For most of the last 100 days, President Obama has fended off criticism that he is trying to do too much at once. He had no choice, he would counter. “We cannot successfully address any of our problems without addressing them all,” he famously said in a radio address on February 21.
But on Wednesday, in his third primetime press conference, Obama moved beyond the defense of his actions to a confession of sorts. Doing so much at once, it turns out, is actually quite a chore. “The typical president, I think, has two or three big problems,” he said, just hours after a flu pandemic was declared “imminent” by the World Health Organization. “We’ve got seven or eight big problems.”
He went on. “I don’t want to run auto companies, I don’t want to run banks. I’ve got two wars I’ve got to run already. I’ve got more than enough to do,” he said. “So the sooner we can get out of that business, the better off we’re going to be.”
A few minutes later, in response to another question, Obama returned to the same theme. “If you could tell me right now that, when I walked into this office that the banks were humming,” he said, “that autos were selling, and that all you had to worry about was Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, getting health care passed, figuring out how to deal with energy independence, deal with Iran, and a pandemic flu, I would take that deal.”
What to make of all this talk? It was not so much a complaint as an acknowledgment of the historical confluence of crises that have greeted Obama’s first months in the White House. A list of the major issues Obama has faced down would include everything from pirate standoffs in the Indian Ocean to banking conflations in New York, from North Korean missiles to auto industry collapses, from floods in Fargo to swine flu in Mexico. It is the sort of sequence of events that would strain credulity if written in fiction, a sequence made all the more remarkable by the fact that for the early weeks, Obama and his staff were still learning their way around the White House. (According to the New York Times, on one particularly hectic day in the White House, Obama’s top message man, David Axelrod, asked aloud of another aide, “What is this, a ‘West Wing’ episode?”)
But Obama’s point was not to plead for pity or sympathy. It was to prepare the American people for the long road ahead. “I’m humbled,” he said. “By the American people who have shown extraordinary patience and I think a recognition that we’re not going to solve all of these problems overnight.” This was the second time in 60 minutes that he had thanked Americans for their patience.
The country, he was saying, is going to need it.