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The Case For Presidential Multi-tasking

Warning: Highly speculative, possibly baseless poiltical analysis follows. Read at your own risk.

My friend William Galston is not the only writer/pundit urging President Obama to focus on the financial crisis, while postponing action on other fronts. But he's certainly among the smartest and most persuasive.

The usual case for Obama's aggressive agenda--seeking action on not just the economy but education, energy, and health care as well--is that FDR did it that way in 1933. But, as Galston notes, present conditions aren't as bad as they were in 1933. And even FDR paced himself, using consecutive, clean legislative victories to build political momentum as he went. New Deal history isn't my specialty, but that reading sounds about right to me.

So let's dispense with the FDR analogies, at least for the moment. I'm still not convinced that Obama should drop everything and focus on the banks.

For one thing, I'm not so sure that Obama's focusing on the banks makes a solution to the banking crisis more likely. Assuming Obama really is flubbing the banking crisis--and I'll defer to Noam on that, rather than redner a judgment myself--is the problem here Obama's failure to rally public opinion around the right solution? Or is it a failure to identify the right solution in the first place?

There's a better case to be made, I think, that the problem is lack of bureaucratic attention. Staff at the Treasury Department should be focusing on this like a laser beam--and not, say, on calculating revenues from cap-and-trade or changes in the tax deduction for employer-sponsored health insurance. But it's not clear to me that the staff is spending significant amounts of time on those issues. The bigger problem, I gather, is that there just isn't enough staff there right now--and that the leadership, i.e., Secretary Timothy Geithner, may not be handling the crisis well. (Again, I'm making no independent judgmet on that question.)

Meanwhile, Obama's multi-faceted strategy has certain clear advantages. For one thing, it keeps the right wing unsettled. With so many initiatives going forward, there's no chance for conservatives to coalesce in opposition to any one issue.  Instead of the entire conservative movement hammering away in unison, you have some of them going after health care, some of them going after earmarks, some of them going after cap-and-trade, and so on. In that sort of environment, few attacks resonate because they don'tt get the sustained attention they need.

The converse is true, of course; Obama isn't giving the affirmative case sustained attention, either. But if neither side can rally its forces, then the most likely result would seem to be status quo politics. And status quo politics right now, I would aruge, favors the party that just won a landslide presidential election while building up huge congressional majorities.

And don't forget that the "other" items on Obama's agenda are hardly unrelated to the economic crisis. If Obama can deliver major progress on making health care more available and secure, he'll have addressed a major source of anxiety. And if he pushes through with a major plan for energy independence, it should create more jobs, assuming (as I do) it's packaged with proposals to stimulate more green jobs. Neither set of reforms would have their full effect for years. But progress would begin right away--and the knowledge that more progress was coming could, on its own, improve confidence in both the president and perhaps the economy.

Again, this is all just speculation--and not terribly well-informed speculation at that. I don't trust my analysis of politics the way I trust, say, my analysis of health insurance mandates. But my gut tells me Obama is doing the right thing here, no matter what even the smarter critics are saying.

--Jonathan Cohn