Obama White House Faces 'Unprecedented' Onslaught of Domestic, Global Problems

President Obama's first few months in office have been more baptism by fire than immersion in executive leadership. 

He's seen an economic crisis deepen, with unemployment rising to levels unseen in a generation. He's seen Mexico's drug war threaten security in America's Southwest. He's seen new challenges, both political and military, emerge in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the fight against Al Qaeda

And to top things off, North Korea defied the United Nations by firing a ballistic missile, the kind the West fears could be used to deliver nuclear weapons. 

"North Korea, strangely enough, is the least of Obama's foreign policy problems at this point -- and that's pretty bad," said Thomas Whalen, a political historian and professor at Boston University. 

As Obama seeks to enact a broad agenda, much of it promised during his presidential campaign, it seems as if every day brings another another challenge. But with the new administration stretched wafer thin, it's questionable whether the Obama White House, or any White House, could be equipped to handle such an onslaught of problems. 

Whalen said the breadth of challenges facing Obama less than 80 days into his term is "unprecedented" for a new president. 

"FDR, he had the Great Depression, but it wasn't until his third term until he really dealt with foreign policy issues," he said. "This is ... like it's all coming at once." 

Whalen said the magnitude and severity of challenges help explain why Obama is overseas seeking renewed support from European nations and restored relations with countries like Russia and China. Obama also is making fresh overtures to the Muslim world -- on Monday, he declared before the Turkish parliament that the United States "is not and will never be at war with Islam" and called for a mutual respect between East and West. 

"He knows the United States can't do it alone," Whalen said. 

Terry Sullivan, co-founder of the White House Transition Project, said the only comparable crisis facing a new president in the past century was the botched Bay of Pigs invasion, which happened within the first three months of John F. Kennedy's presidency. 

But Obama's facing a whole set of crises, he said. 

"Just everything: North Korea, collapse of the banks, economy teetering, auto industry collapsing. It's pretty unprecedented," Sullivan said. 

The full plate, and the pressure that comes with it, also help explain why Obama assumed such a foreboding tone about the economic crisis during his first month in office, while pitching his stimulus plan. 

The president has since ditched that tone --  disliked by a distraught American public -- in favor of more reassuring rhetoric. His overseas visit to Europe this past week was punctuated by the kind of hope-filled speeches that defined his presidential campaign. 

But the shift in tone doesn't soften the hard-edged challenges he confronts. 

North Korea's rocket firing over the weekend was just the latest test of the president's mettle -- the kind of test then-Sen. Joe Biden seemed to reference to a fundraising audience before Election Day when he said Obama would face a "generated crisis."  

The Taliban forces in Pakistan and Afghanistan are reportedly teaming up to fight the wave of U.S. troops Obama plans to send into the region. Violence has also overtaken Mexico, with top U.S. officials holding high-level talks with their counterparts south of the border to try to find ways to clamp down on drug trade-fueled chaos. 

Domestically, the titans of the U.S. auto industry are edging ever closer to bankruptcy, with Obama stepping in last week to force the firing of General Motors' CEO. Unemployment jumped to 8.5 percent in March. 

Obama tried to turn the North Korea crisis into an opportunity Sunday, telling a crowd in Prague that the missile launch only underscored the need to carry out his call for an end to nuclear proliferation. 

"The world must stand together to prevent the spread of these weapons. Now is the time for a strong international response. North Korea must know that the path to security and respect will never come through threats and illegal weapons," Obama said. 

But as the president seeks global support for his agenda, he also must make sure to spread out the burden of responsibility at home, analysts said. 

Sullivan said Obama would be well-served to continue enlisting the help of outside experts to deal with the crises, so his White House staff can concentrate on his multi-faceted agenda. 

Jeremy Mayer, public policy professor at George Mason University, said Obama will have to delegate effectively. If anything, the mounting challenges are a test to the hundreds of people with whom Obama has surrounded himself. 

"There's a delicate balancing act that needs to go on here between looking personally involved and also delegating effectively," Mayer said. He said one of former President Clinton's problems early on was he did not delegate enough. Former President Reagan mastered the art of delegation, but then ran into the perils of over-delegating in his second term with issues like the Iran-Contra affair, Mayer said. 

By one measure, Obama's doing an effective job of getting key officials in place, though he has faced criticism for being slow to appoint top-level officials at the Treasury Department. 

The White House Transition Project published a summary last week showing that Obama has sent 111 nominations to the Senate so far. Former President George W. Bush, by comparison, had sent about 50 to the Senate by the same time in his administration. 

For better or worse, Obama is using that staffing to attempt to tackle at once the multitude of challenges facing his administration -- he's pushing a costly agenda to invest in education, alternative energy and health care reform, all the while hitting the economic crisis on all fronts. And he's reversed a number of controversial Bush-era practices in what was once commonly called the War on Terror as he shifts the theater from Iraq to Afghanistan. 

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs has defended the all-at-once approach, saying if your "house is on fire," you can't just hose down one room. 

"It's sort of like being FDR and Truman all at once," Mayer said. "It's a hell of a job right now."