President Obama turned his attention to education Tuesday, telling a Hispanic business group in Washington, D.C., that America's long-term economic health depends on improving the way children are taught.
"It's time to expect more from our students. It's time to start rewarding good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones," Obama said. "It's time to demand results from government at every level. It's time to prepare every child, everywhere in America, to out-compete any worker, anywhere in the world."
Education is just one of three areas highlighted by Obama in his ambitious budget proposal, along with health care and green energy. Some observers are asking if the young administration has bitten off more than it can chew.
'Let's Take Care Of Business First'
"Why are we going and distracting ourselves from the economy?" Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) said this weekend on CNN, in response to news that Obama planned to reverse a Bush administration rule on stem cell research. "Let's take care of business first. People are out of jobs."
Obama has said he would like to be able to focus his full attention on one issue at a time, but that he doesn't have that option.
"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, passed the Homestead Act and created the National Academy of Sciences in the midst of Civil War," Obama told the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday. "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."
Obama has couched each of his three main budget initiatives — education, energy and health care — as vital to the nation's long-term economic success. But some ask how he can worry about training workers for jobs in the future when the economy is in trouble now.
"Republicans could argue that it's Nero-esque for Democrats to be plotting extensive renovations when the house is on fire," New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote Monday. "They could point out that history will judge this president harshly if he's off chasing distant visions while the markets see a void where his banking policy should be."
Spending Political Capital
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs countered that after years of procrastination in Washington, the whole neighborhood is ready to burn.
"Which room are you going to put out first?" Gibbs said during a Monday briefing. "Are you going to say, 'We loved the living room. Start over there. And if you can, get quickly to the kitchen and next to the den.' We could do that. And maybe by the time they get to the kitchen and the den, the whole house is in ashes."
Conservatives such as Cantor and Brooks may be more worried about the direction the administration is taking than how fast it is moving. But even some who are sympathetic to the president's goals may wonder if he has the manpower to tackle so much all at once.
Key Cabinet departments such as Treasury are just beginning to staff up, though the administration notes that it's filling high-level jobs more quickly than any of the past three presidents.
There is a sound political reason for Obama to act quickly, while his approval rating is hovering near 60 percent. Both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush passed their signature tax cuts in their first year in office, while President Bill Clinton's early months were consumed by the fight over gays in the military, squandering momentum that might have gone to health care reform.
"President Obama's effort to accomplish in his first year as much as he can seems to be a good idea, given the lesson of history," said Quinnipiac pollster Peter Brown. "Presidents are elected with maximum political capital, and they spend it as their term goes on.
"The idea is to get done what they want to get done very early in their term when their political strength is at its greatest," he said.
Obama argued repeatedly during the campaign that a president must be able to do more than one thing at a time. Of course, parts of his agenda will require congressional approval — and Congress has trouble doing even one thing quickly.