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Obama beset at once by multiple crises

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TOM RAUM
May 4, 2010
— Unpredictable and tough to solve, the stack of problems on President Barack Obama's desk is growing unwieldy. It's presenting him with a tough juggling act.

Two wars, a financial crisis, lingering high unemployment and an exhausting battle over health care. And that was just the start.


Now throw in an environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and an attempted car bombing in Times Square. And there are other pressing matters, such as dealing with the increasing menace of Iran's nuclear program, trying to get the Middle East peace process back on track, searching for a new Supreme Court justice and trying to persuade Congress to approve the most sweeping rewrite of financial rules in 70 years.


And Obama is striving to juggle these problems while he and his party brace for potentially big midterm election losses in November.


"Safe to say, there is a lot on the president's plate," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said at his daily briefing on Monday when pressed by a reporter on Obama's timetable for interviewing and selecting a new Supreme Court justice.


He was stating the obvious.


All modern presidents get bombarded with multiple problems and have to learn to multitask. But Obama seems to be getting more than his share.


"These are coming at him fast. And many are things where it's very hard for him to act. They're not win-win propositions," said Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution who worked in the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations and was an adviser to Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.


"Obama, in a sense, didn't create any of these situations. But the public, as they do with all presidents, holds him responsible for all of them," Hess said.


An oil spill, spewing up to 200,000 gallons a day into the Gulf of Mexico and threatening major environmental damage as the slick drifts toward a fragile shoreline, comes just weeks after Obama called for expanding oil drilling in the eastern Gulf and for opening drilling areas off the southeast Atlantic seaboard and in Alaska.


The disaster raises serious questions about that initiative.


Obama acted quickly to make a show of federal involvement a lesson no doubt learned from the Bush administration's sluggish and at times tone-deaf reaction to Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf in 2005.


Still, some of Obama's critics, including some on the political left, have suggested Obama's concern wasn't registered quickly enough.


A public grown highly skeptical of government's capabilities will probably judge Obama's performance in a harsher light because of President George W. Bush's stumbling.


The challenges have been piling up quickly.


The weekend before last, Obama was in West Virginia at a memorial service for 29 miners killed in a coal mine explosion that is now at the center of an FBI criminal investigation. Suddenly, there was another major explosion to deal with, this one on a deepwater oil rig in the Gulf owned by Transocean LTD and operated by BP PLC. Eleven workers died in that explosion.


Even as Obama talked with reporters about the catastrophe on Sunday during a quickly arranged visit to the Gulf, he found he also had to offer calming words over Saturday's failed car bombing in New York's Times Square.


"What we have here is a situation in which the president of the United States is dealing with a wide variety of problems," said pollster Andrew Kohut, president of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. "Economic discontent is now being augmented by concerns about what happened in the Gulf and whether we're safe from truck and car bombs.


"I think it adds to a sense of his burden. But I don't think it's going to deal a devastating blow to his image at this point," Kohut said.


The multiple crises weigh on Obama's political calculus as he decides how hard to push his remaining agenda while Democrats still control Congress.


The outlook isn't all gloomy. The elections are still six months off and a lot can happen between now and then.


The economy does seem to be improving, if slowly.


Obama does face a likely confirmation fight in the Senate over his Supreme Court choice. But at least he has a chance to place a second justice on the court. Carter, for instance, never had a single opening on the high court during his one-term presidency.


Some recent events, such as the government's civil fraud suit against giant investment bank Goldman Sachs, could work in Obama's favor on the financial regulation front by helping Democrats to harness voter anger against Wall Street.


The would-be Times Square bombing could have had devastating consequences. But the device failed to detonate.


It's still not clear how much environmental damage will result from the Gulf oil spill. But various government agencies appear to be working the problem and BP PLC has given some assurances to shrimpers, oil workers and scores of others that they will be paid for damage and injuries.


Either way, the multiple crises will leave an indelible mark on Obama's presidency, suggested Thomas E. Cronin, a presidential scholar at Colorado College in Colorado Springs.


Many successful presidential candidates like Obama "go to Washington to change the way Washington does business," Cronin said. "The fact is, once you're there, your agenda gets changed and shaped more than you are the shaper. This once again shows that events shape leaders more than leaders shape events."


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EDITOR'S NOTE Tom Raum has covered national affairs and politics for The Associated Press since 1973.



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