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Is Obama taking on too much?

Bolstered by high approval ratings, the president sees a limited window of opportunity to enact his agenda.

By / March 11, 2009

Man on the move: Whether he’s signing executive orders, speaking to lawmakers on healthcare, or touting his education program, President Obama has filled his first weeks in office with urgency and activity.

Gerald Herber/AP



The first 50 days of the Obama administration have seen a whirlwind of activity – a record $787 billion economic stimulus bill, summits on fiscal responsibility and healthcare, a raft of executive orders undoing Bush-era policies.

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In the first three days of this week alone, President Obama has focused attention on embryonic stem cell research, education, and earmarks. On Wednesday, as the president prepared to sign a $410 billion omnibus spending bill left over from the last administration – and containing almost 8,000 congressional pet projects totaling $5.5 billion – he announced new rules governing such earmarks.

All the while, the nation remains gripped by its worst economic crisis in decades, and with no end in sight, the topic du jour has become: Is Obama trying to do too much?

The Obama administration itself has not hidden the fact that it sees a limited window to enact its agenda, almost like a game of “beat the clock.” As long as Obama’s job approval ratings are comfortably high – currently in the 60s in major polls – he has the political capital to address the pent-up demand for change that is inevitable when the opposition party takes over from an unpopular previous administration.

But, there’s only so much a White House and Congress can accomplish, given the deliberative nature of the process, and even members of Obama’s own party are raising warning flags about the magnitude of the new president’s agenda.

“It is time for President Obama to focus his considerable leadership and communication skills on the financial crisis – to speak candidly with the people about the magnitude of the problem, to embrace a solution commensurate with the problem, and to do whatever it takes to persuade Congress and the people to accept it,” wrote William Galston, a former senior adviser to President Clinton, in The New Republic.

If not, Mr. Galston warns, Obama could end up like “another highly intelligent, self-disciplined, and upright president did three decades ago.” He is referring to President Carter, who in his first year in office sent so many proposals down Pennsylvania Avenue the result was near-gridlock, Galston notes.

Though many analogies have been drawn between today and Franklin Roosevelt’s rise to power in 1933, when the country was already mired in a deep economic depression, the more apt model may be Ronald Reagan, who also rose to the presidency as the economy sank.

Reagan “had three big priorities – spending cuts, tax cuts, and national defense,” says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont-McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. “A lot of his supporters were upset that he deferred social issues. Part of that was his calculation that those issues would be contentious. But he also recognized that there was only so much attention that he and Congress could devote to any issue.”

Obama has heard the criticism, and is strongly defending his approach.