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Barack Obama to hold first news conference of 2012

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WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama is holding his first news conference of the year in the midst of a modestly improving economy but in the face of international challenges that could test the current recovery as well as his presidency.

Obama has not held a full news conference since November.

The White House scheduled this one on the same day as the 10-state Super Tuesday Republican presidential nominating contests.

While aides insist the timing is coincidental, it follows a pattern of Obama seeking the limelight when the attention is on the GOP.

The news conference comes amid a new sense of optimism in the White House.

Obama's public approval ratings have inched up close to 50 percent. The president recently won an extension of a payroll tax cut that was a main element of his jobs plan for 2012.

Economic signals suggest a recovery that is taking hold. Still, he probably will face questions about the pace of the recovery.

The unemployment rate in January was 8.3 percent, the highest it has been in an election year since the Great Depression.

With rising gasoline prices threatening to slow the economy, Obama has also faced attacks from Republicans over his energy policy.

Iran's nuclear ambitions will also command attention in the aftermath of his meeting Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Tension over Iran already has contributed to higher oil prices, and Israel's threats of pre-emptive military strikes to prevent Tehran from building a nuclear bomb have dominated Washington discourse for weeks.

Other developments in the Middle East, where turmoil has soured some of the promise of last year's Arab Spring, will be a likely news conference subject.

Syria's bloody crackdown on protesters has increased pressure on Obama to intervene.

Republican Sen. John McCain on Monday urged the United States to launch airstrikes against President Bashar Assad's regime to force him out of power.

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