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David Brooks: Obama Is Too Busy

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While in discussion with Gail Collins on the New York Times' "Conversation" blog, David Brooks recycled one of those weird ideas that's been buzzing around the mediasphere for the past couple of weeks -- that President Barack Obama has so much to worry about with the economic crisis that he cannot possibly have any time or the energy to expend on anything else. As someone who's grown up under the impression that the President of the United States has a diverse portfolio of responsibilities, foreign and domestic, this strikes me as being deeply weird. But I'll let Brooks explain it:

As for what policies I'd drop from the to-do list because of the crisis, at this point I'd have to say all of them. For years, I've been reading alarmed commentators like Martin Wolf of The Financial Times and thinking them a bit on the outer edge of pessimistic thought. Now I am not so sure. Now I think this economic crisis could be like nothing we've seen in our lifetimes. Big-name economists are talking seriously about another depression.

In that context, I don't think we can do anything but fixate on this. That is, I think the president should spend 50 percent of his time on the banking crisis, 25 percent of his time on getting our allies to coordinate with a global stimulus package and 25 percent of his time beginning work on a second round of stimulus. He's taking his eye off the ball if he spends hours every day working on health care, education and energy. Worse, he adds uncertainty into the market.

If by summer the crisis has passed, then he should go back to the long-term stuff. But the world is too uncertain just now. If the economy collapses, history will judge him very harshly for having a budget process that is on an entirely separate track from his crisis-response process.

I just don't get it. If Obama responded to his constituents' varied concerns with the blanket response, "Can't help now! Fixing the economy and stuff!" he would sow uncertainty in the voting public far more severe than what doing the opposite is causing in the market. Moreover, another story that derived out of the budget wrangle was widespread concern over earmark reform. I don't recall anyone giving the President any slack on that issue because of the need for strenuous exertions over economic fixes.

But more directly, when Brooks talks about the budget process -- which includes initiatives on health care, energy and education -- and the "crisis-response process" -- which I'm guessing includes banking fixes and stimulus packages to solve the economic crisis -- as being on separate tracks, I just don't think he gets it. Obama clearly sees green technology as a means to several ends: renewal of the manufacturing base, job growth, economic development and expansion, and, naturally, cleaner energy. Obama clearly believes that health care costs and limitations form a drag on economic growth, as well as impeding Americans' overall quality of life. And obviously, smart education policy has the potential to yield a workforce suited to these tasks and a braintrust capable of solving problems.

All of these ideas are, to Obama's mind, on the same track. But what's more, Obama took great pains to explain these interconnections on the campaign trail again and again and again and again, so this is all stuff to which a majority of the electorate gave their buy-in. Even if these multiple issues aren't on "the same track," I'd say that a majority of the electorate would likely accept the premise that the President of the United States needs to be capable of working on more than one important issue at once. The historical record pretty much demonstrates that crises have never accommodated the Presidents of America by lining up and presenting themselves one at a time, like the villains in bad kung-fu movies.

Brooks doesn't even seem to be arraying himself against what he terms "long term stuff" on policy grounds, anyway, so why he feels the need to pointlessly mystify the office of the president is really beyond my understanding. But it happens from time to time, I'm afraid: people in the political media just like to pointlessly mystify stuff for no good reason.