WASHINGTON - The dog days of summer are not being kind to President Barack Obama.

His poll numbers have slipped, his health-care overhaul isn't likely to be ready this week despite his fondest hopes, and there is lingering fallout from the president's remarks last week about the arrest of a friend.

A month ago, the Obama administration was delighted it had managed to push through a major climate-change bill in the House of Representatives, and hoped for the same success on health care.

Indeed, the White House was hopeful it could get much of its agenda through Congress in 2009.

But a group of 52 fiscally conservative Democrats - known as Blue Dogs - has emerged as a major thorn in the side of the Obama administration and party leaders.

The Blue Dogs are apparently fearful that Republicans will have the upper hand in the 2010 mid-term elections, and have grown bolder in openly defying Obama and his powerful allies, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid.

The Blue Dogs take issue with crucial elements of their party's health-care reform bill, and are resisting admonishments from those top Democrats not to jeopardize Obama's most cherished and ambitious legislative effort.

"I think the American people want to take a closer look at this legislation. They want to feel more comfortable with it," Jim Cooper, a Blue Dog from Tennessee, said over the weekend.

Cooper said a vote in the House on the bill likely wouldn't be held until after Labour Day.

Obama had wanted the bill passed before the August recess, which begins at the end of the week, so that Americans would have a new health-care system by October. Pelosi has pledged to bring unruly Democrats to heel and pass the bill in the days to come, but it seemed unlikely with the Blue Dogs still standing firm.

It's all made for a tense atmosphere in Washington that has Republicans gleeful at the idea of using health-care reform to cause permanent damage to Obama.

"If we're able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him," Republican Senator Jim De Mint recently proclaimed.

The president's poll numbers are, indeed, taking a hit as Americans worry not just about health-care reform, but deficit spending and rising unemployment.

Gallup says Obama's overall approval rating is now at 55 per cent, the lowest of his young presidency.

That places Obama 10th among the 12 post-war commanders-in-chief at this stage in their presidencies. He was ranked seventh when he took office on Jan. 20.

Obama sought to undo some damage on Monday from what some observers consider a rare gaffe from a usually circumspect politician - his remarks during a televised news conference last week that police in Cambridge, Mass., acted "stupidly" in arresting a noted Harvard scholar.

Henry Gates, a friend of Obama's, had lost his keys and was entering his house when police responded to a call about a suspected break-in and soon arrested the professor on a disorderly conduct charge.

Obama pointed to the incident as evidence that blacks and Latinos are treated differently than white people by police officers, and was swiftly criticized for stoking sensitive race issues from the presidential podium.

"The fact of the matter is he's a human being," David Axelrod, a senior White House adviser, said of Obama's remarks.

"As gifted and bright and disciplined as he is, every once in a while, he doesn't use words exactly as he intended or in retrospect discussion it had meaning beyond what he wanted to express."

The president, in fact, was said to have told his staff immediately after the news conference that it was stupid of him to have used the word "stupidly."

On Monday, White House officials said plans were underway for a happy ending to the incident - one they're no doubt wishing would work with the stubborn Blue Dogs.

Gates and the police officer who arrested him, Sgt. James Crowley, will sit down for a beer at the White House with Obama some time this week.

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