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Obama: Has he bitten off too much?

The president came into office determined to leverage his post-election popularity in a host of major initiatives.

Even his allies and admirers are now asking the question, said Jonathan Weisman in The Wall Street Journal. Has Barack Obama “tried to do too much, too fast”? The president came into office determined to leverage his sky-high post-election popularity in a host of major initiatives, but as his first year draws to a close, he’s buried under a crush of demanding challenges. “His signature domestic-policy initiative,” the health-care reform plan, is now reaching a critical crossroads in the Senate, even as Obama launches a new surge of troops in Afghanistan and turns his attention to the still-sour economy with a “jobs summit.” It’s an astonishing agenda even for a politician of Obama’s grand ambition, said Susan Page in USA Today. Health-care reform, chronic joblessness, Iran’s nuclear defiance, Afghanistan, climate change—can he possibly handle all of this without becoming overwhelmed? “At stake over the next four weeks may be nothing less than the rest of Obama’s presidency.”

Certainly, Obama has bitten off a lot, said Jacob Weisberg in Slate.com. But look at what he’s accomplished already. Within a month of taking office, Obama and his economic team averted a meltdown of the nation’s financial system—and a prolonged depression—by aggressively bailing out failing banks and financial institutions. He pushed through a $787 billion stimulus package that most economists agree tipped the country back into economic growth. His overseas trips, eloquent speeches, and commitment to real diplomacy have erased the bad taste left by George W. Bush’s belligerence and put America on an entirely “new footing with the rest of the world”—Muslims in particular. If, by January, Obama has also passed a health-care reform package, as Democrats have tried and failed to do for the past 60 years, “he will have accomplished more than any first-year president since Franklin Roosevelt.”

Tell that to the voters, said John Heilemann in New York. Since January, Obama’s approval rating has dropped from 70 percent to around 47 percent, in part because his agenda looks “formless and untethered.” The economy remains a mess, with millions of Americans out of work. On health care, liberals worry that Obama just wants to pass “something, anything” he can label “reform,” rather than actually fixing the system and reducing soaring costs. As for America’s standing with Muslims, said Fouad Ajami in The Wall Street Journal, “the novelty of the Obama approach, and the Obama persona, has worn off.” After all the pretty speeches, the Palestinians and Pakistanis and Iranians want to know, Where’s the Change you promised?

As a pundit, I understand the urge to make quick judgments, said Joe Klein in Time, and there’s no question that Obama has made his share of rookie mistakes. But it’s “way too early” to be assessing Obama’s presidency, or to be declaring, like his hyperbolic critics do, that every time he bows courteously to a foreign leader he’s created a catastrophe from which America will never recover. If there’s a common thread linking all of the year’s initiatives, from the stimulus to health care to a more nuanced, engaged foreign policy, it’s this: Obama is intentionally playing “a long game, which will yield results, or not, over time.” Give him another year, or two, and then we’ll see if he can swallow what he’s bitten off.

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