Image: Obama
Charles Dharapak  /  AP
President Barack Obama steps out of his limousine as he walks towards Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base on Friday en route to the Louisiana Gulf Coast.
By Associated Press Writer
updated 6/4/2010 3:08:38 PM ET 2010-06-04T19:08:38

America's vaunted can-do spirit is badly frayed.

From the Gulf oil spill to the war in Afghanistan, from lost jobs to soaring budget deficits, cascading crises are defying easy resolution and undermining faith in the future.

Take the oil gushing from a broken well into the Gulf of Mexico — for more than six weeks — despite all efforts to stop it.

That gusher, which can be seen around the clock on live video feeds from the ocean floor, stands as a vivid image of the limits of modern technology and governance. We can fly through space and walk on the moon — but can't stop a crude oil leak that has grown into the nation's worst environmental catastrophe.

Then there's the economy. Many months after the recession was said to be over, Friday's jobless figures showed the nation still in the grip of frighteningly high unemployment. Despite Obama administration insistence that no problem is getting more attention.

Abroad, the U.S. still hasn't defeated the Taliban in Afghanistan after nearly 10 years of trying. We seem unable to slow the nuclear march of Iran and North Korea. And efforts to broker peace in the Middle East keep slipping from our grasp.

These aren't just problems for President Barack Obama. But as the nation's leader, he is taking the most heat.

"He's certainly moved from seeming to walk on water to really slogging in the mud, the oil-filled mud if you will," said Fred Greenstein, a Princeton University presidential scholar. "He is hitting a lot of existential obstacles — things that are out there and that are intractable."

For now, the disaster at the top of the list is the oil still spewing from the blown BP well. It's hitting more shores, and now coating birds, as shown in sickeningly vivid photos.

Obama headed to the Gulf Coast on Friday for the third time since the April 20 blowout and fire on the Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11 workers.The company said it was diverting some oil up a pipe from a cap it placed on the well but it was not yet clear how much.

The nation's worst oil spill has the president on the defensive as he repeatedly insists that he and his administration have been fully engaged from the start. But it's a double-edged message, since Obama also wants it clear that the spill is BP's fault and the London-based oil giant's responsibility to get under control.

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Obama understands the nation's frustration and says he shares it.

"I would love to just spend a lot of my time venting and yelling at people. But that's not the job I was hired to do. My job is to solve this problem, and ultimately this isn't about me and how angry I am," he told CNN's Larry King.

A recent Gallup poll found that more than half those surveyed thought Obama was handling the crisis poorly. With the spill threatening to undermine his presidency, Obama abruptly scrapped a trip to Indonesia and Australia for the second time this year to focus on the crisis at home.

It's hardly just about Obama. Many Americans, and people in other developed countries, too, have become accustomed to believing that technology and smart thinking can bring manmade calamities under control and help guide a nation's destiny.

Video: Obama marks 500 days milestone Yet, both domestically and internationally, little the U.S. has tried lately seems to be working.

Pocketbook problems seem unceasing, in the face of enormous efforts to get the economy moving.

Friday's Labor Department report said payrolls rose by 431,000 jobs in May. But all but about 40,000 of them were temporary census positions, and some 125,000 new jobs are needed each month just to keep pace with new entrants into the labor force. Thirteen million new ones will be needed to bring the jobless rate down to pre-recession rates of around 6 percent, and economists don't see that for years — perhaps late 2013, at the earliest.

"We dug ourselves a very deep hole," said Mark Zandi, chief economists of Moody's

The nation may have technically survived the Great Recession, but the stubbornly high jobless rate and worries about Europe's economy are fueling fears of another recession. Meanwhile, the government's budget deficit is soaring to near-Greek proportions, with no good plan to get it under control.

"Greater realism is needed about U.S. budget challenges as the recovery continues, or America will join Europe down the proverbial drain of financial self abuse," said Peter Morici, a business professor at the University of Maryland and former chief economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission.

The overseas picture isn't any brighter away from Europe.

Video: Obama's oil message Last week's botched Israeli naval commando raid on Turkish-flagged aid ships bound for the Gaza Strip appeared to dampen expectations of any breakthrough in stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The international condemnation of Israel that followed the bloody raid also further complicates U.S. efforts against Iran's nuclear program.

Likewise, the conclusion by international investigators blaming the sinking of a South Korean warship on a torpedo from a North Korean submarine, and the resulting increase in tensions on the Korean Peninsula, make it even less likely that the North will agree to return to six-nation talks to limit its nuclear program.

"Things are bad, getting worse," said Doug Schoen, a Democratic strategist who was a pollster for former President Bill Clinton.

Schoen said the weight of big crises, plus smaller political controversies — Did the Obama administration offer possible jobs to Senate candidates in Pennsylvania and Colorado to tempt them to drop challenges to White House-favored candidates? — can shake public confidence in Obama.

"On each and every problem we are facing, he and his administration have been found wanting and have yet to meet the challenge that they themselves said they were prepared to take on," Schoen said.

The White House of course sees it differently and views the oil spill as the immediate major challenge.

"I think we're going to be judged and the president will be judged on our response and our recovery efforts to what we all know now is the worst environmental disaster in our nation's history," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs. "But pounding on a podium isn't going to fix a hole in the ocean."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Comparing Reagan to Obama

  1. Closed captioning of: Comparing Reagan to Obama

    >>> 43 past the hour, jon meacham with us, john heilemann with us. time for the must read op-eds. we're going to do something a little different because joe has reached back in history.

    >> i had an idea, jon meacham , as presidential historian, you'll probably enjoy this. since you're telling us it's the 75th anniversary of the dunkirk speech. it happens in every presidency, the white house is under siege. it really is. it's under siege over bp. if you were just handling one thing, it would be fine. but unemployment's 9.9%. then you've got the sestak problems. and then you have the problems coming out of colorado and all of these things are coming at you at once. and we forget that every white house , every white house goes through this. it's how they respond to these moments that decide whether they're going to be a one-term president, like jimmy carter , or whether they're going to win 49 states two years later like reagan . we went back to 1982 and just set the stage. 1982 , on this date, june 4th , and we have an editorial we'll read from that day, but reagan at this point in his presidency was in a lot of trouble.

    >> his approval rating was the same as obama 's. according to gallup. the best slogan for the midterms was stay the course, but the course was pretty bad, so he lost, what, 26 seats or so.

    >> 26 seats. stunned the republican party . they thought they were on the asce ascend.

    >> and he was seen even then -- he was 71 years old, had been shot the year before on march 30th . and was already seen as, well, is he too old? is he favoring the rich? trickle down's not working. these deficits are going. plus, we forget about this, people thought nuclear armageddon was a live possibility.

    >> could be --

    >> because he was deploying pershings. gorbachev was not on the scene. he didn't meet with any russian official until '84.

    >> right. so we had all of this going on, mika. you look at the front pages of the new york times, washington post , "newsweek," "time," everything, they were all saying basically what is in this editorial you're about to read by tom wicker .

    >> and it is entitled --

    >> on june 4th , 1982 , of course, for those that just switched back over from spongebob, today's june 4th as well.

    >> there you go.

    >> two years in -- or a year and a half into the obama presidency.

    >> it's called, meanwhile back at the ranch. his approval rating in the new york times/cbs poll stabilized at 43%, same as in march. but that's still a drop from his 56% in 1981 just after the attempt on his life. for the 1982 congressional elections the poll found 48% of respondents saying they would back candidate who is differed with mr. reagan 's policies, only 38% would vote for those who follow the president's lead. a sharp shift since january.

    >> of course, the same thing we hear about barack obama 's precipitous drop from last year as well. read the next one about economy.

    >> high unemployment and high interest rates may be particularly damaging to mr. reagan 's 1980 electoral coalition . bankruptcies are occurring at the rate the 80 per 10,000 companies for a probable total of more than 70,000 this year. and it will be hard to blame all those failures on jimmy carter .

    >> so, jon, let me start with you again. we also have one for bill clinton by anthony lewis , "new york times," basically saying the same thing about bill clinton on june 4, 1994 . so, what is it? what is the difference between a clinton and a reagan who win re-election and say, a jimmy carter who's faced with these problems and doesn't respond as well?

    >> well, i think the economy, and a basic kind of native political skill. i mean, one thing about reagan and clinton , that joins them, is they were adaptable. people don't remember this about reagan . they i think he was always the rushmoreian figure. this man knew how to maneuver.

    >> very pragmatic.

    >> hugely. pat brown wrote a book about him called "the cameleon" after he beat him for governor. for people who think politics just got nasty 20 minutes ago. things got particularly bad for carter after the midterm.

    >> after the midterms.

    >> that was a difference, too.

    >> so, does this white house have to prove itself to be more flexible?

    >> the economy is a huge difference. as jon just said. reagan was always able to deal with democrats. bill clinton after the 1994 midterms you know well, joe, he made -- actually in some ways benefitted him politically. republicans came in, clinton turned out, he made the best tasting lemonade in the world out of those lemons and was able to pass incredibly important policy.

    >> we made clinton seem like the centrist.

    >> that's right. this is going to be the question for obama going forward. there are a variety of ways in which he's been remarkably unscarred by adversity throughout his political life . now, you know, whether it's the bp oil spill or what i think, and we all think is about to happen to him this november in the midterm elections , eagle going to face a very dramatically altered political landscape going forward. the question is going to be, how well does he adapt to that circumstance? how well does he get up off the mat and meet political adversity? if he does it in an adaptable way, the economy improves, he'll be in good shape going to 2012 . we don't know because he's never been dealt a below blow like that in his political career.

    >> bottom line? white house comes in thinking they're special, thinking they invented politics. whether you look at the carter people who said, we're outsiders, we're new, we're different, we're from georgia, we're going to do it the georgia way, or if you look at reagan , or if you look at clinton . you look at the end of war room where they're crying at the end of that movie, we're going to change politics forever. two years later, they get slammed, the obama white house thinks they're special --

    >> don't panic.

    >> don't panic. keep your head down. keep working. [ female


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