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As Obama looks abroad, risks grow at home

By Alan Silverleib, CNN
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Obama: Iran must prove peaceful intent
  • Obama set to address the U.N. on a range of topics, including Iraq and Afghanistan
  • Voters, however, rank the economy as their No. 1 concern
  • Presidents have sought foreign policy achievements when faced with domestic troubles
  • The economy will once again be the main issue for Obama next week

(CNN) -- Foreign policy may be the focus of President Barack Obama's address to the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday, but domestic concerns will continue to remain in the forefront for many White House aides.

When Obama steps to the podium in New York, he will seize a unique opportunity to update the American public -- and the broader international community -- on the administration's overseas priorities, according to White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.

Among the topics likely to be covered: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, nuclear nonproliferation efforts in Iran and North Korea, and "real opportunities" to achieve "a lasting peace in the Middle East."

But how much do people back home care? And -- perhaps more important -- will yet another day focused on foreign policy hurt Democrats' efforts to convince voters that economic recovery is really their top priority?

With the nation's unemployment rate stuck stubbornly close to double digits, a stronger economy remains the key issue in the looming midterm elections. Fewer than one in five Americans consider the economy to be in good shape, according to a September 1-2 CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll. Eighty-one percent characterize economic conditions as poor.

Roughly half of all Americans believe the economy is as bad or worse than it was two years ago, when Obama was running for president.

Nearly 60 percent of Americans disapprove of the administration's handling of the economy.

The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Adding to Obama's woes: turmoil with his economic team. The White House announced Tuesday that Larry Summers, the president's top economic adviser, will return to academia at the end of the year.

The announcement followed July's departure of Budget Director Peter Orszag and the exit this month of former Council of Economic Advisers chief Christina Romer.

And while some analysts may give Obama credit for winding down the Iraq war or launching a new round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks -- both issues tied to the broader struggle against terrorism -- there's scant evidence voters are impressed.

Americans surveyed in the poll gave Republicans a 20-point edge -- 54 to 34 percent -- on the question of which party can do a better job handling terrorism. They split virtually evenly, favoring Republicans 45 to 42 percent, when asked which party can do a better job handling the war in Afghanistan.

Despite those numbers -- and the critical importance of economic issues -- Obama may still be hoping to find a degree of political solace in international affairs.

"Traditionally, presidents who have faced problems in their domestic agenda have turned to foreign policy to shore up their standing with the public," CNN Polling Director Keating Holland notes.

"Previous presidents have found that acting as commander in chief, in an arena where they can act largely unchecked by Congress, has served them well. Obama may be facing a different environment in 2010, but he's using the same playbook that most of his predecessors have since World War II."

Nevertheless, the White House plans to quickly remind voters more worried about pocketbook issues that the president has not forgotten their concerns. Obama is set to return to the subject of the economy next week when he travels to New Mexico, Wisconsin, Iowa and Virginia.

While in Wisconsin, he'll also raise funds for U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, who is suddenly facing a tough re-election race.

In short: Obama's U.N. visit may be the focus of discussion on Thursday, but the economy is far more likely to remain in the headlines in the dwindling stretch run to Election Day.