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Analysis: Obama looks from Egypt to economy

For now, the fever appears to be breaking in the Egyptian crisis, allowing President Barack Obama to turn back to pressing U.S. economic troubles and the impending political battles over solutions to America's huge and threatening debt burden.
/ Source: The Associated Press

For now, the fever appears to be breaking in the Egyptian crisis, allowing President Barack Obama to turn back to pressing U.S. economic troubles and the impending political battles over solutions to America's huge and threatening debt burden.

The overt subtext every day from now until November 2012 also will display an Obama who is carefully positioning himself for election to a second term. So far, his handling of the crisis in Egypt, while less than sure-footed, has found broad bipartisan support — a political bullet dodged. But the economy remains wobbly, and therein lies the key to re-election of America's first black president.

He faces a Republican drive to cut spending that begins in earnest this week, building on November elections that returned the party to the majority in the House of Representatives on campaign promises of smaller government and reducing the federal debt.

There is broad agreement among politicians of both parties that the country can no longer sustain a federal deficit projected to reach $1.5 trillion this year, and an accumulated debt of more than $13 trillion.

The lines will be drawn this week as the House begins working on a bill to keep the government in operation after March 4, with Republicans demanding that funding be $35 billion lower than what was enacted for last year. That would tide the government over through September. The new budget year begins Oct. 1.

Budget director: 'tough choices' ahead
Preparing for the battle, Obama's budget director, in an article in the New York Times on Sunday, pointed to spending cuts in three popular programs in states and cities as examples of the "tough choices" ahead in the White House budget blueprint that also will propose lower spending overall. At the same time, Obama wants to direct money to new initiatives.

He sends his spending proposal to Congress on Feb. 14.

The president already has called for a five-year freeze on discretionary spending, except for national security. That will reduce the deficit by more than $400 billion over 10 years, according to the White House.

Budget director Jacob Lew, however, cautioned Republicans against indiscriminate budget cutting in what he called areas critical to long-term growth, including education, innovation and public works. Such reductions, he said, "would stifle the economy just as it begins to recover. That, in turn, would deprive us of one of the most powerful drivers of deficit reduction, a growing economy."

Obama has been recalibrating his positions on the economy since the Republican landslide in November. The Democrat has shown a willingness to compromise and has shaken up his White House, replacing key advisers with figures seen as more business-friendly. That in turn has led to a significant rise in his approval ratings with Americans.

Speech to the Chamber of Commerce
He spoke Monday at the Republican-friendly Chamber of Commerce, a major foe in the last election. It was his first speech to the organization which, not four months ago, he attacked for failing to disclose donors to its huge, $32 million congressional political campaign, "Their lips are sealed," Obama said at the time, "but the floodgates are open."

Now, facing the new reality created by the November vote, White House officials say Obama's speech will not break new policy ground. In his radio and Internet address Saturday, Obama said businesses have an obligation to stay in the United States, hire American workers and invest in the nation's future.

"That's the message I'll be bringing to American business leaders at the Chamber of Commerce on Monday — that government and businesses have mutual responsibilities, and that if we fulfill these obligations together, it benefits us all," he said.

The message is not limited to the Chamber. Obama already has met with top U.S. executives in December to push them to put some of the billions of dollars they are holding back into circulation to create jobs. He has compromised with Republicans on tax cuts. That gained him grudging support from big business.

Obama also promises a review of government regulations, something that is at the top of the business agenda, particularly the financial sector that is facing a swath of new rules.

The president's renewed focus on the economy, however, could easily be knocked aside by events in Egypt.

While the crisis seemed to ease as the government began talks with the opposition and gave ground on major points, the crisis is not over. A wrong step by the government and its security forces, balkiness in moving forward toward new elections and the departure of President Hosni Mubarak could easily tip the balance back to bloody violence. That would force Obama back into trying to manage a deep crisis abroad — one that is critical to American policy throughout the Middle East and beyond.