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For Obama, a look ahead

After health care, the spotlight will turn. The president has a chance to say what's next.

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

The long and acrimonious legislative fight over health care is nearing an end. Barring unforeseen circumstances, Obama will begin his second year in office with a signing ceremony for 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, his advisers say, saw health care as a once-in-a-lifetime struggle that could not wait another year. Postponing it until 2010 would have meant trying to pass it in an election year. Waiting until 2011 would have risked having to take on the battle with reduced majorities in the House and Senate.

White House officials are keenly aware that, after two elections in which the Democratic 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 much.

Neither the president nor his advisers believe the overall political outlook - for Obama or the party - is as gloomy as some forecasters project. They see the first months of the new year as a time for a pivot that could help restore his standing and hold down losses in November.

In order to accomplish that, the administration will first have to refocus on the economy. White House officials believe the public anger toward Washington is driven more by the economic downturn and high unemployment than by the health-care debate. But unemployment remains a pernicious political problem. Obama and congressional Democrats will make job creation their top priority in 2010.

Many Democrats have complained that Obama allowed the health-care debate to distract him from the economy. In their estimation, the most important thing he can do, for the country and for the party's political health, is spend considerably more time working to create jobs and going around the country to show people he is paying attention. If unemployment drops, White House officials believe, Obama's approval ratings will rise, improving Democrats' electoral prospects.

Next is to move Congress off stage. The struggle over health care has dominated Washington for six months, often eclipsing the president in the public eye, to the detriment of Obama and lawmakers. The longer Congress remained in the spotlight, the more disapproving the public has been of its performance. With health care now almost complete, Congress may play a less central role in setting the 2010 agenda. From the perspective of the White House, that can't happen soon enough.

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

White House officials argue that preventing an economic depression required massive spending on unpopular causes, like bailing out bankers and automakers. They also argue that much of the current structural deficit resulted from the decisions of previous administrations. That is all true, but it is now Obama's problem. His State of the Union address and forthcoming budget will provide evidence of how serious he is about the problem.

Obama also may look for an opportunity to take on congressional earmarks. He blinked earlier this year on a major spending bill filled with them, fearing that a veto would rupture his relations with Capitol Hill and significantly lessen chances of getting other priorities enacted. Whether he's prepared to challenge congressional spending habits in 2010 could be a major test of his commitment to reforming Washington.

Fourth is to avoid overloading the circuits. White House officials concede that happened this year, but out of necessity. Democrats outside the White House fear the administration will rush ahead with plans to enact energy legislation in 2010 and try to force action on comprehensive immigration reform, another politically volatile issue.

The administration and members of Congress have been working on both of those issues out of sight. But there appears to be far less appetite to try to force Congress to enact measures that could come at a high cost politically, unless they have clear bipartisan support.