WASHINGTON — As a candidate for president, Barack Obama saw President George W. Bush's missteps in the Gulf Coast, war policy and the economy as easy targets for criticism.
Now Obama is being dogged by variations on the same themes, his judgment under the microscope of public scrutiny and his options for action limited. To be sure, it's still early in his presidency, and much history remains to be made before he faces re-election. However, the worsening trials he faces today may combine into a fateful crossroads of his time in office.
"As we speak, our nation faces a multitude of challenges," Obama said Tuesday night in his first address from the Oval Office. "At home, our top priority is to recover and rebuild from a recession that has touched the lives of nearly every American. Abroad, our brave men and women in uniform are taking the fight to al Qaida wherever it exists. And tonight, I've returned from a trip to the Gulf Coast to speak with you about the battle we're waging against an oil spill that is assaulting our shores and our citizens."
Almost two months after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, as he intensifies his personal engagement in the nation's worst environmental disaster, the BP oil spill is confounding him. Along the motorcade route Tuesday in Pensacola, Fla., where Obama wrapped up a two-day Gulf visit before heading back to Washington for his prime-time address, signs waved by supporters competed with ones that said "Day 55 still no skimmers" and "Enough photo ops."
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While the president used his speech to persuade the public that he's on top of the worst environmental disaster in the nation's history, lawmakers and military experts have begun to demand a similar public defense of his Afghanistan policy a year ahead of the July 2011 timeline he publicly set for beginning to draw down U.S. troops. Obama's decision to disclose that date in the first place has driven much of the criticism he now faces on his Afghan policy.
Convinced that the U.S. will be leaving, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been consolidating his base within his Pashtun ethnic group by placing Pashtuns in the most powerful positions and stepping up overtures to the enemy Taliban forces, which are overwhelmingly Pashtun.
Karzai's actions are stoking anger among non-Pashtun military and civilian leaders, heightening strains within his government and with Washington.
"Everyone is positioning themselves for the post-American struggle. It's our stupid July 11, 2011, withdrawal statement that is fueling this stuff," said a former senior U.S. official who was involved in Afghanistan-Pakistan policy. "This is everyone looking over their shoulder thinking about the civil war that could erupt after our withdrawal."
"We don't want to be in the wrong corner" when the Americans leave, said a senior Pakistani military official. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity.
The president's decisions to keep his distance from the Gulf oil spill for weeks and to announce a date for beginning the withdrawal of U.S. troops both reflect the dominance of what one senior official called the "Chicago school" of White House advisers — and the primacy of legislative tactics, political strategy and public relations over policy expertise in their decision-making.
Several military, intelligence and diplomatic officials, who all declined to criticize the administration on the record, said their months of warnings that things are deteriorating in Afghanistan have hit the wall with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and senior adviser David Axelrod, who focus most on Obama's political standing and the Democrats' prospects in November's congressional elections.
Beyond these challenges, the economy remains troubling, in large part because while a recovery is taking hold, it remains largely a jobless one.
In a reflection of how these problems are conflating, Obama acknowledged them all in a pep talk Tuesday to the Naval Air Station Pensacola, which he worked into his oil spill tour.
"Too many folks are still out of work here in Florida and around the country," Obama told the military audience. "Yes, we're a nation at war with adversaries who will stop at nothing to strike our homeland and would kill innocent people, women and children, with no compunction. Yes, we're now battling the worst . . . environmental disaster in American history.
"Confronting them all at once might overwhelm a lesser nation," Obama said, but, "you look around and you see the strength and resilience that will carry us through."
Obama has made four visits to the Gulf Coast in recent weeks after a late start. He's talked tough and has directed enormous resources toward containing what on Tuesday evening he called "the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced."
But as the president acknowledged, plugging the spewing well "has tested the limits of human technology," and "despite our best efforts, oil has already caused damage to our coastline and its wildlife."
Despite Obama's insistence Tuesday evening that his administration has been in charge of the clean-up "from the very beginning of this crisis," he's increasingly being criticized for being too slow to accept clean-up help from other nations, lacking a clear hierarchy of who's in charge of what in responding to the spill, too passive in regulating the industry and too accepting of BP's lowball spill estimates.
Still, Obama's overall job approval ratings remain stable at around 50 percent, where they've hovered for months, according to a new Ipsos-McClatchy poll. That could mean the public is standing by Obama, or it could be a lagging indicator, but some emerging signs suggest brewing political trouble.
The poll found that only 33 percent of Americans approve of Obama's handling of the oil spill, and that only 33 percent think the country's headed in the right direction, the lowest since he took office. And only 12 percent of Americans think the economy's turned the corner, while 34 percent think the worst is yet to come and 49 percent think it's stabilized but not yet improving. The survey of 1,071 adults was conducted June 10-13 and has a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
For now, the Democratic-controlled Congress is largely standing by the president — but there are signs that his clout on Capitol Hill may be ebbing.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said Gulf Coast constituents are "not happy with anyone right now" in leadership, and charged that Obama "was slow off the block."
"It was shocking to me that after President Bush took such criticism after Hurricane Katrina, it was hard to see another president make the same mistake," she said. "In a crisis, people want to see the commander in chief in charge."
Over the past couple of weeks, she said, "he's been doing much, much better."
Moderate Democrats in the House of Representatives last month rebelled against a $200 billion emergency spending bill, frustrated that it would increase the federal budget deficit. Democratic leaders had to chop the bill's spending dramatically to get a bare majority, yet centrist Senate Democrats are now stalling the measure over the same concern.
Obama, they say, often sends conflicting signals. He offers plans to freeze most spending, but Saturday urged Congress to provide $50 billion in emergency aid to states — a package that would add to the deficit.
Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., the chairman of the Budget Committee, acknowledged "a contradictory message" in Obama's fiscal stances.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, a moderate whom Obama has frequently courted for votes, was unequivocal in her disdain for the president's record on the deficit: "They keep postponing and deferring the big decisions. I have seen no concerted effort to reduce the deficit."
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said he supports Obama on Afghanistan, but added, "I think there is significant concern about Afghanistan, we all share those concerns. . . it hasn't gone as smoothly as I think we would have liked, or as was contemplated."
Presidential scholar George Edwards, a professor at Texas A&M University, said it's easy to criticize Obama's responses on all these fronts, but important to see his moves in context. Presidents typically have little control over the economy, he said, and Obama was boxed in by the wars and the regulatory and economic policies he inherited from President George W. Bush.
Nevertheless, Edwards said, Obama must now refine his leadership on the oil spill and the economy. "He needs to be seen as on top of things."
As for Afghanistan, Edwards said, the decision to put out a withdrawal timeline to placate the political left, even one with wiggle room, "will come to be a point of contention, there's no doubt."
(John Walcott, Steven Thomma and William Douglas contributed to this article.)
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