President Obama returns to the White House today after a six-day trip to Latin America that was intended to focus on jobs, trade and the economy — but the world just wouldn't cooperate.
A partial nuclear meltdown in Japan, a U.S. military operation in Libya, a looming budget showdown in Washington and more have overwhelmed Obama's agenda, raised risks for the nation's fragile economic recovery and opened him to criticism from not only the emerging Republican presidential field but also some congressional Democrats.
Welcome home, Mr. President.
"I didn't think anything could take the cameras off the Middle East, and then Japan has a triple disaster" of an earthquake and tsunami that damaged nuclear plants, says Steven Clemons of the centrist New America Foundation. "It's like out of a Godzilla movie. You have to wonder, what's the next thing?"
"I have spent the bulk of the last month literally in the Situation Room," Vice President Biden told a reception for major Democratic donors in Boston on Monday.
Just eight weeks ago, Obama outlined in his State of the Union Address his priorities for the year. He coined the phrase "winning the future," called the challenges of the day "our generation's Sputnik moment" and endorsed both deficit reduction and spending on energy, education and infrastructure. He set goals to expand access to high-speed rail, increase college-graduation rates and generate clean energy.
Since then, the administration's efforts to spotlight those initiatives through presidential trips, events by Cabinet members, conference calls with reporters and op-eds in newspapers have been swamped by an unrelenting crush of news, from public employees protesting at the Wisconsin state Capitol to pro-democracy demonstrators marching in the streets of Cairo.
In a sign of how quickly things have changed, consider this: Obama's State of the Union speech didn't mention Egypt — then ruled by Hosni Mubarak, a U.S. ally for decades who has since been ousted — or refer to the safety concerns over nuclear power that are sparking headlines around the world. There wasn't a word about Libya or collective-bargaining rights, issues now front and center.
"I can't remember seeing anything like this in terms of the sweep of the different things going on," says Norman Ornstein, a veteran congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "It makes it very tough for a president who tries to use a foreign trip to help frame an agenda and use his presence and the bully pulpit to get a message across."
OBAMA: 'We have already saved lives' in Libya
At a news conference Tuesday in El Salvador, the questions for Obama from U.S. reporters were about Libya. He acknowledged the press of the unexpected: "Events happen around the world in which the United States, with our unique capabilities, has to respond."
Presidential historian Robert Dallek cautions against declaring the current crush of challenges unprecedented, but he has to reach back seven decades to cite a more dramatic example. "Think of the Franklin Roosevelt period of 1939 to 1941, when he confronted intensely isolationist sentiment in the country and the dangers from Nazism and Japanese militarism," he says.
Global turmoil has tested Obama's leadership and upended his promise to sharpen his focus on reducing the nation's stubbornly high jobless rate. It also has unsettled some Americans.
Confidence in the economy has fallen to its lowest level of the year, according to a Gallup Poll released Tuesday. Now, 32% of Americans believe the economy is getting better; a year ago, when optimism that the recession was over was beginning to take hold, 35% did.
And unlike in FDR's day, the instantaneous nature of modern communications can amplify the clamor.
"It does create a sense of immediacy and urgency ... to have this 24/7 news cycle with people on television yammering away constantly about 'Look what's going on!' " Dallek says. "It does heighten the sense of crisis and danger."
Crisis has defined Obama's presidency from the start. At his inauguration, he faced the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. After a bailout for automakers and a stimulus package, he pushed a health care overhaul through Congress — the one-year anniversary of its signing is today — that continues to split the public and energize his opposition.
Now Obama's decision to use U.S. military forces to impose a "no-fly zone" over Libya has prompted criticism from Republican presidential hopefuls that the president dithered before agreeing to act. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney called Obama "tentative, indecisive, timid and nuanced." Former House speaker Newt Gingrich dubbed him "spectator in chief."
Lawmakers in both parties, including such Democratic stalwarts as House Caucus Chairman John Larson of Connecticut, complain that Obama failed to fully consult with Congress before ordering U.S. forces into combat.