Through the din of town-hall meeting protests, President Obama quietly negotiated his way to a series of low-key victories last week, capped off Saturday with the swearing-in of Judge Sonia Sotomayor, his first pick for the U.S. Supreme Court.
The week began with the unexpected images of former President Bill Clinton on North Korean soil, where he helped to secure the release of two captive American journalists. Then came legislation to bolster the popular cash-for-clunkers auto-rebate program, which swiftly wended its way toward passage.
While senators shuttled back and forth to the West Wing to discuss health care reform, they allowed time to make Judge Sotomayor the nation’s 111th justice on the fast-moving schedule Mr. Obama sought, ensuring she is seated for a full fall caseload.
The president returned the favor with a Rose Garden speech Friday recognizing the first hints of positive employment news, saying he thinks the economy is “back from the brink” and he “can see a light at the end of the tunnel.”
As all this unfolded, intelligence reports were giving early indications that Pakistan’s Taliban chief and a top al Qaeda bomb maker had been killed.
The successes were piling up so fast, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine told The Washington Times on Saturday “that, frankly, we’ve hardly had time to really savor or celebrate.”
Scholars studying the presidency said the bountiful week was impressive by just about any standard.
Darrell M. West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institute, said he viewed it as especially beneficial, given the timing.
“This is a huge boon to the president’s legislative agenda because it gives members good news they can take back home at a crucial time in the health care debate,” Mr. West said.
Between the theatrics of the health care debate and Mr. Obama’s now well-documented “no-drama” ethos, though, the string of administration accomplishments has not generated the sort of positive glow that typically accompanies even small-scale success in Washington.
In fact, poll numbers continue to show the president struggling to maintain the popularity he carried into the White House.
A Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday showed Mr. Obama with a 50 percent approval rating, down from 57 percent one month earlier.
The numbers are a reminder that there remain doubts about the president’s approach to the economic crisis, in particular.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, noted in assessing the accomplishments that, “while any sign of the recession slowing is welcome news, it would be a mistake to credit $1 trillion in new government debt, rather than the resilience and productivity of the American worker.”
It may be because of critics that the administration has been understated in talking about the week’s events.
Still, when longtime White House correspondent Helen Thomas pressed spokesman Robert Gibbs to explain during his Friday briefing “why the other side is gaining so much,” Mr. Gibbs urged reporters to view the week through a wider lens.
“Well, Helen,” he gently protested, “I think the president’s had a pretty good week. I think if you look back - we’ll take this week.”
In part, the administration’s reserve in touting its successes has been driven by a recognition that there are still many in the country who are suffering the effects of the economic downturn.
As Mr. Gibbs put it during his briefing, “We do not have any banners out that say, you know, we only lost a quarter-million jobs.” His choice of words was a not-so-subtle reminder of the perils of overconfidence, represented by former President George W. Bush’s now infamously premature banner declaring “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq.
Beyond lingering uncertainty about the economy, the administration also is bracing for escalating tensions in the battle over the president’s signature initiative, his effort to overhaul the nation’s health care system.
While it is far too soon to celebrate success on that crucial front, Mr. Kaine said, he does sense a certain confidence coming from Mr. Obama. The two were together for much of Thursday evening, as the president visited Virginia to raise money and rally enthusiasm for Democratic candidate R. Creigh Deeds, who is hoping to succeed Mr. Kaine as Virginia governor.
“I think that style - of reaching out and bringing people around the table to solve problems - it may not be as flashy,” Mr. Kaine said. “But that style, with patience, is starting to bear fruit.”
Jon Ward contributed to this report.