To say that President Barack Obama has a lot on his plate would be an understatement.
On Tuesday night, he will announce he’s sending some 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan. At the same time, he’s trying to wind down from another war in Iraq.
He’s also dealing with an unemployment rate that now hovers above 10 percent (and probably will go higher when the new jobs numbers are released on Friday). And to top it off, he’s attempting to shepherd what would be one of the most significant changes in U.S. domestic policy — reforming the nation’s health care system.
As Obama tries to juggle these tasks and priorities, several participants at a focus group conducted here on Monday night said they were willing to give the president more time to fix the economy and manage the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The group consisted of five Democrats, three Republicans and three independents from the area.
“It is going to take some time,” said Wadeeah, a 32-year-old African-American woman who voted for Obama. “It is not going to happen overnight.”
“He’s got a lot to do,” added Pamela, a white 59-year-old political independent who also voted for Obama. “I think he’s doing a good job. I think he’s slowly improving the country.”
Cheryll, a white 36-year-old Obama voter, agreed. “You can’t snap your fingers and make them problems go away. The excitement has gone. But the hope hasn’t.”
Is Obama doing too much?
But the focus group — conducted by Democratic pollster Peter Hart for the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center — was divided over whether the president is trying to do too much.
“He’s aggressive. I like that,” said Tim, a white 39-year-old Republican who voted for John McCain last year. “But I also want focus, and I’m not seeing it.”
Added Bill, a white 62-year-old independent who voted for Obama: “This administration is taking on so many things at one time. I don’t know if they’d be better off to focus on one thing.”
Yet Bernadette, a 57-year-old white independent who voted for McCain, countered, “Part of the presidency is to take on the current issues of the day.”
William, a 57-year-old African American who supports Obama, concurred. “The administration has to take on more than one thing at a time.”
Obama vs. other politicians
Hart, the Democratic pollster who conducted this focus group, concluded afterwards that the responses were fairly positive for the president. The Democrats who voted for him remained supportive; the Republicans said they were disappointed; and most of them blamed others (like George W. Bush or corporations like AIG) for the country’s current economic situation.
If you were Obama watching the focus group, Hart said, “those were two hours of enjoyable viewing… It was pretty encouraging.”
Indeed, similar to another Hart-led focus group this reporter attended in July, the respondents — even the president's political opponents — viewed Obama more positively than other national politicians.
They used these words to describe the president: “handsome,” “intelligent,” “trying,” “showman,” “reserved,” “inspirational,” “inexperienced,” “eloquent” and “strong.”
On the other hand, here is what they said about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: “abrasive,” “very abrasive,” “egomaniac,” “polarizing,” “arrogant,” “strong woman,” “assertive” and “aggressive.”
On Vice President Joe Biden: “puppet,” “shy”, “outspoken” and “open mouth, insert foot.”
And on Sarah Palin: “whack job,” “unstable,” “future leader,” “immature,” “ridiculous,” “a joke,” “crazy” and “attractive.”
Praise for the first lady
If there was someone who fared better than the president, it was his wife, Michelle Obama. The participants called her “poised,” “strong” and “inspirational.”
Cheryll, the Obama voter, said that she was “genuine,” adding: “I think she puts her family first.”
Even Bernadette, the independent who voted for McCain, talked about the first lady’s “grace” and “poise.”
Concerns about Afghanistan
If there was a concern about Obama — especially from his supporters — it came on the subject of Afghanistan. About half of the focus group (including Obama voters but also at least one McCain supporter) wanted to withdraw from Afghanistan, not add more troops as the president is announcing.
When asked what he wanted to hear from the president in his speech Tuesday night, Victor, a 61-year-old Democrat who voted for Obama, urged the president to make the connection between Afghanistan and the broader war on terrorism. “I want to see him make the case, connect the dots.”
Another Obama voter advocating withdrawal, Pamela, said she would be disappointed with the president sending more troops to Afghanistan. “It kind of makes me mad. When does it end?”
But she added that the troop increase wouldn't impact her overall support for Obama.
Lost jobs — and tears
Overwhelmingly, the participants’ top concern was the economy, and a discussion about it provided the most gripping part of the evening. Patricia, a 45-year-old bartender who voted for McCain, described her husband’s difficulty getting work as a carpenter; she was in tears when talking about her fear of losing her home.
And Cheryll discussed how she, her father and her brother had all lost their jobs.
Only one of the 11 participants blamed Obama for the economy, arguing that he has failed to create an environment that encourages private companies and small businesses to begin hiring again. “He is not doing that," said John, a white 63-year-old McCain voter.
But the others directed their ire at Wall Street and companies like AIG, or at Congress.
Lisa, a 44-year-old white woman who voted for Obama, said it was her hope that the president would begin focusing on the middle class. “I wish he could do something to focus on the average person,” she said. “I have a lot of hope he’ll come up with something.”
After listening to these economic concerns, Hart observed that the Obama White House and Congress would be foolish not to do everything in their power to create more jobs.
“If they don’t do something about unemployment,” he said, “they aren’t watching what we are watching.”
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.