Obama's three fateful tests

By the middle of next month, the die will be cast on the economy, health-care reform and Afghanistan. These are the tests that will decide Obama's presidency.

Robert Shrum

For Barack Obama and the Democrats, three tests in the last month of this year will cast the fate of both president and party. The first -- on the economy -- is largely decided, although we don’t yet know the outcome. To Obama’s left, critics argue he hasn’t done enough -- that is, spent enough -- to end the recession and boost job growth. To his right, the Republicans claim the opposite: that deficits are too high and that the nation ought to move swiftly to cut spending. The latter course would likely push the economy back to the brink, but the truth of the competing critiques is largely beside the point.

To push through major initiatives on climate control and energy, financial regulation, immigration and equal rights, Obama needs a gathering sense of confidence among Americans that the economy is on track. The December unemployment numbers, which will be reported in January, before the State of the Union message, won’t be vigorous enough to achieve that on their own; but they will be a signal of impending job creation or of persistent job losses in the coming months. If the prognosis is bleak, fearful Democrats will desert the Administration next year, and Republicans will dominate the midterm election and go on to block Obama at every turn in the following two years.

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