Is Obama taking on too much?

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

Gerald Herber/AP
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.
Charles Dharapak/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.

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.

“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.”

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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