The question about whether President Obama has too aggressive an agenda is relevant to academics who study the presidency and to opponents of the president's policies. It is hard to answer without clairvoyance. A corollary... is the White House devoting enough time and attention to each item of the president's agenda? That's a question I hear from allies of the president. Case in point: after a head-turning, potentially world-remaking speech to the Muslim world, the White House seemed to pivot the presidential megaphone in the direction of the health care reform debate. That was Friday and Saturday. By Monday, though, the notion that the president would begin to sell the public on the wisdom of a "public plan" this week was eclipsed by the sudden appearance of a gimmicky "Road to Recovery" slogan, part of a new campaign designed to sell the American people on the efficacy of a stimulus package that has already passed.
The White House is very adept at exploiting the Michael Deaver code of presidential communication: the president should pay public attention to one major issue, per day; the structure of our media and democracy is bound to turn the president's words into a major story. Deaver's corollary insight was that the president's words didn't matter as much as the pictures, although the applicability of this nostrum to our post-modern, word-conscious times and our post-modern, word-conscious, narrative-obsessed president is unclear.
The White House staff is capable of handling dozens of problems at once, and Obama's bandwidth seems to be broad. The recipe is just right. But at times, it seems like the administration is an early-season contestant on Hell's Kitchen, throwing everything into the pot at once...saffron, fennel and white wine, zucchini, tomatoes, croûton -- and hoping that the bouillabaisse tastes good. On days when the White House creates milestones -- the next phase of the recovery package -- or artificial deadlines -- we're gonna spend this much by this point -- the White House message seems contrived and counterproductive. Yesterday was Road to Recovery day; today is Pay-as-you-go budget discipline day. Tomorrow is... some other subject entirely. The television and print news coverage was skeptical, although, as the White House Office of Media Affairs will surely point out to me, the local coverage was a little better. But most Americans get their news from radio, television or online news sources first, and you'd be hard pressed to find a news story that was a PR slam dunk.
This isn't to say that the Dan Pfeifferian "long ball" dictum is bunk; officials in the West Wing seem to have an impressive ability to accept the daily ups and downs and keep their eye on the president's long-term approval ratings and goals. It's just that the quick head-snapping turn from subject to subject isn't necessarily the most efficient way to sell the president's agenda. Yesterday's Road to Recovery event may have reminded people that the government is spending billions to boost aggregate demand, but it also probably reminded people that the money is trickling out and called attention to exaggerated promises.
The White House didn't choose the economy this week because they wanted to pick a topic. There is rising concern about deficits and an unemployment rate that is growing perilously closer to 10%. There is significant chatter on the right about an iron curtain of socialism that's been draped around the American economy. There is increasing worry that Obama might not be up to the job of fixing the problem. And then there's the evidence that Americans are feeling more confident about the direction of the economy than they were a year ago, and that they still like and respect Obama's performance as president.
The problem and solution seem obvious: plan a week of events on the economy, get the popular president in front of the cameras, and double down on the investments already made. I think the White House has come to believe that a threshold has been crossed: enough Americans now expect economic progress. They understand that this deep recession will be long and that Obama bears no blame for its origin. But the deed has been transferred now; six months in to his presidency, it's his economy, and he'd better do something.
Marc Ambinder is a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy.