The AIG saga has prompted some senior Democrats to distance themselves from Obama
WHEN the White House announced last week that President Barack Obama will be returning to the nation's television screens on Tuesday for a prime-time press conference that will postpone the latest episode of American Idol - the talent show watched by 25m viewers - fans of the programme were quick to respond.
"Stop, please stop, Mr O, we can't take much more," one angry viewer wrote on an Idol-related website. "Not again!" complained another. "It's the same speech he's been giving for the past year."
There were dark mutterings that by commandeering evening programming only a few days after he appeared on Jay Leno's popular late-night chat show, Obama was "just like Fidel Castro [of Cuba] and Hugo Chavez [of Venezuela] - always on camera, always giving speeches and lecturing".
The barbed response to the prospect of yet another mass-media dose of Obama's economic prescriptions underlined the dangers the president is facing as he struggles to sell his recovery efforts to a country seething with anger and anxiety over the costs, effectiveness and potential abuse of the government's trillion-dollar bailout programme.
White House aides remain outwardly confident that Obama's telegenic appeal will reassure Americans who were appalled by last week's Wall Street bonus fiasco and who are becoming increasingly sceptical about the president's so-called "Big Bang" approach to reviving a shattered economy.
Sceptics were scarcely encouraged on Friday when the main US budgetary watchdog reported that Obama's proposals would generate far greater budget deficits than the administration had predicted. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) prompted consternation with an estimate that deficits over the next decade would total $9.3 trillion (�6.4 trillion).
The deficit revelations followed the administration's much-criticised handling of multi-million-dollar bonuses handed out to employees of the crippled American International Group (AIG) - the insurance behemoth laid low by reckless investments and propped up by taxpayers. The growing fiscal and political doubts about Obama's stimulus programme have exposed alarming cracks in Democratic ranks only two months after he took office.
It was not just that the White House misread popular outrage at the Wall Street hot-shots rewarded for running their company into the ground; there were rumblings of discontent from a wide range of disillusioned Obama supporters complaining about everything from his lack of support for gays to his plans for a new military "surge" in Afghanistan.
Among the prominent Democrats who took issue with the White House over its failure to head off the bonus crisis was Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, who tried several weeks ago to block bonus payments by firms receiving bailout funds, but failed to persuade administration officials to take the potential problem seriously.
Despite strong words about bonuses from Obama himself, the president seemed to undermine their impact when he coughed during a White House event and joked that he was "choked up with anger". Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff, was quoted as saying the president regarded the AIG scandal as merely "a big distraction".
The suggestion that the White House never took seriously an issue that infuriated millions of Americans was supported by Senator Robert Men-endez, a New Jersey Democrat who claimed that several weeks earlier he warned Timothy Geithner, the Treasury secretary, that AIG was planning to use taxpayer funds to pay out $165m in bonuses.
Geithner's failure to block the payments has sparked speculation that Obama will have to replace him, despite the president's insistence to Leno that he is doing "an outstanding job". James Carville, the Democratic strategist, suggested Obama needed to "give a sense that there's much more accountability coming than we see".
Obama said he would not accept Geithner's resignation if it was offered. In a CBS televi-sion interview to be broadcast today the president says he would tell him: "Sorry buddy - you've still got the job."
Stung by popular anger over the AIG saga, several other Democratic senators have been quietly distancing themselves from the Obama team, suggesting it may have bitten off more than it can chew. Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, chairman of the appropriations committee, said: "To maintain a schedule like the one we've got at this moment, throughout the year, I don't know if it will be healthy." Even Peter Orszag, Obama's budget director, was obliged to concede that the CBO-projected deficits, if accurate, were "ultimately not sustainable".
Obama insisted yesterday that he would stick to the big-ticket items in his budget proposals, but analysts speculated that he would have little choice but to slash his spending plans and is likely to arrive close to empty-handed at the G20 economic summit in London next month, where Gordon Brown is hoping for coordinated action to stimulate economic growth.
While Obama is still greeted everywhere he goes by raucous crowds thrilled by his historic election, his poll numbers have begun to slide. A survey from the key battlefield state of Ohio last week showed his approval rating had slipped to 57%, down 10 points from February.
"Here we are six months after the Wall Street bailout began and it's still the case that almost no loans are being made to [ordinary people on] main street," said Robert Reich, a prominent liberal academic and former labour secretary under President Bill Clinton.
"The Wall Street bailout is beginning to look like the most expensive tax-supported fiasco in history," Reich added. "The president cannot afford to lose the public's confidence that his administration is a careful steward of the public's money."
For Howard Zinn, a popular historian, antiwar activist and early Obama supporter, an equal concern is the president's failure to reverse George W Bush's military policies. Zinn, author of A People's History of the United States, said: "We should be informing Obama that we expect more from him than he has done so far. He shows no sign of departing from the traditional militarism of the Democratic and Republican parties. The idea of sending more troops to Afghanistan is disastrous, really absurd."
Many of Obama's critics recognise that the president has his hands full with an economic crisis that was not of his making and that some of his campaign promises - notably on healthcare and schools - may be receding dreams.
Yet the White House appears to be banking on Obama's still-potent aura of promise and integrity to overcome doubts that he can pull off an economic miracle. "There are those who say these plans are too ambitious," Obama said of his sweeping budget proposals during a visit to California last week. "They say, 'Obama's trying to do too much', well, I say our challenges are too large to ignore."
The dangers of his reliance on populist appeal were laid bare during his Leno appearance, where the easy questions lobbed up by his comedian host yielded few clues to future policy but caused a rare Obama stumble.
Deprived of the teleprompter that has become his regular travelling companion, Obama answered a question about his ten-pin bowling prowess by saying "it was like the Special Olympics" for disabled athletes. He apologised even before the recorded programme was broadcast and much of the cheerful benefit of his relaxed appearance was overshadowed by the ensuing fuss over his lapse into political incorrectness.
This week Obama takes another risk by monopolising TV screens in place of American Idol. The same programme was bumped by his State of the Union address last month and it was not only Republicans who complained they were seeing too much of their president.
"In the sucky economic climate we're in now, I like having TV to cheer me up," said Rose Tyler, a disappointed Idol fan.
"He has not made the transition from campaigning to being the actual president," complained another viewer.
"Good time to clean out the sock drawer," said a third.
Congress sets its own agenda
The 9,000 pet projects inserted in the budget by Congress include:
- Removing tattoos from gang members (California): $200,000