The No-Win Presidency; the Obama Sparkle Is Vanishing beneath an Oil Sheen

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 17, 2010 | Go to article overview
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The No-Win Presidency; the Obama Sparkle Is Vanishing beneath an Oil Sheen


Byline: Jeffrey H. Birnbaum, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

President Obama has been criticized by both the left and the right for his lackluster address to the nation on Tuesday. He clearly deserves the harsh reviews. Instead of dwelling on the horrendous situation in the

Gulf - and the ways he intends to fix it - he spent the latter part of his brief speech in the Ivory Tower. He created a commission and a new Gulf Coast czar and pushed for a complicated piece of legislation - cap and trade - that has no chance of passing the Senate this year.

In the face of human tragedy, the president dwelled on bureaucracy and wishful thinking. That has hurt his already faltering standing with the public and will make it harder for him to do anything, including the one thing voters really want him to do - muster every resource available to prevent any more of the oil from coming ashore.

That said, the president has a tough job, maybe even an impossible one. The commentary about his on-camera performance in the Oval Office is important in a political sense; voters will judge him on his leadership skills. But they will vote on his effectiveness and, in that realm, he might be powerless to do better.

The president finds himself in a no-win situation. There's not much he can do to stop the economic and environmental disaster that's befalling the Gulf Coast. Yet the public is demanding that he be in charge, reverse the damage or pay the consequences.

Mr. Obama is at the mercy of a toothless federal government, weakened by years of neglect and derision by the politicians who control its purse strings. Federal agencies are bringing federal dollars that taxpayers can barely afford and distributing them in what governors in the regions say is a confusing web that is not even meeting minimum standards of efficiency.

Localities increasingly are taking matters into their own hands and not waiting for the feds' OK to move ahead with emergency preparedness.

Still, the president has taken responsibility for the accident and its aftermath. Yes, BP will have to pay, but Mr. Obama has made himself the ultimate decision-maker. What happens in the Gulf is on his shoulders.

The weight, sadly, may be too much for him to bear.

The signs of his troubles are multiplying. His legislative initiatives have run into hard times across the board. His main accomplishment, health care reform, is still supported by a minority of voters, according to the polls. The president's advisers had hoped that position would be reversed by now.

Other bills the president backs are also struggling. The so-called extender package - a kind of mini jobs bill packaged with other, long-term subsidies - has failed to move forward in the Senate, largely over fiscal concerns. In addition, the Wall Street reform bill, once considered a sure thing, is running into roadblocks that the president is finding hard to remove.

Isn't this always the pattern with presidents? The soaring rhetoric of elections is quickly displaced by the hard slog of governing, and the glow of a new presidency fades.

President Obama is feeling the pain of getting things done more acutely than any of his recent predecessors. He was slow to react to the oil spill in the Gulf and has still not gotten a handle on the crisis. At the same time, he imagines that speaking out more often and traveling to the region weekly will at least insulate him from the kind of political catastrophe that befell his predecessor after the feeble response of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

But being better than George W. Bush is not good enough. Mr. Bush managed over time to rebuild major parts of New Orleans and shelter the thousands of people left homeless by Katrina. In the case of the BP oil spill, the president has admitted that the cleanup will take years and cause frustration and anger for millions of Americans.

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