Full plate-itude: Media repeat charge that Obama has taken on too much

››› ››› DIANNA PARKER

Recently, the media have highlighted claims that President Obama's "plate" is too "full," suggested he has "bit off more than he can chew," or otherwise given credence to the accusation that the president has loaded his agenda with unrelated items when he should be focusing on the economy. In many instances, the media have simply run teasers to this effect, reinforcing the idea without challenge; in other cases, they have highlighted the accusation, while also providing responses by the Obama administration.

Recently, the media have highlighted claims that President Obama's "plate" is too "full," suggested he has "bit off more than he can chew," or otherwise given credence to the accusation that the president has loaded his agenda with unrelated items when he should be focusing on the economy. In many instances, the media have simply run teasers to this effect, reinforcing the idea without challenge; in other cases, they have highlighted the accusation, while also providing responses by the Obama administration.

Indeed, Obama and his aides have asserted that Obama's initiatives on health care, energy, and education reform are inextricably linked to the economy. During his March 10 speech about education before the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Obama spoke to those "who believe we can only handle one challenge at a time" and made the case that reforming health care, education, and energy will have economic benefits.

From Obama's speech:

OBAMA: They forget that Lincoln helped lay down the transcontinental railroad, passed the Homestead Act, and created the National Academy of Sciences in the midst of civil war. Likewise, President Roosevelt didn't have the luxury of choosing between ending a depression and fighting a war. President Kennedy didn't have the luxury of choosing between civil rights and sending us to the moon. And we don't have the luxury of choosing between getting our economy moving now and rebuilding it over the long term.

America will not remain true to its highest ideals -- and America's place as a global economic leader will be put at risk -- unless we not only bring down the crushing cost of health care and transform the way we use energy, but also do a far better job than we have been doing of educating our sons and daughters; unless we give them the knowledge and skills they need in this new and changing world.

For we know that economic progress and educational achievement have always gone hand in hand in America. Land-grant colleges and public high schools transformed the economy of an industrializing nation. The GI Bill generated a middle class that made America's economy unrivaled in the 20th century. And investments in math and science under President Eisenhower made it possible for Sergei Brin to attend graduate school and found an upstart company called Google that would forever change our world.

During a March 9 press briefing, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs emphasized Obama's point after a reporter noted Obama's speech on education and asked, "Why should the president be talking something -- about something that admittedly would be, you know, important for future generations to improve education in America, when there's a house on fire right now?" Gibbs replied that "I think part of the house that's on fire is dealing with the education problem. ... [W]e're not facing these economic challenges because of one thing; we're not going to get out of these by solving one thing."

Yet, the media have repeatedly echoed the charge that Obama may be taking on too much. For example:

  • On the March 6 edition of CNN's American Morning, anchor John Roberts asked whether "some people are beginning to think, is this administration biting off more than it can chew?" CNN White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux responded, "You know, a lot of people are asking that question. Aides inside the White House, they have an expression. They say, well, we're putting a lot on the grill, and they believe that they can handle this. But there's some supporters of the Obama administration who are scratching their heads and thinking this is way too much to put on their plate."
  • On the March 7 edition of CNN Newsroom, anchor Fredricka Whitfield said, "[A] full plate for the president of the United States: filling up his Cabinet, trying to get the economy back on track, and tackling health care reform." Later, after playing a clip in which Obama stated, "Because we cannot bring our deficit down or grow our economy without tackling the skyrocketing cost of health care, I held a health-care summit on Thursday to begin the long overdue process of reform," Whitfield stated: "All right, the president has a lot of irons in the fire. Some people are wondering if the president is actually stretching himself a bit too thin." Subsequently, Whitfield asked CNN deputy political director Paul Steinhauser, "[D]oes he have too much on his plate?"
  • On the March 9 edition of ABC's Nightline, anchor Martin Bashir teased a segment by saying, "[W]hen we come back, President Barack Obama's full plate. Impressive multitasking or biting off more than he can chew?" During the report, senior White House correspondent Jake Tapper asserted that "[i]t was September 2008 when then Senator Barack Obama, making light of Senator John McCain's suspension of his campaign to deal with the economic crisis, said that, as his campaign put it, a president should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time." Later, Tapper said, "But with the president taking on issue after issue after issue after issue ... some critics are wondering if this president thinks he can walk and chew gum and ride a bike and juggle and read a magazine and play with his daughters and take a nap all at the same time." During Bashir's tease, on-screen text read: "President's Full Plate."

Nightline-full plate

  • On the March 9 edition of CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight, Dobbs stated: "The White House today declared the president remains focused each and every day on our economic crisis, but critics say the president has been overwhelmed by the severity of this recession and his policies of bigger government could actually worsen the crisis." He then asked senior White House correspondent Ed Henry: "[S]o where is the president's focus?" Henry replied: "Well, Lou, as you noted, senior aides here insist that he is focused on the economy, but the president is facing tough questions tonight about whether he's filling his plate with so many side issues that it's preventing him from really focusing full time on this financial crisis."
  • On the March 9 edition of CNN's Anderson Cooper 360, Cooper introduced a segment by saying, "President Obama has got a lot on his plate, both by circumstance and choice. Stem cells, health care, stimulus, two budgets -- this year and next -- and banks and more, smaller issues, of course, the kind that can damage a presidency little by little."
  • On the March 10 edition of MSNBC Live, anchor Norah O'Donnell teased a segment by saying, "Fifty days after taking the oath of office, President Obama is staring at a full plate, from saving the economy to health care and now education." Later, introducing a segment with former Mitt Romney press secretary Kevin Madden and Democratic strategist Penny Lee, O'Donnell asked, "What about these Republicans and other critics of the president who say, 'He's doing way too much. He should not be doing stem cells. He should not be doing education. He should not be doing health care. He just needs to be focused on the economy'? The president says, look, presidents can walk and chew gum at the same time."
  • In a March 10 ABCNews.com article, Tapper asserted that "the administration says the issues Obama faces, particularly the economy, need swift action, his critics warn he may be doing too much too soon." Later, in a section of the article titled "Too Much on His Plate?" Tapper noted Obama's speech on education and quoted Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) saying, "I think we have to be careful, not overload the economy. ... Our thrust should be turning the economy around, and we do that through banks, getting people back to work."
  • On the March 10 edition of MSNBC's Hardball, host Chris Matthews asserted that "[a] lot of people believe that this president has bit off more than he can chew" and asked Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN), "[D]o you think he's made a big mistake in trying to do his agenda at the same time he's trying to deal with the economic problem?" Pence began his reply by stating: "I really believe he has." Pence later stated: "You know, the president here, rather than focusing on those kinds of policies that would really jump start this economy, the kind of things John F. Kennedy did, Ronald Reagan did, and that our nation and George W. Bush did after 9-11, instead the president's come out with an aggressive agenda to transform health care, transform energy in America."
  • On the March 10 edition of CNN's No Bias, No Bull, anchor Campbell Brown teased a segment about Obama's plans for education reform by saying, "President Obama is facing huge challenges on everything from the economy to health care these days. But he is still adding more to his plate, today proposing an overhaul of the public school system."
  • On the March 11 edition of American Morning, anchor Kiran Chetry said of Obama's agenda, "Depending on how you look at it, he accomplished a lot so far. Others say he may have bitten off a bit more than he can chew. So joining us now to chew that over, from New Orleans is Democratic strategist James Carville, and here in New York, Republican strategist Ed Rollins." During the subsequent segment with Rollins and Carville, Rollins picked up on the "full plate" theme, saying: "He's had a very aggressive attempt to live up to all of his campaign promises. You know, the concerns I have is that there is an awful lot on his plate, an awful lot that Congress has to do, and an awful lot of money that's been thrown out there. And I say this as an American, not as a Republican: I hope it works, because there's no second chance to spend this kind of money again."
  • As noted by blogger Matt Cooper on TalkingPointsMemo.com, on the March 11 edition of NBC's Today, host Matt Lauer asked Council of Economic Advisers Chair Christina Romer whether the president had "bitten off more than he could chew."

From the March 6 edition of CNN's American Morning:

ROBERTS: The administration is being very aggressive in tackling those three pillars -- the housing, the economy, and health care. But some people are beginning to think: Is this administration biting off more than it can chew? You know, we're trying to get the economy back on track. Why are we going to health care right now?

MALVEAUX: You know, a lot of people are asking that question. Aides inside the White House, they have an expression. They say, well, we're putting a lot on the grill, and they believe that they can handle this. But there's some supporters of the Obama administration who are scratching their heads and thinking this is way too much to put on their plate.

From the noon ET hour of the March 7 edition of CNN Newsroom:

WHITFIELD: All right, so, a full plate for the president of the United States: filling up his Cabinet, trying to get the economy back on track, and tackling health care reform. So, he talks about that challenge actually today in his weekly address.

OBAMA [video clip]: Because we cannot bring our deficit down or grow our economy without tackling the skyrocketing cost of health care, I held a health-care summit on Thursday to begin the long overdue process of reform.

Our ideas and opinions about how to achieve this reform will vary, but our goal must be the same: quality, affordable health care for every American that no longer overwhelms the budgets of families, businesses, and our government.

WHITFIELD: All right, the president has a lot of irons in the fire. Some people are wondering if the president is actually stretching himself a bit too thin.

Our deputy political director Paul Steinhauser is with us today in person. Always good to see you --

STEINHAUSER: Pleasure to be here.

WHITFIELD: -- in person as opposed to in Washington. All right, does he have too much on his plate? I guess he would probably say no, right?

From the March 9 edition of ABC's Nightline:

BASHIR: And when we come back, President Barack Obama's full plate: Impressive multitasking or biting off more than he can chew?

[...]

BASHIR: President Barack Obama's workweek began with another significant announcement, an end to his predecessor's ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. From the economic crisis to his strategy for Iraq, it seems each day has marked by a major action. Our senior White House correspondent Jake Tapper now on the delicate balance of quantity versus quality.

TAPPER: It was September 2008 when then-Senator Barack Obama, making light of Senator John McCain's suspension of his campaign to deal with the economic crisis, said that, as his campaign put it, a president should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.

OBAMA: It is going to be part of the president's job to deal with more than one thing at once.

TAPPER: But with the president taking on issue after issue after issue after issue...

OBAMA [montage]: Health care -- stem cell -- trillion dollar deficit -- our economic problems -- the way we use energy -- Afghanistan -- Iraq -- Pakistan -- torture -- Guantanamo.

TAPPER: Some critics are wondering if this president thinks he can walk and chew gum and ride a bike and juggle and read a magazine and play with his daughters and take a nap all at the same time.

SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER (R-TN): Presidents have many problems to solve, but no one ever suggested that the wisest course is try to solve them all at once.

From the March 9 edition of CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight:

DOBBS: The White House today declared the president remains focused each and every day on our economic crisis, but critics say the president has been overwhelmed by the severity of this recession, and his policies of bigger government could actually worsen the crisis. Ed Henry has our report from the White House. Ed, so where is the president's focus?

HENRY: Well, Lou, as you noted, senior aides here insist that he is focused on the economy, but the president is facing tough questions tonight about whether he's filling his plate with so many side issues that it's preventing him from really focusing full time on this financial crisis.

From the March 9 edition of CNN's Anderson Cooper 360:

COOPER: President Obama has got a lot on his plate, both by circumstance and choice. Stem cells, health care, stimulus, two budgets -- this year and next -- and banks and more, smaller issues, of course, the kind that can damage a presidency little by little.

From the 1 p.m. ET of the March 10 edition of MSNBC Live:

O'DONNELL: President Obama calls for a sweeping overhaul of the nation's public school system, saying it's time to start rewarding good teachers and stop making excuses for the bad. But is the president making the grade himself? Fifty days after taking the oath of office, President Obama is staring at a full plate, from saving the economy to health care and now education. Is he taking on too much?

[...]

O'DONNELL: And is President Obama taking on too much, or is he doing too little? Critics say he needs to trim back his agenda and do more to fix the economy. But today, the president is actually pushing back.

OBAMA [video clip] I know there are 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. President Kennedy didn't have the luxury of choosing between civil rights and sending us to the moon. And we don't have the luxury of choosing between getting our economy now moving now and rebuilding it over the long term.

O'DONNELL: Let's bring in Democratic strategist Penny Lee; she is a former senior adviser to Senator Harry Reid, and now works for the lobbying group Venn Strategies. We also have Kevin Madden, a former communications manager for Republican Mitt Romney. Great to see both of you.

MADDEN: Glad to be with you.

O'DONNELL: All right. Kevin, let me ask you that. What about these Republicans and other critics of the president who say, "He's doing way too much. He should not be doing stem cells. He should not be doing education. He should not be doing health care. He just needs to be focused on the economy"? The president says, look, presidents can walk and chew gum at the same time.

From the March 10 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:

MATTHEWS: Well, let me cut this question in half here. A lot of people believe that this president has bit off more than he can chew. Not only is he pushing for more stimulus in the economy with the big stimulus bill, but he's also going for changing the tax structure, making it much tougher on people at the top, to pay for health care, to pay for energy development -- for alternative energy development, to pay for higher education.

Congressman Pence, do you think he's made a big mistake in trying to do his agenda at the same time he's trying to deal with the economic problem?

PENCE: I really believe he has. I believe the stimulus bill was less about stimulating the economy and more about reorganizing the priorities of the federal government. Even The Washington Post criticized the stimulus bill on that basis.

But I think you put your finger on it. You know, the president here, rather than focusing on those kinds of policies that would really jump start this economy, the kind of things John F. Kennedy did, Ronald Reagan did, and that our nation and George W. Bush did after 9-11, instead the president's come out with an aggressive agenda to transform health care, transform energy in America, which -- you know, [Rep.] Barbara [Lee (D-CA)] might be enthusiastic about it, and I don't begrudge her her opinion, but the president's tax increase, the marginal tax increase, more than half of the people that would pay that are the very small business owners that are most struggling in this economy.

From the March 10 edition of CNN's Campbell Brown: No Bias, No Bull:

BROWN: President Obama is facing huge challenges on everything from the economy to health care these days. But he is still adding more to his plate, today proposing an overhaul of the public school system.

From the March 11 edition of CNN's American Morning:

CHETRY: Well, President Obama's first 50 days are now history. It's been a busy 50 days -- passing the economic stimulus, ordering Guantánamo Bay Closed, announcing an Iraq pullout, and pitching health care and education reform. Depending on how you look at it, he accomplished a lot so far. Others say he may have bitten off a bit more than he can chew. So joining us now to chew that over, from New Orleans is Democratic strategist James Carville, and here in New York, Republican strategist Ed Rollins. Both CNN contributors. Great to see you both this morning.

ROLLINS: Good morning.

CHETRY: Thanks for being with us. So, Ed, let me start with you. His approval rating right now, President Obama, is at 61 percent, slightly higher than some of his predecessors. At this point in the game, how do you think President Obama is doing?

ROLLINS: Well, he sprinted out of the blocks. He's had a very aggressive attempt to live up to all of his campaign promises. You know, the concerns I have is that there is an awful lot on his plate, an awful lot that Congress has to do, and an awful lot of money that's been thrown out there. And I say this as an American, not as a Republican: I hope it works, because there's no second chance to spend this kind of money again.

CHETRY: What's your assessment, Jim -- James -- Jim?

CARVILLE: I'm in New Orleans; we do a lot of chewing down here. And I -- yeah, I mean -- I think -- I think Ed is a kind of anti-Limbaugh kind of guy, and he -- everybody -- most people want this thing to succeed. But there -- there's a lot on the plate. He's done a lot in 50 days. And I think now they're probably going to have to catch up with getting some of this stuff done. And I think it will work, and I sure do hope it works. It's a lot of stuff.

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