WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama returned from vacation Sunday, ready for a busy fall season and more battles with Congress over Zika funding, the federal budget and $400 million the administration paid Iran this year for the never-completed sale of military equipment.
Obama is also expected to campaign doggedly throughout October to help elect Democrat Hillary Clinton as president.
A theoretically rested president returned to the White House after a 16-day getaway to Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, with his wife, Michelle, daughters Malia and Sasha, and their dogs. He played 10 rounds of golf and went out to dinner eight times.
Throughout Sunday, scores of residents lined roads to watch and wave as the motorcade crisscrossed the island on the last day of Obama's final vacation there as president. Signs posted around the island's various towns thanked the family for coming.
Obama will be at the White House for about a day before hitting the road again Tuesday to survey damage from heavy flooding in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, that killed at least 13 people and displaced thousands more.
The president had resisted pressure from Louisianans and others to interrupt his vacation to go meet with officials and flood victims, and the White House stressed that he was receiving regular briefings on the flooding during the vacation. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump filled the void created by Obama's absence, touring the ravaged area Friday with his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.
With Congress still on a seven-week break, Obama and aides probably will focus on what the White House can get from lawmakers before they leave town to campaign for re-election. Congress returns after Labor Day, and the House and Senate will have just a month to pass a catch-all spending bill by the end of the federal budget year on Sept. 30 to keep the government operating.
Lawmakers plan to leave Washington again in October and not return until after the Nov. 8 elections.
The White House will continue to push for money to help keep the mosquito-borne Zika virus from spreading and develop a vaccine. Florida last week identified the popular Miami tourist haven of South Beach as the second site of Zika transmission on the U.S. mainland. A section of Miami's Wynwood arts district was the first.
Obama asked Congress for $1.9 billion this year for Zika prevention. Republicans offered $1.1 billion and added provisions Democrats objected to, including language on Planned Parenthood, leaving the matter in limbo before Congress adjourned in mid-July. Lawmakers could end up adding Zika money to the broader spending bill.
In turn, incensed lawmakers have promised to keep the heat on the administration over $400 million it delivered to Iran in January. Republicans say the money was ransom to win freedom for four Americans held in Iran. Questioned about the payment earlier this month, Obama said: "We do not pay ransom. We didn't here. And we ... won't in the future."
The president and other officials denied any linkage. But administration officials also said it made little sense not to "retain maximum leverage," as State Department spokesman John Kirby put it last week, for the money long owed to Iran, to ensure the U.S. citizens' release, given uncertainty about whether Iran would keep its promise to free them the day the money was to be delivered.
Iran had paid $400 million in the 1970s for U.S. military equipment, but the Iranian government was overthrown and the equipment wasn't delivered.
The explanations have not satisfied critics in and out of Congress. Trump has begun telling supporters at his campaign rallies that Obama "openly and blatantly" lied about the prisoners. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said Obama has set a "dangerous precedent" and owes the public a "full accounting of his actions."
Obama heads into the fall, and what's expected to be a dogged effort on his part to boost Clinton to the White House, in improved public standing, according to the Pew Research Center.
His job approval rating stands at 53 percent, about the same as just before July's political conventions. But Obama's standing among independent voters has reached positive territory for the first time since December 2012. Fifty-three percent of independents approve of Obama's job performance, the center found, while 40 percent disapprove. Independents had split 46 percent to 46 percent on the question in June.
Obama won't spend much time at the White House in the coming weeks.
After visiting Louisiana, the president heads to Nevada on Aug. 31 to discuss environmental protection at the Lake Tahoe Summit. He follows with a trip to China and Laos from Sept. 2-9.