US & World

For Obama White House, What's The Crisis Du Jour?

U.S. President Barack Obama walks out to give a press conference at the conclusion of the G20 Summit June 27, 2010 in Toronto, Canada.
U.S. President Barack Obama walks out to give a press conference at the conclusion of the G20 Summit June 27, 2010 in Toronto, Canada.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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A single crisis can define a presidency -- think George W. Bush and Sept. 11, or Jimmy Carter and the Iran hostages.

It's impossible to know now whether President Obama will have a defining moment like that. But options seem to present themselves daily, from oil gushing out of a broken well to the top American general in Afghanistan being ousted for mocking senior White House officials.

White House spokesman Bill Burton remembers one day last week: "For example, at the same time Gen. [David] Petraeus was being offered the job to go to Afghanistan, the containment cap was coming off the well in the Gulf."

While the media focus on the crisis du jour, Burton says, the White House needs a wider lens.

"We're always trying to look around the corner to see what's coming up next and to stay on top of everything that's happening around us," he says. "As we were finishing up health care, people were already laying the groundwork and working on financial regulatory reform. Right now, the president is already having meetings, the staff is already working with folks in Congress on energy."

It's a juggling act for every administration, says political scientist Matt Dickinson of Middlebury College. "As president," Dickinson says, “you have to be able to stay above the daily news narrative and be proactive and keep an eye on those larger issues that are going to define your presidency."

At the same time, ignoring a daily crisis in favor of long-term strategy could make a president seem out of touch.

Obama often emphasizes the disasters he inherited, reminding Americans in speech after speech that he took office in the middle of two wars and an economic recession.

Late last year, he told the author Jonathan Alter: "When an H1N1 pandemic ranks fourth or fifth on my list of things to do, you know you've got a lot of stuff on your plate."

President Clinton has complained that he never had a defining national crisis -- the kind that leads historians to define a presidency as great.

President Obama has the opposite problem, says Neera Tanden of the Center for American Progress, who worked in the Clinton White House. "He has so many large crises that I think his presidency will be judged in very stark terms. He either rose to the tremendous challenges he is facing or he is sunk by them," she says.

That's amplified by a news environment that constantly seeks drama. Even a story that disappears in 24 hours can appear in the moment to be a defining inflection point in a presidency.

Crises from a week ago already seem less urgent. But with wars and an unemployment rate stuck near 10 percent, the country does face high stakes right now. And that makes it unlikely that Obama will be viewed as an average president.

It's not yet clear whether Americans will see him as a success or a failure.

"Over the past six months, he's dealt with unemployment that doesn't go down, he's struggled to deal with this environmental crisis in the Gulf, and we see almost no change in his approval ratings -- 49 percent approval in January, 48 percent approval in June," says Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center.

Gordon Johndroe knows well what a crisis can do to a presidency. He was part of the Bush administration during Sept. 11, the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina.

A former White House spokesman, Johndroe now works for the communications firm APCO Worldwide.

"I think a crisis can be used to accomplish things, whether it's demonstrate leadership or change laws to benefit the country that you couldn't get through Congress without a crisis," Johndroe says. "9/11 is a good example of strengthening counterterrorism laws and going after terrorists overseas. The economic crisis is a good example of changing our financial services laws."

This week, attention is on a Supreme Court confirmation hearing. It's not a crisis today. But depending on what comes out of Elena Kagan's mouth, it could become one at any moment. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit