Politics & Government

Is Obama taking on too much at once, at economy's expense?

President Barack Obama ponders what to say.
President Barack Obama ponders what to say. Chuck Kennedy / MCT

WASHINGTON — Is President Barack Obama trying to do too many things at the expense of focusing on Job One: the economy?

While the world awaits a coherent plan to fix America's banks, the president also is urging a vast overhaul of health care, a plan to tax and thus limit tailpipe and smokestack emissions thought to cause global warming, the development of alternative energy systems, a dramatic shift of the nation's tax burden, ambitious new education initiatives and a rewrite of financial regulations.

If that weren't enough in his first 50 days, he's also found time to create a White House council on women and girls and to travel weekly to politically key states. This week, he heads to California for two days to talk about the economy.

If he tries to do too much, some analysts say, he could end up a modern-day Jimmy Carter, blazing into town and throwing the kitchen sink at Congress, only to end his first year in office with a pile of broken plumbing.

Andrew S. Grove, the former chief executive officer of Intel Corp. who's now a professor at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business, wrote an urgent appeal to Obama to focus on fixing the banks for last Wednesday's Washington Post:

"We have gone through months of chaos experimenting with ways to introduce stability into our financial system. The goals were to allow the financial institutions to do their jobs and to develop confidence in them. I believe by now, the people are eager for the administration to rein in chaos. But this is not happening.

"Until the administration does this, we should not embark on attempting to fix another major part of the economy," Grove wrote.

Obama and his aides say that he can, and must, do it all. They see him as a Franklin D. Roosevelt, confronting an emergency with a New Deal-like smorgasbord of government programs. If there's a problem, they say, it's getting Congress to keep up.

Republicans intend to obstruct Obama's agenda.

"It's time to focus on the emergency that we have in front of us," said Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, his party's leader in the House of Representatives. "Can we really be talking about (the global warming) proposal or a government takeover of our health-care system while our economy is collapsing?"

Republicans fear that Obama will use the combination of an economic emergency and big Democratic majorities in Congress to ram through a liberal agenda.

It's not just Republicans who're worried about the breadth of Obama's agenda, though.

William Galston, a top adviser in Democrat Bill Clinton's White House, noted that Carter, like Obama, thought it critical to enact his entire agenda as soon as possible when he took office in 1977.

"Everybody has warned me not to take on too many projects so early in the administration," Carter wrote in his diary. "But it's almost impossible for me to delay something that I see needs to be done."

Yet by the end of the year, most of his agenda was stalled.

Today, Galston notes in an essay for The New Republic, Obama appears unable to restore confidence in the financial system, arguably the key problem preventing economic recovery.

"It is time for President Obama to focus his considerable leadership and communication skills on the financial crisis," Galston said. "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. If he does not, he could end up where another highly intelligent, self-disciplined and upright president did three decades ago."

Obama said last week that he could and should do more than just fix the banks.

"These problems in the financial markets . . . are only a part of what threatens our economy," he told the Business Roundtable. "And we must not use the need to confront them as an excuse to keep ignoring the long-term threats to our prosperity, the cost of our health care and our oil addiction, our education deficit and our fiscal deficit.

"I am not choosing to address these additional challenges just because I feel like it or because I'm a glutton for punishment. I am doing so because they are fundamental to our economic growth and to ensuring that we don't have more crises like this in the future."

Still, he felt the need Friday to stress that he IS focusing largely on the economy.

"We are spending every day working through how to get credit flowing again so that businesses, large and small, as well as consumers, are able to obtain credit and we can get this economy moving again," Obama said.

Some close observers of the presidency think that Obama's multi-tasking makes sense.

"He ought to stick with his agenda," said Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas. "It's true the economy is the top priority. But it's also true that the rest of his agenda — health care, education, the environment — is integrated with the economic agenda."

Buchanan acknowledged, however, that Obama is hindered by two things, one which can be fixed — the need to staff the Treasury Department and other agencies crucial to his agenda — and one more intractable, Congress' questionable ability to handle all the work.

"It is going to overload the system," Buchanan said.

Many members of Congress say that they're up to it. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., a leading Democratic moderate, said that overhauling health care, for example, might be easier than critics think.

"This issue has been around for a long time, and people are familiar with it," he said, adding that constituents know the problems, Congress knows the interest groups involved and lawmakers have spent years building bipartisan coalitions.

However, Congress routinely fails to do its most basic task, passing the 12 annual appropriations bills that finance the government. Just last week, Congress passed and Obama signed one package wrapping up nine of the bills for the fiscal year that started last Oct. 1.

Then the Senate said it would schedule no votes Wednesday to take a break, and the House and the Senate knocked off for the week at 3 p.m. Thursday. They're out until Monday night.

If there's a problem with the crowded agenda, it's not at the White House, but in Congress, said Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat.

"How hard do you think Congress works?" Rendell asked. "Could they expand their work load? Of course they could."


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