New president making his mark
WASHINGTON Barack Obama is the everywhere president.
Turn around and there he is on TV.
In a motorcade headed to Capitol Hill, the State Department, the Pentagon, the Kennedy Center. Announcing new members of his administration. At a prime-time news conference. In Indiana and Florida, stumping for passage of his $787 billion economic stimulus package. In Denver, signing it. In Phoenix, announcing a home foreclosure rescue plan. In Canada, schmoozing on his first foreign trip as president. Giving his first address to Congress and an anxious nation at large.
That's just the first five weeks.
With that much exposure, Obama runs the risk of overexposing himself and turning off a public that had largely tuned out the president he replaced, George W. Bush, as Bush neared the end of his eight years in the White House.
But the current climate of crisis, anchored by a next-to-no-growth economy that seems to worsen by the day, almost requires the nation's leader to be out and about, visibly explaining to the public the steps he is taking to try to make things better.
"If this were a normal presidency he might be overexposing his persona, but it is not," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "This is a moment of crisis and people need the reassurance of seeing a president frequently and in control."
Bush had been about as active as Obama in his first five weeks in office, in 2001, including a similar address to Congress, a foreign trip to Mexico, a five-state, campaign-style swing to sell his plan for $1.6 trillion in tax cuts, a news conference in the White House briefing room and trips to military installations.
He did it against a vastly different backdrop, however.
The country had just emerged from the Clinton years, during which the economy flourished and Uncle Sam's wallet was brimming with money. Bush had campaigned on a promise of more than $1 trillion in tax cuts and was able to deliver within months of taking office.
The country also was at peace. War followed months later, after terrorists attacked New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001. Bush first sent troops into Afghanistan, then led a coalition into Iraq. Both conflicts have cost billions of dollars.
And Bush didn't have to contend with simultaneous meltdowns in the financial, auto and housing industries.
Ari Fleischer, who was Bush's first press secretary, said Obama's level of visibility is appropriate for his time in office.
"I think with every new president the country wants to take a measure of who the new president is," he said. People get to know them as candidates but "then they take a different measure of them as president, so he needs to be out there showing people who he is."
"Over time, he will need to recalibrate, but not yet," Fleischer added.
Ronald Walters, director of the African American Leadership Center at the University of Maryland, said Obama is using his popularity and political capital to make progress quickly on solving these huge problems, even as he continues the process of building an administration.
Walters said people would want to know where the president was if he weren't out there being his own salesman.
"If he were not as active as he is, there would be a vacuum," he said. "We'd be talking about a vacuum of leadership in the midst of these huge crises."
David Gergen, who has advised both Republican and Democratic presidents, said Obama was "near the edge" of overexposure.
Both he and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, agreed that Obama needs more people in his administration who are as capable of speaking to the public, and as credible, as he is.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's rollout of a bank rescue plan lacked specificity and was not well-received by Wall Street.
"I think it's very important that an administration in the midst of an economic crisis have strong, authoritative spokesmen for the president on economic questions so he doesn't have to do all the heavy lifting himself," Gergen said. "I don't think he's overexposed. I think he's having to carry too much of the weight himself."
If the public was already tired of Obama, it would show in the polls — and the numbers aren't there yet.
An Associated Press-GfK poll last week found Obama's approval rating at 67 percent, down from 74 percent before he took office, and the latest Washington Post-ABC News survey found his approval at 68 percent. Though a Gallup survey released Tuesday put his approval rating at 59 percent, that was not far off the average one-month approval rating of 62 percent for the past six elected presidents.