Obama faces series of defining challenges post-vacation

After a week of golf, fireworks, and fine dining, President Obama returns from his eight-day Martha's Vineyard vacation to face a number of challenges that could define the success of his second term.

The coming weeks will see high-stakes showdowns over the federal budget, debt ceiling, healthcare and whether the United States will suspend aid to Egypt, where hundreds have died in clashes with the military. 

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For Obama, the way he approaches these challenges could burnish his legacy and secure his signature accomplishments, or cement a reputation as unable to compromise with congressional Republicans.

The most pressing concern facing Obama upon his return is the looming deadline to strike a budget deal. If Congress is unable to come to an agreement before Sept. 30, the government could shut down for the first time in nearly two decades. But lawmakers will have only nine legislative days to act after returning to Washington from their summer recess.

Further complicating matters is a call from some Republicans to tie the continuing resolution that would keep the government open to defunding the president’s signature healthcare law. Last month, some 60 House Republicans sent a letter to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) urging leadership to remove funding for the Affordable Care Act in its next continuing resolution, while Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) has spearheaded a similar push in the Senate.

In his weekly address Saturday — one of only two times the president spoke publicly during his Martha’s Vineyard sojourn — Obama warned congressional Republicans that “health insurance isn't something to play politics with." 

"Our economy isn’t something to play politics with,” he continued. “This isn’t a game. This is about the economic security of millions of families.”

The administration is preparing for the rollout of the healthcare exchanges, which can begin accepting applicants in October. Democrats fear that a botched implementation could hurt them at the polls in 2014 and embolden GOP efforts to repeal the law.

The president will also look to rally support for his budget priorities during a two-day tour of Northeastern colleges late next week. During the trip, which includes stops in Buffalo, Syracuse, Binghamton, and Scranton, the president will detail proposals for reducing college costs.

The events are a continuation of the economic push that Obama launched last month at Knox College in Illinois, where he argued his agenda helped the country battle back from the recession.

But the president’s ability to rally support behind his economic agenda could prove difficult, with recent polls suggesting Obama’s post-election political capital has dissipated. 

A survey released last week by Gallup found that only 35 percent of the country approved of the president’s handling of the economy, despite his campaign-style tour and solid jobs growth. A Fox News poll released ahead of Obama’s vacation found that just 42 percent approved of the president’s job performance overall.

Polls, though, also show Republicans in Congress have even less support than the president. And a Quinnipiac survey released last month showed that voters are more likely to say members of the GOP are doing too little to compromise, and more likely to blame Republicans for gridlock.

Reports say Republican leadership could favor a short-term budget extension that would push the federal budget battle back until November — when the nation will once again come up against the debt ceiling. While the White House has maintained that the president won’t negotiate over raising that limit, which ensures that the government does not default on its bills, combining government funding with the debt ceiling could give Republicans greater leverage to extract concessions.

If Obama proves unable to regain his momentum after his return to Washington, Republicans will be emboldened in their efforts to dismantle signature first-term achievements like the Affordable Care Act and government spending programs that Democrats say aid the recovery.

In a press conference before leaving for his vacation, Obama warned Republicans of precipitating “another crisis here in Washington that no economist thinks is a good idea.”

“I'm assuming that they will not take that path,” Obama said. “I have confidence that common sense, in the end, will prevail.”

The president is also facing new questions about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs. Obama sought to put the issue to bed before his vacation by announcing a series of steps the White House says will improve transparency in the program.

But The Washington Post last week revealed that the spy agency on thousands of occasions broke its own privacy rules, drawing bipartisan concern. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in a statement called the revelations “extremely disturbing.”

And Obama will confront the crisis in Egypt, which shadowed him throughout his eight-day vacation. The president will face new questions over whether to rescind military aid to Egypt after a violent crackdown against protesters in the country left hundreds dead and thousands injured.

On Sunday, Democrats including Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) said that future aid should be conditioned on a return to democracy and safety for demonstrators. Republican senators, including Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), called for an immediate suspension of aid.

"I think [President Obama] fell short when he really didn't come out and call out the real question on the suspension of aid, because that is the real influence that we have with Egypt," Ayotte said. "So I thought that he could have been stronger on that, coming very clearly against the violence and saying, 'We're going to suspend aid until you restore democracy.' "

The president spoke about the crisis Thursday from Martha’s Vineyard, saying that the U.S. would cancel upcoming joint military exercises. But Obama is wary of blocking upcoming aid, with the administration concerned about preserving American access to the Suez Canal and Egypt’s détente with Israel.

"I've asked my national security team to assess the implications of the actions taken by the interim government and further steps that we may take as necessary with respect to the U.S.-Egyptian relationship,” Obama said.