Skip to content

Sleep It Off

June 11, 2010

(Updated below the fold)

Paul Starobin, months later, reaches the same conclusion that the sober among us reached a long time ago:

Why can’t President Obama stop the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico? Why can’t he get the Israelis and Palestinians to stop squabbling and make peace? Why can’t he get the Europeans to contribute more troops to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan? Why can’t he forge a global treaty to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases?

Why can’t he . . . well, you get the point. Obama, it turns out, is not Superman. In (unhappy) truth, no president is, no matter how politically gifted and no matter how many people, in this country and around the world, root for his success.

Uh… duh.  It’s pretty easy to sit around and criticize presidential inadequacies when you’re not the, you know, President (see: the 2008 campaign).  There are legitimate criticisms of the handling of the oil spill, but overall, everybody has just been saying “Why don’t you do something!” without ever suggesting just exactly what he should do.  It seems like people would be satisfied if the feds just threw a bunch of money in a hole and set in on fire as long as it was nominally directed at plugging the leak.  This isn’t Latin America folks—why don’t we expect a little less of our government? Starobin, for his part, at least tacitly acknowledges that the President brought this on himself:

Obama, fairly enough, is reaping what he sowed in assigning himself an impossible mission as a global savior. But Americans are his culpable enablers. Few people want to hear this, but he’s doing the best he can, considering the difficult circumstances that he and the nation face. And what he needs most from the public is a quality that distinguishes adults from children: patience.

Sorry, not buying that.  The elections of Bob McDonnell, Chris Christie, and Scott Brown are still his fault.  It’s not quite the American people’s fault—the President set himself up for this.  Had he scaled down the rhetoric during the campaign, had he not promised to be the world’s Messiah, then maybe the people who voted for him wouldn’t have expected him to already have unemployment back at 5% and have the Dow at 15,000.  There are campaign promises and then there are campaign promises.  It turns out taking care of things in the White House is a lot harder than it seems, regardless of “Republican obstructionism”.  It would do voters to remember that next time they cast their votes for the Presidency.  And it would do future candidates to remember the President’s approval rating just 17 months into his first term.

UPDATE: Via Jonathan Bernstein via Ezra Klein, this quote from Richard Neustadt:

In form all Presidents are leaders nowadays. In fact this guarantees no more than that they will be clerks. Everybody now expects the man inside the White House to do something about everything. … But such acceptance does not signify that all the rest of government is at his feet. It merely signifies that other men have found it practically impossible to do their jobs without assurance of initiatives from him. Service for themselves, not power for the President, has brought them to accept his leadership in form. … A President, these days, is an invaluable clerk. His services are in demand all over Washington. His influence, however, is a very different matter.


This is, it should be said, less true on foreign policy than on domestic policy. But on domestic policy, it’s quite true. If you could convince Barack Obama that the economy desperately needed $400 billion more in immediate stimulus, there’s just not that much he could do about it. He doesn’t have the votes, and like all presidents before him, he doesn’t have a irresistible powers or tools of persuasion he can use to get the votes. Our system is based around Congress even if our storytelling is based around the president.

This has really reached its reductio-ad-absurdum in the BP oil spill. There’s some justified annoyance that Obama wasn’t tougher with BP, and more skeptical of the company’s estimates, from the beginning. But there’s also these arguments that Obama needs to “take over” the oil spill fix, as if the government had some secret competence in shutting of deep-sea oil rigs.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: