WASHINGTON - -Before he returns to the capital to reset his presidency, Barack Obama is savoring his longest stay yet at Camp David.
The Maryland mountain retreat has quickly become for him what it was for his predecessors - a secluded place to lick his wounds and decompress. This latest, extended visit can be seen as another sign of the normalization of the Obama administration, which, like his poll numbers, has fallen back to Earth.
Obama came to power less than eight months ago in a blaze of adulation and excitement, a figure of historic importance. Today, he's much more like other presidents. His job approval rating is slightly lower than Ronald Reagan's, roughly even with George W. Bush's and substantially higher than Bill Clinton's at the same point in the first year of their presidencies.
"I think we can overstate how big his problems are," said Andrew Kohut, director of the independent Pew Research poll. "There were such high expectations for him. That's part of this. But it would be unrealistic to think that he would go sailing right through with his high rating, given all the problems the country faces."
Economists say the worst recession since the Depression is about to end, if it hasn't already. Many credit government action, including the $787 billion economic stimulus package that Obama pushed through Congress last winter, for speeding a recovery.
But unemployment has continued to soar, to the highest level in a generation, and millions of Americans are worried that their job could be among the next to go. That unease, analysts say, helped fuel the president's summerlong slide in popularity.
Another drag on Obama's standing is the increasingly divisive debate over his top domestic initiative: an overhaul of the U.S. health care system. This week, Obama will address a joint session of Congress and a national television audience in an effort to reclaim momentum and control the dialogue over how to control costs and cover the uninsured.
The president also faces daunting challenges overseas, including the spread of violence in Afghanistan. He will confront a difficult decision this fall about sending 15,000 to 30,000 more U.S. combat troops into the war zone, where American casualties have been on the rise.
Public opinion has turned against the war, fed by growing opposition from Obama's liberal supporters. The president recently called Afghanistan "a war of necessity," but he is likely to face pressure in the coming months to either demonstrate progress or begin laying out an exit strategy.
Critics say Obama brought many of his problems upon himself with what they describe as his excessive ambition. In their view, the new president overloaded the system with sweeping proposals to change the U.S. health care system and curb greenhouse gas emissions, rather than concentrating on the economy and limiting himself to incremental fixes in other areas.
"He's one of the two or three most talented political figures of my lifetime," said Peter Wehner, a top White House strategist under George W. Bush, who accuses Obama of overreaching. "He's burned up a huge amount of capital. ... If he had governed in a different way, he would have a lot more wind at his back.
"The public still likes Obama, and they're not ready to throw him out of office. But I think he's really created a lot of doubts," Wehner added. "He's not in command of events. He's more at their mercy."
Republicans are not alone in questioning whether Obama weakened himself - and put his party's big House and Senate majorities in jeopardy heading into next year's congressional elections - by heaping too much on Washington's plate.
Bill Galston, a top domestic policy adviser in the Clinton White House, said he was always skeptical of the decision to introduce a large health care overhaul at a time when Americans were feeling hard-pressed.
"It's easy to understand the desire to strike while the iron was hot, but there was another question to be asked: namely, what would the political marketplace bear, and would there be a connection between the expanded and expensive role of government in stabilizing the economy on the one hand and, on the other, the administration's ability to put forward and enact a very ambitious and expensive domestic agenda," he said.
White House aides hope that Obama's prime-time speech Wednesday will rally public opinion and counter what they say is a misperception that an overly passive Obama has not been fully engaged in shaping a new health plan.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, a member of the House Democratic leadership, said the speech "does signal a new level of engagement" by Obama.
"It's a very important moment. It's like the opening bell in Round Two," he said. "He's signaling that we've got these proposals in the Congress and [he's] now going to personally weigh in."
Obama is expected to highlight broad areas of agreement that could form the basis of a legislative compromise without offering a detailed proposal of his own.