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Analysis: New year offers Obama chance to rebound

WASHINGTON - No president gets a fresh start after just one year on the job. But given the size of the problems President Barack Obama inherited and the battles he voluntarily chose to take on during his first year, 2010 could provide an opportunity for something close to hitting the reset button - if the president and his team are prepared to seize the opening.

The long and acrimonious legislative fight over health care reform is nearing an end. Barring unforeseen circumstances, Obama will begin his second year in office with a signing ceremony on a historic piece of social welfare legislation. That won't end the controversy over its provisions, but it will move health care from its dominant position in the national debate. What comes next will determine how well Obama can rebound after the hits he has taken.

The president, say his advisers, viewed health care as a once-in-a-lifetime struggle that could not wait another year. Like Democrats everywhere, the White House is keenly aware that after two elections in which the party made significant gains, losses are inevitable in November. The health care debate has damaged Obama's approval ratings and the cohesiveness of the coalition that elected him. The question is how significant.

What are the elements that might minimize the losses? First is to refocus on the economy. White House officials believe the anger toward Washington is far more the result of the economy and high unemployment than the health care debate. But unemployment remains a pernicious political problem.

Obama and congressional Democrats will make job creation top priority in 2010. Many in his party say the most important thing he can do for the country and the party is to spend considerably more time creating jobs and going around the country to show people he is paying attention. If the unemployment rate drops, White House officials believe, his approval ratings will rise, and with it the party's electoral prospects.

Second is to move Congress offstage. The legislative struggle over health care has dominated Washington for six months, often eclipsing the president. The longer Congress stayed in the spotlight, the more disapproving the public has been of its performance.

Third is for Obama to get serious about the deficit and spending. This has been the unfulfilled pledge of his administration and one that has cost him, particularly among independent voters.

Fourth is to avoid overloading the circuits. Obama pushed a huge stimulus package and bailouts in his first months, and a huge health care package. He also prodded Congress to take on controversial climate change legislation, among other issues.

He will begin the new year with the economy in better shape, with health care - but with much unfinished business and still much to prove.

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