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Obama zeroes in on jobs, healthcare, Afghanistan

After taking office with a raft of priorities, he's realized he needs to focus on a few key issues at a time.

December 06, 2009|Doyle McManus

Last week, Barack Obama did something unusual for a president: He acknowledged that he made mistakes in his first months in office. Even more surprising, he seems to have learned from them.

He didn't make an explicit confession; presidents don't relish displaying their lapses in judgment. But in his actions on two major issues -- Afghanistan and the economy -- Obama implicitly admitted that his initial decisions weren't perfect and sought to correct his course. And in a third, broader change, the president is now trying to keep his public focus on a few priorities at a time, not the dizzying list of goals that sometimes made his efforts look scattershot.

On Afghanistan, aides say Obama now regrets the hasty decision he made in March to announce that the goal in Afghanistan was to defeat the Taliban and forge a stable democracy. Obama told columnists last week he now realizes his initial definition of the mission was too grand and led his military commanders to "start viewing the mission expansively." Instead, he said, he wanted to define a "narrow mission" -- not building a new Afghanistan, merely "ensuring enough stability that we're able to keep pressure on Al Qaeda."

On the economy, Obama's position most of the year has been that the $787-billion stimulus Congress passed in February was all the major spending he could afford. But an unemployment rate at 10% has sent House Democrats into justified panic over their own jobs, so the White House has reluctantly agreed that something more is needed -- as long as it doesn't cost too much and further deepen the deficit.

In a speech Tuesday, Obama will unveil a "surgical" plan that may include tax credits for businesses that create jobs, a "cash for caulkers" program to subsidize household energy conservation and an "infrastructure bank" to fund road and bridge construction.

Just as striking as Obama's policy shifts, though, is a third course correction in the White House: a commitment to focus on only a few issues at a time, at least publicly.

When Obama came to office, he announced a vaulting ambition to work on a long list of problems all at once: Yes he'd focus on the economy, but also on healthcare, energy, climate change, education and immigration; not only on Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran, but also on the rest of the Muslim world, nuclear disarmament, Russia and Guantanamo.

Critics, including some Democrats, said he was spreading himself too thin. The president and his defenders replied, legitimately, that all those problems deserved attention. But the political impact was decisive: Voters began to ask whether a leader who made eight foreign trips in 10 months, more than any of his predecessors, was keeping his eye on the ball.

That's why the White House held an on-camera "job summit" Thursday -- and why Vice President Joe Biden urged participants to forget that Obama had just spent months thinking about Afghanistan and healthcare. "His laser focus," Biden said implausibly but loyally, has been "jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs."

In fact, Obama's fondness for domestic "summits" -- he's sponsored no fewer than five -- is another reflection of how many "top" priorities his White House has embraced. There's been a fiscal responsibility summit, a healthcare summit and an H1N1 preparedness summit. His secretary of Transportation even held a distracted-driving summit; that one, at least, didn't rate a visit from the president.

None of this is to say Obama has solved his focus problem completely. This week, after only a few days of laser-like concentration on the jobs issue, he'll fly to Norway to pick up his Nobel Peace Prize, then Denmark for (another) summit on climate change. Once again, diplomacy and circumstance have seized control of his schedule.

But Obama and his aides know that's not what they need. The president's next 10 months, one aide promised wryly, will see more trips to places like Pennsylvania and fewer to Scandinavia.

Obama still wishes he could do more. What he wants to be working on, he told columnists a little wistfully last week, is "improving our science and technology, making sure our schools work, getting serious about clean energy, fixing our healthcare system, stabilizing our deficit and our debt."

But events have forced him to perform triage on his priorities. A promised push for energy legislation is waiting for the healthcare debate to end. A promised attempt at immigration reform may never come at all.

Instead, the sprawling agenda has been boiled down to three top-tier items: jobs, healthcare, Afghanistan. If Obama succeeds at those, he'll be in a stronger position to tackle the rest of the list; if not, the rest won't matter.

doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

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