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Eventful spring forces Obama to juggle roles

Crises in Japan and the Mideast, as well as the threat of a government shutdown, have loomed in rapid succession as the president launches his reelection campaign.

April 12, 2011|By Christi Parsons and Richard Simon, Washington Bureau
  • President Obama waves as he boards Air Force One before his departure from Andrews Air Force Base, Md.
President Obama waves as he boards Air Force One before his departure from… (Associated Press )

Reporting from Washington — For President Obama, the last week has shown better than most how the mix of roles a president must play can clash at the worst possible moments.

In the span of a few days, Obama faced crises in the Mideast and Japan, as well as the possibility of a government shutdown. This week, he will try to reassert leadership on dealing with the deficit while also kicking off his reelection campaign fundraising effort.

The roles don't mesh easily. At one point aides were on the verge of postponing the fundraising appearance scheduled for Thursday in Chicago, figuring that a government shutdown made for a dicey backdrop to a quest for reelection. With a budget deal in place, the campaign events will take place as planned.

For all the substantive demands in juggling matters of such different sizes and weights, the toughest can be the one that most affects public confidence in a president: adopting the right tone. In Obama's case, one former advisor says he has honed the knack, learning fast from the economic crisis that greeted his presidency.

"As president, you have to be able to juggle a lot of balls at one time," said Robert Gibbs, Obama's former spokesman and now a political consultant. "This president got to start practicing that the moment he walked into the building."

But critics carp that he isn't involved enough in the finer points. Obama has called leaders of Congress on the phone and summoned them to meetings at the White House. But he hasn't worked the crowd on the Hill. He is, complained Rep. John Campbell (R-Irvine), "focused on 2012."

Several weeks of Obama's presidency could illustrate how disparate issues can arise at once. But no other period has witnessed such a concentrated press of unforeseen events as this spring.

Last week opened with Obama filing papers Monday with federal election officials to organize his 2012 campaign. The next day brought a meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres on the stalled peace talks.

The next day, Wednesday, Obama traveled to New York to a gathering of Al Sharpton's National Action Network, the kind of liberal activists he needs to energize for his campaign, and a crowd that included Bill Cosby and Spike Lee. Obama praised Sharpton but also joked about his recent weight loss — "He's getting skinnier than Spike."

By then, however, the budget impasse had boiled over. That night, Obama returned to Washington for an evening White House meeting with congressional leaders. In a late-night visit to the press briefing room, Obama was unsmiling and serious.

Polls indicated that Americans were lining up with him and would likely blame Congress rather than the White House if a shutdown occurred.

At the same time, Obama was criticized for not going to Capitol Hill in person to push for consensus on the budget and for other issues.

Now, with Republicans speeding through a plan to slash future federal Medicare and Medicaid spending, Obama will make an address Wednesday to outline his own plans for government benefit programs.

cparsons@latimes.com

richard.simon@latimes.com

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