Asking President Obama first to get mad, and then to plug an oil leak in the ocean floor, is asking far too much. The first pushes a cool and analytical president too far out of character, and the second is simply beyond his capabilities.
Just past 500 days into his presidency, though, America still has no clear view of those capabilities. On some issues -- winning early stimulus spending to slow the recession, for one -- he has led effectively. In others -- health care reform is the major example -- an inexplicable early decision to leave important proposals to others was followed only at the last hour by a presidential push to get things done. In yet others, including foreign policy and weeks of this gulf oil disaster, America still is left to wonder.
Obama is a masterful orator, a calm and deliberate speaker who inspires confidence. That quality is one of the reasons he was elected. If, on a number of issues, such as his management of the health bill or addressing the deficit, it masks poor judgment and decisions -- as we think it does -- Americans still should welcome a calm and deliberate president, not one putting on an act of oil-spill anger just to satisfy James Carville.
Obama's approach to problem-solving so far holds evidence of three stylistic approaches in which he strongly believes, and which may be doing a disservice to the president and his country.
Perhaps most crucial is his willingness to turn over initiatives to others rather than provide the leadership himself. After health care reform, the best example is his letting the House and Senate each come up with its own approach to the instability of the financial system; he would have done far better and been able to take action sooner had he proposed his own bill.
The tragic gulf oil leak, perhaps changing the way of life in coastal states forever, could have used immediate presidential leadership and a marshaling and unifying of resources rather than the backing off that let British Petroleum solely answer the emergency.
A second approach was the employment of hardball politics to get a health care reform bill passed despite the public demand for lower costs in favor of immediately expanding coverage, and thus raising costs. Even today a public majority favors repeal of this bill, and there is a touch of arrogance in ignoring public wishes to forge ahead with a bill he personally wanted.
The third approach involves overconfidence that, by force of persuasion and personality, he can make hostile countries in the Mideast his friend and secure their cooperation in achieving his goals in foreign relations. He has held out his hand, and had it slapped. The worst of that occurred in the Iranian election, when those who sought more freedom there turned out for a democratic opponent of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The president could have supported those asking for a fair election, but did not want to risk rejection of his overtures to Tehran; his belief that he can get Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas to see things his way may be more hubris than sound foreign policy.
These are not small flaws. The president is intelligent and given to deliberate reasoning, but the country should not be worse off for that. It should be better. And given presidential recognition of these problems and better decision-making, it can be.