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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.

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“I know there’s some who believe we can only handle one challenge at a time,” Obama said Tuesday in his remarks on education. “They forget that Lincoln helped lay down the transcontinental railroad and passed the Homestead Act and created the National Academy of Sciences in the midst of civil war.”

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Obama has also famously said that “we cannot successfully address any of our problems without addressing them all.” In that statement, made in his weekly video address Feb. 21, he was describing the intertwined nature of the economic crisis – the connections among the housing crisis, the credit crunch, and the decline in jobs.

Add to that mix, this week, the nation’s declining performance in educating its children.

When asked whether it was really worth the diversion for the president to focus on education while Wall Street was sinking to new lows daily, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs kept up the analogy of the economy as a house on fire: “I think part of the house that’s on fire is dealing with the education problem.”

Warren Buffett, the legendary investor and an Obama supporter, also tweaked the administration early in the week for issuing “muddled messages,” leading the public to “feel that they don’t know what’s going on and their reaction, then, is to absolutely pull back.”

In another sign that the White House has gotten the message about the need for clarity, the administration has put out word that economic recovery remains its top priority, and that the economic team, from Obama on down, is making its voice heard.

On Thursday, Obama will speak about the economy to the Business Roundtable. On Friday, Obama’s top economic adviser, Lawrence Summers, will give a major speech on the economy in Washington. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, whose debut was marred by a less-than-reassuring presence, remains in the game with testimony before the Senate Budget Committee on Thursday.

It’s also possible that, in carving out a massive agenda, Obama is throwing out topics like education that he can then back away from, “as a kind of stalking horse, to avoid having to jettison the ones he does not want to put off,” says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas, Austin. Mr. Buchanan does not buy the argument that Obama is “doing too much.”

“It overlooks the urgency of the moment, both in terms of fixing stuff that has to be fixed now, and getting stuff on the agenda that loses its chance if it isn’t addressed now,” Buchanan says. In fact, there may be something to the statements by chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who have both warned against “wasting a good crisis.”

“There’s some truth to that,” he says. “You’re feeding your opponents, but nevertheless, the American political system has very few windows of opportunity, and crises are the most important.”

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