Obama Walks Fine Line

Posted June 9, 2009 at 6:40pm

President Barack Obama says he can — and indeed must — handle a dizzying array of vital issues in order to keep the country afloat while pressing ahead with his agenda. But by staging events on employment and the budget deficits in the first two days of this week, he highlighted the political risks inherent in such a juggling act.

Obama’s task list is long, and not entirely of his making.

He inherited wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; an economy and a financial system near collapse; several large companies actually in collapse; a bellicose nuclear North Korea; and a near-nuclear Iran. He must implement a giant economic stimulus bill and steer government ownership of General Motors Corp. He must work to defeat al-Qaida and prevent another terrorist attack on the U.S. He was presented with an opening on the Supreme Court and must make sure his choice, Judge Sonia Sotomayor, is confirmed by the Senate.

Asked last week by NBC’s Brian Williams whether he was trying to handle too much, Obama responded, “I’m always puzzled when people say, You’re taking on too much.’ Well, what exactly would you have me give up?—

But Obama has certainly added agenda items of his own — initiatives that he views as undeniably urgent but which others think can wait. He wants Congress to approve a massive health care bill; he wants a carbon cap-and-trade program as a capstone to a broader energy bill; he decided to close the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, prison and must manage the process; and he decided that now is the time for resolving the decades-old crisis between Israel and the Palestinians. The president is also pressing several proposals to improve the nation’s education system.

All told, he has more than a dozen issues before him, and each could be described as a huge burden.

As this week’s events show, each issue presents an opportunity as well as pitfalls that could lead to a president’s undoing. And each time things go awry, Republicans will have an opening to challenge the popular president.

“The question is, does he have so many things on the table that he runs the risk that they will be driving him rather than him driving them,— said David Winston, a GOP strategist and former Roll Call contributing writer.

On Friday, the White House received news that the unemployment rate had soared to 9.4 percent. Though the rate of job losses had actually slowed, the number looked bad and was about a point and a half above where the White House had predicted it would top off. And a president who keeps touting his effort to turn the economy around can hardly tolerate such numbers for long, even if they stem from policies and events that preceded him.

On Monday, the White House staged an event where Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden described how the stimulus so far had “saved or created— 150,000 jobs — and how the programs being rolled out this summer would add another 600,000.

Similarly, Obama’s costly plans on health care and other matters have raised questions about his ability to control the deficit.

A new Gallup Poll shows Obama’s handling of the deficit and approach to federal spending is approved of by only about 45 percent of those polled.

Not surprisingly, Tuesday featured a White House event at which Obama proposed making pay-as-you-go rules, which force tax cuts or mandatory spending increases to be offset, the law of the land.

In his interview with Williams, Obama said average Americans did not feel he was taking on too much. And, according to Winston, he’s right.

“They want him to tackle as many problems as he can,— Winston said. “But as things start to slip through the cracks, that’s when the public will want him to generate a focus.—