When President Obama faces the press corps this evening, in his second prime-time news conference, he undoubtedly will be asked to address the charge (which has apparently crystallized into Beltway conventional wisdom) that his agenda is overly ambitious, that he has been piling too much on his plate at his own peril, that he is overreaching at a time when (to borrow a '92 Bill Clinton phrase) he should simply "focus like a laser beam" on fixing the economy.
Few would argue that he has been uncommonly busy during his first 63 days, what with passing the biggest spending/stimulus plan in history, working up a new budget that takes on everything from health care to energy reform to education reform, signing into law an expansion of children's health insurance and a measure helping women workers to seek equal pay, launching an incremental withdrawal from Iraq while shifting soldiers to Afghanistan, penning executive orders to close Guantanamo and expand stem cell research, and (finally) providing some crucial details on the public-private partnership program that (hopefully) will rescue the banks and calm everybody's jitters. And those are merely the highlights.
This speight of multi-tasking doesn't seem to be of great public concern. The new Gallup poll reports that 65 percent of Americans like the job he is doing; the latest CBS News poll puts the number at 64 percent; the latest CNN/Opinion Research, 64 percent; the latest Pew poll, 59 percent; the latest NPR poll, 59 percent; the latest Rasmussen, 56 percent. Pew, moreover, specifically asked people whether they think Obama is "addressing too many issues at once." Only 35 percent said yes; 56 percent said his focus was "about right."
Nevertheless, Obama tonight will probably be asked, directly or by implication, to defend his workload. The charge has gained urgency in many quarters precisely because of the steady economic slide, and particularly in the wake of the outcry over the AIG taxpayer-financed bonuses and the widely-shared perception (which I share) that the Obama teammates didn't exactly manage the episode very well. They did little to block the bonuses, they didn't anticipate the resultant public anger, and they wound up contradicting the spirit of Obama's populist promises to hold the financial industry "fully accountable" for their use of taxpayer dollars.
However, Wall Street's favorable response yesterday to the details of the administration's bank rescue plan - a Dow boost of nearly 500 points - may well give Obama some breathing room on the question of whether he's overloaded. If the major investment firms truly believe that the administration has charted an effective program for fixing the banks, and thus the financial system, it's conceivable that, over time, this confidence could favorably impact the broader economy. More immediately, in political terms, if the perception takes root that Obama and his heretofore maligned Treasury secretary have mapped a way forward, Obama will be more easily capable of selling the argument that he can effectively govern on multiple fronts.
It would not be surprise tonight if Obama simply repeats what he recently told reporters: "There are some who've argued that we can't do all these things at once and that we should instead just focus on Wall Street and banking. I think that would be a mistake. I think that extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. So even as we're working on financial stabilization, regulating Wall Street, we're going to keep on pressing to get the investments that will ultimately lead to long-term economic growth." (The word investments is progressive-speak for spending.)
His overall argument, likely to be reinforced tonight, is that it's good policy to tackle health care and education and energy in the midst of an economic crisis, because solving those problems will all contribute to the building of a sound economy 10 years out. (There's also a political component, of course. Any president with 60-plus approval during his first year would be nuts to forego the chance of leveraging it for maximum effect.)
And it's also worth considering what skeptical Obama-watchers would be saying today if the president was laser-beaming on the economy to the exclusion of everything else. Instead of accusing Obama of doing too much, they would be complaining that he was doing too little. They'd be calling him a do-nothing president. They'd complain that he was dragging his feet on the nation's most pressing problems, and flagrantly betraying the activist "change" agenda that he as a candidate promised to pursue. Indeed, the New York Times editorial page this morning faults Obama for not doing enough on immigration reform, calling the issue "a civil rights crisis (that) cannot be left to fester." As Obama told Jay Leno last week, the hothouse atmosphere in politico-world is "a little bit like American Idol, except everybody is Simon Cowell. Everybody's got an opinion."
On the other hand, current concerns about Obama's alleged overreaching could flare anew down the road if the bank rescue plan fails to get traction. Yesterday was a good start; the Dow jumped by 6.8 percent. But it's worth remembering that, last November, on the day Tim Geithner's name was leaked for the Treasury post, the market rejoiced at the news and the Dow jumped 6.5 percent...and we know how well that turned out.
Republican quasi-maverick Arlen Specter announced today on the Senate floor that he will join his party brethren this year and block any final vote on the Employe Free Choice Act, the hot-button labor reform bill that would make it easier for workers to unionize. Although he gave himself some wiggle room (he might "reconsider" his stance in the future, "when the economy returns to normalcy"), his announcement tells us a couple things:
First, this probably means that this ambitious reform measure (organized labor's top priority) is dead in 2009. Even assuming that the Senate Democrats had stuck together as a group to thwart the GOP, presumably with the help of a newly-seated Al Franken, their tally would've been 59 votes - one short of the number necessary to stop a Republican filibuster. Specter would've been the pivotal 60th vote. No other Republican is expected to fill his shoes, given the fact that, two years ago, he was the only Republican to side with the Democrats when the labor reform measure first surfaced.
Second, with his announcement today, Specter has basically signaled that he will take on all comers in the 2010 Pennsylvania Senate race. By siding with the party's conservative electorate on labor reform, he clearly thinks he can prevail in a GOP primary rematch, thwarting a new challenge on his right flank from Pat Toomey. And if he wins that contest, he clearly thinks that his statewide name ID and sizeable war chest will be enough to defeat any newbie Democratic challenger - even if the labor unions, once friendly to him, but now ticked off about his labor reform flip-flop - decide to pour all their money and resources into the Democratic effort.
Any way you look at it, the guy is a gamer.