Why, Oh, Why Doesn't Obama Save Us?

Why a president who does too much is far more dangerous than one who does too little

Not long ago, Barack Obama was pilloried for being too activist, too meddlesome, and too inclined to see himself as the messiah. He was forcing health care reform down our throats, running General Motors, wrecking the financial system and promising to make the oceans recede.

But that was a different guy, from a parallel universe. The President Obama we all know is a passive, detached do-nothing. Or so we have been hearing since the British Petroleum oil spill gained our attention.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican who once denounced Democrats for scheming to "increase dependence on government," now demands that Washington do more for his state.

Former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who recently called on Congress to zero out the Environmental Protection Agency, challenges the administration to "save the Louisiana coast, save the fisheries, save the wetlands."

Funny how nobody said that at the 2008 Republican national convention, where the chant was "drill, baby, drill." Back then, real men didn't protect sea turtles.

"For 35 days, he hasn't used the full force of our government," Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), complained of the president last month. That's right: a conservative lamenting that Obama is being too cautious and prudent in his deployment of federal power.

What's next? Griping that he's not enough of a socialist?

It may not be a surprise to find Republicans damning Obama when he does and when he doesn't. But it is novel for them to act as though the president is an omnipotent national father, without whose tender care we are all lost.

"America wants a leader, not a politician," proclaims former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, writing in USA Today. He says Obama should emulate former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who after the 9/11 attacks "camped out at Ground Zero" to lead the response. "There is no substitute for being there," Romney lectures the president.

This is part of Romney's ongoing campaign to make sure no one ever again takes him seriously. Obama is not a mayor. He is commander in chief at a time when we are fighting two major wars, confronting a North Korea that recently sunk a South Korean naval vessel, trying to prevent Iran from getting nukes, and grappling with an international crisis involving Israel.

He is also responsible for directing policy and making budget decisions involving numerous federal departments and agencies that exist because the GOP, after all, didn't abolish them during its time in power.

To suggest that Obama should devote his full attention to fixing a single problem (a leaking oil well) that the federal government has no competence or responsibility to fix is not leadership but childish fantasy.

Making rules for deepwater drilling is a legitimate function of government, and so is holding polluters accountable for the damage they cause. Plugging oil wells is the function of oil companies.

The federal government does have a responsibility to help mitigate the harm done by the leaking petroleum. But Obama does not need to be on hand for it to carry out that mission, any more than the chairman of Toyota needs to be carrying a wrench on the factory floor. If the president cannot formulate a policy and direct those under him to carry it out, he has no business being president—because there is no other way to be president.

When his critics accuse Obama of being detached and passionless, they are really faulting him for being calm, rational, and realistic. Those qualities, a contrast to the cocky style of his immediate predecessor, are what got him elected. If Americans had wanted a leader to channel rage or grief, they would have chosen someone more demonstrative.

Obama has gone wrong—as conservatives have often been correct in pointing out—when he has pressed against the limits of his rightful powers, taking on responsibilities far greater than the federal government should assume. A president who does too much is far more dangerous to life, liberty, and property than one who does too little.

So if Obama is erring on the side of circumspection, more power to him. When he was running for the White House in 1968, Democrat Eugene McCarthy was asked if he felt he would be a good president. "I think I would be adequate," he replied. Here is a goal for Obama that conservatives as well as liberals should be willing to endorse: Just be adequate.

This column first appeared at Reason.com.

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