Barack Obama, while assessing John McCain's attempt to cut and run from the Friday night presidential debate, contended yesterday that both candidates have ample time to shuttle between the Washington crisis and the Mississippi showdown. Indeed, he said, "It is going to be part of the (next) president's job to deal with more than one thing at once."

Perhaps this is the kind of multi-tasking that Obama was talking about:

While Abraham Lincoln was prosecuting the Civil War during his first winter in office, he was also trying to create a federal department of agriculture; to win diplomatic recognition for the black republics of Haiti and Liberia; to negotiate with Congress on proposals for a land-grand college system, a Pacific railroad charter, a tariff increase, and a tax on consumers. Over a period of two months that winter, he was also trying to avoid plunging the Union into a war with Great Britain (a two-month crisis precipitated by a Union captain's decision to board a British ship and remove two Confederate envoys), and success didn't come until the eleventh hour.

Eighty years later, Franklin D. Roosevelt was into all kinds of multi-tasking, even before Pearl Harbor; as one Washington magazine reported in April 1941, "A more discouraging agenda could not have been imagined." FDR had to deal that month with (among other things) urgent British appeals for more aid; the fallout of Allied setbacks in the Middle East; the delicate issue of Axis ships berthing in American ports;, the sluggish buildup of the newly-conscripted military; and a rash of labor strikes, fought over workloads, working conditions and wages, that ultimately affected one of every 12 American workers, and seriously slowed production of the war materials earmarked for Britain.

Twenty years after that, John F. Kennedy in the spring of 1961 had to juggle nearly simultaenous crises in Cuba, Laos, Vietnam - and the American South, where the racist attacks on the Freedom Riders brought the civil-rights crisis to the fore. In the autumn of 1962, even during the Cuban Missile crisis, Kennedy broke away for politics, flying to Chicago where he delivered speeches and pep talks to the Cook County Democrats in advance of the impending congressional elections.

But McCain himself knows a little about juggling simultaneous duties. Back in October 1999, for instance, he and his Senate Republican colleagues - led by his '08 campaign sidekick, Texas Sen. Phil Gramm - were busy putting the finishing touches on a landmark piece of deregulation legislation that would unshackle the financial industry from federal oversight. The work was completed in the wee hours - but wait, McCain wasn't there. He was multi-tasking up in New a Republican presidential primary debate.

His debate message: Our "almost unprecedented prosperity" requires, among other things, "a lack of regulation."

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