For Obama, more storms on horizon

President Obama arrived back in Washington after his August vacation to deal with a hurricane, but Irene was only the first of many tests awaiting the embattled commander in chief.

With his approval ratings at the lowest point in his presidency, Obama returns to face a restless Congress, a hurricane that tore up the East Coast, continued unrest and uncertainty in the Middle East and an ailing economy that is not expected to improve much before the 2012 elections.

"If the election were next Tuesday he'd lose. That's how bad it is," said a Democratic strategist.

Obama and his Republican opponents in Congress left Washington in early August bruised and bloodied after the protracted debt-ceiling fight. As both congressional leaders and the White House were exhaling — pleased that a potential national default was dodged — Standard and Poor's downgraded the nation's credit rating. That sent markets tumbling across the globe, sparking more partisan finger-pointing.

Polls indicated that people were disgusted with both the president and Republicans on Capitol Hill after the nasty summer debate, though Obama fared slightly better.

And the president's vacation turned out to be a political liability as he attracted criticism for relaxing in ritzy Martha's Vineyard amid the economic downturn.

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In-between meals and golf outings, Obama was briefed on an earthquake that hit the East Coast, Hurricane Irene and the ongoing strife in Libya as rebels appeared to be close to toppling dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

The Gadhafi news was a clear victory for Obama, especially in the wake of critics from both sides of the aisle about U.S. involvement in Libya.

Settled back in Washington, with a head start over Congress, Obama will start the fall battles with his long-awaited jobs speech, which has already garnered unrealistic expectations and skepticism from both the left and the right.

While Obama promised shortly before his vacation that his speech will include a specific plan to create jobs, analysts and lawmakers are doubtful that the president will roll out much more than the infrastructure, payroll tax and trade plans that he has been pushing Congress on for months.

The speech will preview a likely battle to be fought this autumn and all of next year on the campaign trail over spending-cuts levels and taxes. A new debt-cutting supercommittee of a dozen lawmakers has a Nov. 23 deadline to issue recommendations on the nation's debt that must be voted on by Dec. 23.

All of this comes as Republicans looking to unseat Obama next year ramp up their operations and their rhetoric, piling on a president who at this stage in the game looks vulnerable to the point of being an underdog against an unknown opponent.

In the days before his retreat from Washington, Obama appeared sharpened by his own frustration and disgust with the "dysfunction" in politics.

While his recent Midwest bus tour was panned by his opponents as a stunt, it revealed a president ready for a long and nasty campaign against Republicans both inside and outside Washington.

Whether Obama will return to the ring still sporting his combative posture is a big question hanging over the heads of Democrats, disillusioned by what they see as a pattern of caving to Republicans from Obama.

Some congressional Democrats spent much of August complaining about leadership coming from the White House, calling for Obama to fight much harder against the GOP.

Tension between Obama and liberals on Capitol Hill will continue this fall as the White House pushes three pending trade deals that are backed by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and the powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

"With the 2012 campaign season about to kick off, Obama will have to continue to contend with an uncooperative Republican majority in the House, an increasingly disillusioned Democratic Party, a restive public whose distrust of Washington seems to be fast approaching zero and a field of Republican candidates chomping at the bit to seize the Oval Office," said Lara Brown, a political science professor at Villanova University.