The Juggler

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 12, 2009 10:32 AM

Monday was stem cells. Tuesday, merit pay for teachers. Yesterday was earmarks.

This is a president who can walk, chew gum, dribble a basketball and work his BlackBerry at the same time.

But not everyone likes a multitasking president. So now you have Matt Lauer asking on the "Today" show: "Is President Obama taking on too many issues at the expense of turning around the troubled economy?"

ABC's Jake Tapper reported that "his first 50 days have been marked by presidential action on nearly every issue under the sun. Of course, for his critics, that's precisely the problem."

On the other hand, if Obama wasn't tackling these other issues, we'd have pundits asking how we can trust him when he walked away from his promises to fund stem cell research and reform education.

Obama even offered a sound-bite defense: "I know there's some who believe we can only handle one challenge at a time. They forget that Lincoln helped lay down the transcontinental railroad and passed the Homestead Act and created the National Academy of Sciences in the midst of civil war."

To be sure, presidents can stumble by trying to force an overly expansive agenda through Congress. So far, that hasn't happened.

What's driving this, I think, is the badly wounded economy. It's been 50 whole days and the president hasn't fixed the problem yet! Maybe he's too . . . distracted, huh?

Former Intel chief Andy Grove added to this chorus with a WP op-ed, saying Obama should fix the economy first.

I feel confident in saying that the administration's top priority is the tanking economy. But it takes time for stimulus spending and banking bailouts to work. And if Washington is going to pump out $787 billion in new spending, doesn't it make sense that Obama would want to use that to further a Democratic agenda? Wouldn't John McCain have molded such a package to suit his views?

The truth is, a president doesn't have the luxury of doing just one thing. Crises erupt around the globe. And Obama's three signature issues -- health care, education and greener energy -- are all related to the economy. So are congressional earmarks, which divert precious funds to local pork projects that may or may not generate jobs.

Earmark reform is a tough sell for Obama, given that he signed that $410 billion funding bill yesterday with more than 8,000 earmarks. He can talk all he wants about cleaning up the process, but on this one he punted. Politico was quick to brand it "Reform Lite," reporting: "The old bulls have won."

So should the president narrow his focus? At TPM, Matt Cooper dismisses the critique:

"First, distraction is a two-way street. Congress is constantly deviating from the economic emergency to deal with other stuff. I watched a fulsome debate on the transportation of chimpanzees and other primates the other day on C-SPAN. The House was taking up a bill in the wake of that chimp attack. It's not reasonable to focus just on one branch of government.

"Second, Obama is talking about a lot of things but he's not sending up a torrent of legislation. There was the stimulus bill but everyone agreed there needed to be some kind of stimulus. He's encouraged Congress to come up with a health care plan but he hasn't forced a bill on them to consider. And besides is health care really a distraction? The facts show that you can't get entitlement reform or any control over future red ink without it. Why wait?"

Time picks up the cable chatter:

"And so the doomsday chorus began: He's trying to do too much. He's doing too little. His bank bailout is too complicated. His health-care plan is hollow. The great orator can't communicate his priorities. His priorities are clear -- but screwed up."

A related meme is that O is too calm in the face of emergency, picked up here by Tom Friedman:

"As for President Obama, I like his coolness under fire, yet sometimes it feels as if he is deliberately keeping his distance from the banking crisis, while pressing ahead on other popular initiatives. I understand that he doesn't want his presidency to be held hostage to the ups and downs of bank stocks, but a hostage he is. We all are."

Okay, but should he don a hazmat suit and vacuum up the toxic assets by himself?

Obama wasn't the candidate of the Beltway elites, and they are grumbling, says Newsweek's Howard Fineman:

"Luckily for Obama, the public still likes and trusts him, at least judging by the latest polls, including Newsweek's. But, in ways both large and small, what's left of the American establishment is taking his measure and, with surprising swiftness, they are finding him lacking. They have some reasons to be concerned. I trace them to a central trait of the president's character: he's not really an in-your-face guy.

"By recent standards -- and that includes Bill Clinton as well as George Bush -- Obama for the most part is seeking to govern from the left, looking to solidify and rely on his own party more than woo Republicans. And yet he is by temperament judicious, even judicial. He'd have made a fine judge. But we don't need a judge. We need a blunt-spoken coach.

"Obama may be mistaking motion for progress, calling signals for a game plan. A busy, industrious overachiever, he likes to check off boxes on a long to-do list. A genial, amenable guy, he likes to appeal to every constituency, or at least not write off any. A beau ideal of Harvard Law, he can't wait to tackle extra-credit answers on the exam. But there is only one question on this great test of American fate: can he lead us away from plunging into another Depression? . . .

"A willingness to give too much leeway to Congress to handle crucial details, from the stim to the vague promise to 'reform' medical care without stating what costs could be cut . . . A 2010 budget that tries to do far too much, with way too rosy predictions on future revenues and growth of the economy. This led those who fear we are about to go over Niagara Falls to deride Obama as a paddler who'd rather redesign the canoe . . . A treasury secretary who has been ridiculed on 'Saturday Night Live' and compared to Doogie Howser, Barney Fife and Macaulay Culkin in 'Home Alone'--and those are the nice ones."

Meanwhile, "President Obama railed against pork barrel projects on Wednesday. Then he signed a massive spending bill stuffed with them," the Los Angeles Times reports.

"Still, Obama pledged to reform the earmarking process, unveiling a plan that he said was designed to make sure all projects that benefit from the practice of earmarking have a 'legitimate' purpose."

Stealth Nominee

Here is a story that's been big in the blogosphere and not so much in the mainstream media. The first story in the New York Times, for instance, was yesterday, the day the nominee pulled out:

"Charles W. Freeman Jr., the Obama administration's choice for a major intelligence post, withdrew his name on Tuesday and blamed pro-Israel lobbying groups, saying they had distorted his record and campaigned against him.

"Mr. Freeman had come under sharp criticism for his past statements about Israel as well as for his association with the Saudi and Chinese governments."

The Washington Post covered criticism of Freeman at a Senate hearing the day before this story:

"Charles W. Freeman Jr. withdrew yesterday from his appointment as chairman of the National Intelligence Council after questions about his impartiality were raised among members of Congress and with White House officials."

National Review's Mark Steyn wonders why the MSM were MIA:

"I'm glad to see the back of the Saudi shill Chas Freeman, but I wonder what Mr and Mrs America will make of it . . . reading for the very first time how the 'Outspoken Former Ambassador' (as the AP's headline has it) was scuttled by a controversy their newspaper saw fit not to utter a word about.

"As far as I can tell, the only papers in America to so much as mention the Freeman story were The Wall Street Journal, Investors' Business Daily, The Washington Times, The New York Post, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Augusta Chronicle, and The Press Enterprise of Riverside, California.

"But if you rely for your news on The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Detroit News, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Miami Herald, or The Minneapolis Star-Tribune - just to name a random selection of American dailies currently sliding off the cliff - the end of the story will be the first time you've heard of it."

Time's Joe Klein thinks the man got hosed:

"Freeman's most important point in his statement is this one:

"I believe that the inability of the American public to discuss, or the government to consider, any option for US policies in the Middle East opposed by the ruling faction in Israeli politics has allowed that faction to adopt and sustain policies that ultimately threaten the existence of the state of Israel. It is not permitted for anyone in the United States to say so. This is not just a tragedy for Israelis and their neighbors in the Middle East; it is doing widening damage to the national security of the United States.

"Barack Obama should take note. The thugs have taken out Chas Freeman. They will not rest. Their real target is you, Mr. President."

Andrew Sullivan says the story involved "very tricky areas where MSM journalists fear to tread -- questions such as the relative importance of Freeman's former financial ties, the Israel lobby (are we allowed to use those words without being anti-Semitic?), the Schumer-Emanuel connection, the China question, the realist-neocon debate, proper vetting, etc. A third is that the MSM often misses stories that are burning up the blogosphere. A fourth is that there was a conflict within the MSM between defending an Obama pick and offending AIPAC."

Mad Money Man

Jim Cramer is preparing for tonight's big smackdown with CNBC-basher Jon Stewart -- who last night described it as "a largely manufactured battle between a man who makes people laugh -- and whatever it is people think I do." Salon's Gabriel Winant checks out the former hedge fund manager:

"Jim Cramer stops by at the end of [Erin Burnett's] show, and turns in one of the more tortured and conflicted television performances I have ever seen. He personifies, in his very body, the war between boosterism and reality that lends CNBC such an air of anxiety. Dripping with contempt for Burnett, he berates her for citing a positive -- and, one should note, true -- statistic about Ford. 'I could make you look really horrible on this show,' Cramer shouts. And then he admits that he's just as guilty of searching desperately for silver linings. 'Every night,' he barks, 'I try to come out and say something good, but it's difficult. It's difficult, because it spits in the face of people who've lost so much.'

"Cramer is in pain, and he's taking it out on Burnett. By the end of six of the more excruciating minutes I've witnessed on television, Burnett was scrambling for a graceful way out. 'We can let everybody know, that now they know, that we have very real, frank discussions and disagreements in this segment. As people can do.' "

At the Huffington Post, Dan Solin straps himself to a chair and watches the business channel:

"I am no fan of CNBC. It's not just the insufferable pomposity, smugness and arrogance of its anchors or the faux frenzied reporting from the floor of the NYSE that I find offensive. It's how it works to mislead investors by providing so much misinformation. Great credit to Jon Stewart for taking them on and exposing their most memorable screw-ups.

"The relentless self-promotion of talking heads posing as 'financial experts' provides a steady stream of drivel that both confuses and alarms investors. CNBC understands that fear sells. It sells fear, masking as financial news . . .

"There is a reason for the self-confidence of CNBC's anchors and its Mad Money star: They are desperately hiding a secret. The network is premised on a fundamental lie. Watching CNBC is harmful to your financial health. No amount of information, however slickly packaged and promoted, will help you 'beat the markets.' If you figured that out, the money machine at CNBC would come to a grinding halt.

"In stark contrast, CNN's Ali Velshi and Gerri Willis explain and educate, in a calm, reasoned and intelligent way. They make no pretense of providing 'inside information' on stock picks and market timing. They elevate the discourse. CNBC lowers it."

Of course, CNN doesn't have to fill the entire day with financial news.

NYT Hires Blogger!

Atlantic's Ross Douthat will start out online and eventually become the paper's second conservative op-ed columnist. He's 29. Good for the NYT for bringing in a fresh voice.

Zell Zips It

No comment for his very own Chicago Tribune:

"Tribune Co. Chairman Sam Zell hired well-known defense lawyer Anton Valukas and was interviewed in January by federal prosecutors as a 'potential witness' in the criminal investigation of former Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich, the company acknowledged Wednesday.

"Zell could not be reached for comment, and company officials did not respond to questions about details of his interview with the U.S. attorney's office . . .

"According to records of Blagojevich's telephone logs, Zell placed a call to the governor Dec. 8, the day before the arrest . . . .Records also show that Zell gave Blagojevich a gift during 2008."

Recession Watch

"The Miami Herald plans to cut 19 percent of its workforce, reduce salaries of those who remain and require one week unpaid furloughs, publisher David Landsberg announced Wednesday morning."

Some 175 employees will lose their jobs, and the remainder will face pay cuts of up to 10 percent.

Big Breakup

Governor Palin told the world they were getting married, but apparently not:

"The teen love affair that rocked last year's presidential race is over.

"Sarah Palin's daughter, Bristol, has ditched her baby daddy, Levi Johnston!

"Now's Levi's sister, Mercede is telling all exclusively to Star and the picture she paints of life in Wasilla, Alaska is not a pretty one. Bristol, 18, has virtually cut Levi out of the life of their two-month-old son Tripp.

" 'Levi tries to visit Tripp every single day, but Bristol makes it nearly impossible. She tells him he can't take the baby to our house because she doesn't want him around 'white trash!' "

Score one for the tabloids. The AP gets confirmation of the breakup from Levi Johnston himself, who declines to comment specifically on his sister's accusations, but says some details of the breakup swirling on the Internet are "inaccurate."

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