Obama faces a daunting December thanks to make-or-break issues

President Barack Obama is ending a whirlwind first year in the Oval Office with a critical December that could shape the rest of his presidency.

On domestic, economic and foreign policy issues, Obama faces decisions and hurdles that could make or break his presidency and shape next fall’s elections, where Democrats will try to keep a working majority in the House and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

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Topping them all is the decision next week on Afghanistan in which Obama, possibly in a primetime television appearance, is expected to lay out a plan for sending nearly 40,000 U.S. and foreign troops to Afghanistan while also outlining an exit strategy.

As Obama announces his decision, the Senate will begin its debate over healthcare with the hope of completing its work by Christmas. That would set up final negotiations with the House on the domestic policy issue most closely identified with Obama.

The Afghanistan roll-out and the healthcare debate make December “pretty critical,” said George Edwards, an expert on the presidency and a political science professor at Texas A&M University. Afghanistan alone, Edwards said, has “the real potential to make or break him.”

The plan to send more troops to an increasingly unpopular war pits Obama against some in his party and threatens to put him on a similar course as President Lyndon Johnson, who saw his plans for a Great Society shattered by Vietnam.

An escalation in Afghanistan will add to a budget deficit already threatening to limit what Obama’s administration can achieve in re-shaping U.S. policies on healthcare, taxation and energy, particularly as the nation continues to fight through a recession.

“They're in a vulnerable position,” said Democratic strategist Dan Gerstein.

November saw the president’s approval ratings drop below 50 percent in reputable polls. December could be the turning point which either helps revive Obama’s high poll numbers or threatens to push them down further.

Obama also will host a Dec. 3 jobs summit intended as a step toward solving an unemployment crisis the likes of which haven’t been seen in the United States since the early 1980s. The economy and jobs are expected to dominate Obama’s second year in office, and public confidence in his ability to restore the country’s economic health is likely to have a great impact on how many Democrats are re-elected to Congress next fall.

Along the way, Obama will pick up a Nobel Peace Prize in Norway and attend a climate change summit in Denmark.

Phil Singer, a Democratic strategist and spokesman for Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign, said December is no more critical for Obama than any other month since he took office.

Obama inherited two foreign wars and a financial crisis from the Bush administration. He also had to decide how to respond to the legacies of Iraq and the war against terrorism, including the Guantanamo Bay prison and what to do with the detainees there.

To deal with the economy, Obama and Democrats passed a $787 billion stimulus that has produced mixed results, performed stress tests on the nation’s biggest banks and spent billions in Troubled Asset Relief Funds (TARP). It now must decide what to do with the remaining TARP funds.

Obama also saw climate change legislation approved by the House, traveled the world in an effort to repair the U.S. brand and put a new member on the Supreme Court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

“This president started the year with a full plate, and it's ending with a full plate,” Singer said. “The agenda is moving forward, that's for sure.”

But Gerstein said Obama’s lengthy deliberation on Afghanistan and his perceived unwillingness to get involved in policy debates or defer to Congress have begun to create the perceptions that Obama is flimsy or unable to make a decision, mired by “weakness or vacillation.”

“President Obama has not taken on a lot of high-profile issues with forceful stands,” Gerstein said. “And if [those perceptions] harden in 2010, it is definitely going to make it difficult for him to strengthen Democrats' political standing going into the midterms.”

Gerstein, Singer and other presidential observers agreed that the month's events create a “perfect storm” that gives Obama the opportunity to grab the reins of both his foreign policy and domestic agendas and claim the mantle of a strong leader.

“If the president stands up and says 'follow me,' and they do, that really reinforces the image of an effective president,” Edwards said.

But if December ends with perceptions that Obama has stood on the sidelines, then New Year's at the White House will likely be a less than joyous occasion.

“Between climate change, Afghanistan, health care and the need for improved jobs-messaging, they have a ton on the agenda next month," said one Republican strategist. “Assuming all those issues are still outstanding at the end of the month, Obama's 'first year [in office]'stories are going to be B-R-U-T-A-L.”