What's the president's job?
The Founding Fathers took a stab at this thorny question in Article II of the Constitution. They gave the president responsibility for commanding the armed forces, initiating treaties, appointing ambassadors and judges, keeping Congress informed of the state of the union, recommending legislation, and making sure "that the Laws be faithfully executed."
How quaint. The Constitution might have been a nice start, but the Founders obviously didn't anticipate the needs of an anxious nation desperately seeking an outlet for their feelings on TV, the Internet, and Twitter. We know that the president's job is to enforce the laws. Duh. But we also now expect him to channel the mood of the nation, express what we ourselves are feeling but can't muster the right words to express, and when we're feeling ornery, to kick somebody's ass so we can collectively feel better.
President Obama is a miserable Emoter-in-Chief. As commentators from the right, left, and center have pointed out, Obama isn't angry or vindictive enough about the appalling BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and it's leaving the rest of us feeling spiritually naked, since we're emoting all by ourselves. At a recent White House briefing, reporters dickered with Press Secretary Robert Gibbs over whether a "clenched jaw" is sufficient proof of Obama's anger at BP. Liberal bomb thrower James Carville has turned on his own party, arguing that Obama's passivity over the spill is politically foolish, plus insensitive to Carville's home state of Louisiana. And conservative critics, never shy of hyperbole, are eagerly pronouncing the BP spill Obama's Katrina and even his Bay of Pigs. Pearl Harbor anyone? Gettysburg? Thermopylae?
Obama apparently mustered some outrage, then went on the Today Show to explain to Matt Lauer that Americans misunderstand him, that he really is full of fury and venom. To prove it he said "ass" on the air, risking the inevitable blowback from primsters who feel he's demeaning the lofty office of President of the Ass-Kicking United States. That showed 'em. Except that media critic Howard Kurtz argued that when Obama finally got mad, he seemed like he was directing his anger at the media, not at oil spiller BP. You know you've lost the momentum when you can't even get angry right.
[See why the Gulf Oil spill will barely affect most Americans.]
Meanwhile, the ruptured well continues to belch oil into the Gulf of Mexico, though BP now says it's collecting some of the oil straight from the exploded wellhead. It could still take two months before the blowout is fully contained. And after that it will take years to purge the Gulf and all the surrounding shores of oil, with a drastic toll on wildlife and the Gulf region's economy.
Managing all that over the long term will require an intelligent balancing of new government regulation and appropriate drilling that meets the nation's energy needs and provides jobs. If Obama were a CEO, he'd be graded by shareholders on how efficiently he solved the immediate problem, fixed the flaws that caused it, compensated victims, and steered the company back toward a profitable future. He'd have to show leadership, but his mood wouldn't really matter. In the end it would all be about performance.
Obama may actually be doing just that. His six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling, meant to give investigators time to figure out what went wrong in the BP disaster, seems measured and appropriate, for now. It could signal a significant change in policy, yet it hasn't roiled markets or sent oil prices skyrocketing—which would produce another kind of outrage, by energy-addicted consumers. Critics of Obama's maddening equanimity haven't really said what he should be doing differently, other than throwing tantrums. But if he called for prompt oil-drilling reforms without first learning what exactly happened, he'd be accused of populist pandering.
It seems clear that the feds have no expertise whatsoever in the kinds of deepwater operations that oil companies undertake, so there's not much more Obama can do to stop the spill, except continuing to hector BP. The Coast Guard is on the scene, and several agencies that nobody ever heard of until now are apparently doing something, so Obama probably figures that he's decentralizing the tactical decision-making to deputies more competent at the specifics than he is. Would things really be going better if Obama were helicoptering around the Gulf, barking orders? Some critics, meanwhile, want Obama to seize all of BP's assets in the United States and take over the operation using BP's equipment and personnel. The only problem is that, uh, this isn't North Korea and we have laws that prevent the president from seizing private property.
If Obama has a modern job description, in fact, it's to be chief executive of a $3 trillion enterprise that's 12 times bigger than BP and is approximately equal in revenue to the 25 biggest companies in America, combined. And boy does USA, Inc. face some tough management problems that require a cool demeanor. If it were a company, it would be insolvent, since it has been spending more money than it takes in for a decade, with no end in sight. It has far-flung money-losing operations that need to be reined in, but can't because of objections from board members known as Congress. And its shareholders, called voters, have wildly unrealistic expectations about the future returns they should expect, in the form of Medicare, Social Security, and other costly payouts.
[See what Washington needs to learn from Greece.]
But these details are boring and the press needs a fresh storyline, and Obama's anger deficiency invites criticism at times like this. But it does make you wonder if we're asking too much of our president. Not so long ago, we'd look to mentors, family members, the clergy, or professional counselors when we needed emotional caretaking or moral guidance. But that was before Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush set such excellent examples of how a modern president can be a stirring leader and a spiritual touchstone, all at once. Now, Obama has an opportunity to pour out his heartbreak in speeches, blogs, tweets, and texts. He could cry with us, raise his fist, kick furniture, drink too much, and lose control, and take his rage on the road by tailgating and cutting off other drivers. He could be one of us.
Thank goodness he's not.