across, and this week has a series of media and political events to publicize his case, including a primetime press conference on Wednesday evening.

He has fought back hard to keep his message on track.

"Just the other day, one Republican senator said — and I’m quoting him now — ‘If we’re able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him,’" Obama said Monday.

"Think about that. This isn’t about me. This isn’t about politics. This is about a health care system that is breaking America’s families, breaking America’s businesses, and breaking America’s economy."

Healthcare is just one issue on Obama’s plate. He was also the driving force behind the stimulus plan, has ordered the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison by January, and campaigned hard for legislation to limit greenhouse gases.

But healthcare reform looks set to be his biggest test yet, with many within his own Democratic party yet to be won over. With an eye on looming mid-term congressional elections in 2010, some fear they could pay the price at the ballot box.

Even among the president’s supporters there is grumbling that his timetable, which would see a vote on an initial text by early August, is unrealistic.

"The Barack Obama experiment with America is a risk our country can’t afford. It’s too much, too fast, too soon," argued Republican Party chairman Michael Steele on Monday.

Sagging polls, infighting: trouble for Obama

President Barack Obama used to command sky-high approval ratings from Americans in the polls.

No more.

The President’s job approval rating is down to 55 percent — below the two-thirds popularity enjoyed by former Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush at the end of their first six months in office.

Both Carter and the elder Bush were one-term Presidents.

Obama’s inability to deal effectively with the many problems affecting the nation, along with growing dissatisfaction not only among rank-and-file Americans but also within his own party, signals trouble for the young, inexperienced President.

Democratic sources tell Capitol Hill Blue that party insiders are nervous and worried about loss of Congressional seats in the 2010 mid-term elections.

"Six months ago, we felt the mid-term elections would increase our party’s majorities in both the House and Senate," says one Democratic strategist, who asked not to be identified. "Now, some are worried about holding on to the majority in the Senate and we’re looking at possible GOP gains in the House."

The party in control of the White House routinely loses seats in Congress during the mid-term elections. Republicans seized control of Congress in the 1994 mid-term elections during former President Bill Clinton’s first term.

Clinton rebounded and won a second term but Democratic insiders say privately that Barack Obama is no Bill Clinton.

"Obama gives a great speech but he doesn’t have Clinton’s savvy in the trenches," says a Democratic consultant. "He’s no Bill Clinton."

Moderate Democrats increasingly look for ways to distance themselves from Obama’s big-spending policies, fearing a public backlash when the bill for his expensive programs come due.

For some Democrats, gallows humor is emerging.

"I was going to mention the Titanic," says Sen. Chris Dodd, "but I thought that might be a bad analogy."

A growing number of Democrats admit privately that Dodd’s analogy may be spot on.

Setbacks force Obama to delay budget update

The White House is being forced to acknowledge the wide gap between its once-upbeat predictions about the economy and today’s bleak landscape.

The administration’s annual midsummer budget update is sure to show higher deficits and unemployment and slower growth than projected in President Barack Obama’s budget in February and update in May, and that could complicate his efforts to get his signature health care and global-warming proposals through Congress.

The release of the update — usually scheduled for mid-July — has been put off until the middle of next month, giving rise to speculation the White House is delaying the bad news at least until Congress leaves town on its August 7 summer recess.

The administration is pressing for votes before then on its $1 trillion health care initiative, which lawmakers are arguing over how to finance.

The White House budget director, Peter Orszag, said on Sunday that the administration believes the "chances are high" of getting a health care bill by then. But new analyses showing runaway costs are jeopardizing Senate passage.

"Instead of a dream, this routine report could be a nightmare," Tony Fratto, a former Treasury Department official and White House spokesman under President George W. Bush, said of the delayed budget update. "There are some things that can’t be escaped."

The administration earlier this year predicted that unemployment would peak at about 9 percent without a big stimulus package and 8 percent with one. Congress did pass a $787 billion two-year stimulus measure, yet unemployment soared to 9.5 percent in June and appears headed for double digits.

Obama’s current forecast anticipates 3.2 percent growth next year, then 4 percent or higher growth from 2011 to 2013. Private forecasts are less optimistic, especially for next year.

Any downward revision in growth or revenue projections would mean that budget deficits would be far higher than the administration is now suggesting.

Setting the stage for bleaker projections, Vice President Joe Biden recently conceded, "We misread how bad the economy was" in January. Obama modified that by suggesting the White House had "incomplete" information.

The new budget update comes as the public and members of Congress are becoming increasingly anxious over Obama’s economic policies.

A Washington Post-ABC News survey released Monday shows approval of Obama’s handling of health-care reform slipping below 50 percent for the first time. The poll also found support eroding on how Obama is dealing with other issues that are important to Americans right now — the economy, unemployment and the swelling budget deficit.

The Democratic-controlled Congress is reeling from last week’s testimony by the head of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, Douglas Elmendorf, that the main health care proposals Congress is considering would not reduce costs — as Obama has insisted — but "significantly expand" the federal financial responsibility for health care.

That gave ammunition to Republican critics of the bill.

Late last week, Obama vowed anew that "health insurance reform cannot add to our deficit over the next decade and I mean it."

The nation’s debt — the total of accumulated annual budget deficits — now stands at $11.6 trillion. In the scheme of things, that’s more important than talking about the "deficit," which only looks at a one-year slice of bookkeeping and totally ignores previous indebtedness that is still outstanding.

Even so, the administration has projected that the annual deficit for the current budget year will hit $1.84 trillion, four times the size of last year’s deficit of $455 billion. Private forecasters suggest that shortfall may actually top $2 trillion.

The administration has projected that the annual deficit for the current budget year will hit $1.84 trillion, four times the size of last year’s deficit of $455 billion. Private forecasters suggest that shortfall may top $2 trillion.

If a higher deficit and lower growth numbers are not part of the administration’s budget update, that will lead to charges that the White House is manipulating its figures to offer too rosy an outlook — the same criticism leveled at previous administrations.

The midsession review by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget will likely reflect weaker numbers. But where is it?

White House officials say it is now expected in mid-August. They blame the delay on the fact that this is a transition year between presidencies and note that Obama didn’t release his full budget until early May — instead of the first week in February, when he put out just an outline.

Still, the update mainly involves plugging in changes in economic indicators, not revising program-by-program details. And indicators such as unemployment and gross domestic product changes have been public knowledge for some time.

Standard & Poor’s chief economist David Wyss said part of the problem with the administration’s earlier numbers is that "they were just stale," essentially put together by budget number-crunchers at the end of last year, before the sharp drop in the economy.

Wyss, like many other economists, says he expects the recession to last at least until September or October. "We’re looking for basically a zero second half (of 2009). And then sluggish recovery," he said.

Orszag, making the rounds of Sunday talk shows, insisted the economy at the end of last year, which the White House used for its optimistic budget forecasts, "was weaker at that time than anyone anticipated." He cited a "sense of free fall" not fully recognized at the time.

"It’s going to take time to work our way out of it," the White House budget director told "Fox News Sunday."

Even as it prepares to put larger deficit and smaller growth figures into its official forecast, the administration is looking for signs of improvement.

"If we were at the brink of catastrophe at the beginning of the year, we have walked some substantial distance back from the abyss," said Lawrence Summers, Obama’s chief economic adviser.