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Dear Leader

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Two years ago, the Cato Institute’s Gene Healy wrote an insightful essay in Reason titled, “The Cult of the Presidency.” Healy argued that the office of the president had assumed an almost supernatural place in American life. Not only had presidents assumed powers far beyond those originally intendedthough I’d take exception to Healy’s shrunken, nineteenth-century conception of the office’s proper rolebut the broader culture had also assigned it powers that go beyond the realm of politics itself. “The chief executive of the United States is no longer a mere constitutional officer charged with faithful execution of the laws,” wrote Healy. “He is a soul nourisher, a hope giver, a living American talisman against hurricanes, terrorism, economic downturns, and spiritual malaise.”

Healy could well have been writing about the curious reaction to President Obama’s handling of the BP oil leak. Last week, Obama held a press conference putatively dedicated to explaining the state of the disaster and the government’s response. The actual purpose of the event, as both the questioners and the questionee understood, was for Obama to perform his talismanic role. 

Two years ago, the Cato Institute’s Gene Healy wrote an insightful essay in Reason titled, “The Cult of the Presidency.” Healy argued that the office of the president had assumed an almost supernatural place in American life. Not only had presidents assumed powers far beyond those originally intendedthough I’d take exception to Healy’s shrunken, nineteenth-century conception of the office’s proper rolebut the broader culture had also assigned it powers that go beyond the realm of politics itself. “The chief executive of the United States is no longer a mere constitutional officer charged with faithful execution of the laws,” wrote Healy. “He is a soul nourisher, a hope giver, a living American talisman against hurricanes, terrorism, economic downturns, and spiritual malaise.”

Healy could well have been writing about the curious reaction to President Obama’s handling of the BP oil leak. Last week, Obama held a press conference putatively dedicated to explaining the state of the disaster and the government’s response. The actual purpose of the event, as both the questioners and the questionee understood, was for Obama to perform his talismanic role. 

Indeed, the assembled media judged the president’s performance almost entirely in emotional terms. The initial reviews found him wanting. New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny concluded, “[I]t remains an open question whether the measured tone that has become the soundtrack of Mr. Obama’s presidencya detached, calm, observational pitchserved to drive the point home that he is sufficiently enraged by the fury in the Gulf Coast.” Maureen Dowd lambastes the president for having “willfully and inexplicably resisted fulfilling a signal part of his job: being a prism in moments of fear and pride, reflecting what Americans feel so they know he gets it.” 

The problem with this reaction is not that it is harsh. In a way, it is actually quite worshipful, in the literal sense of adopting the tone one takes toward a deity, albeit a deity one is currently questioning for his indifference. The assumption is that the primary variable here is not Obama’s capacity to solve the problem but rather his interest in solving it. Yes, Obama said he wants to plug the hole. But did he mean it? We must know! 

A similar assumption permeated the health care reform saga, which both the public and the news media thought of as a drama revolving around a single protagonist, the president. When health care seemed to be moving ahead in Congress, this reflected the brilliance of Obama’s decision to allow Congress to take the lead, as opposed to Bill Clinton’s presumed-fatal choice to craft a plan of his own. When it appeared stalled, the debate revolved around which tactical mistake on Obama’s part could be to blame. Was he too deferential to Congress? Did he need to deliver another speech, and, if so, what kind? Or maybe he had spoken too often. 

Nobody wanted to accept the reality that the veto point lay in the Senate, and that the primary mover was Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson, whom Obama could try to persuade but who would ultimately make up his own mind. If Obama made a concession to secure Nelson’s support, disappointed liberals would rail at the president. It must have been that Obama didn’t want, say, the public option badly enough. The scale of the disaster was too large for so small a character as Nelson to be its agent. 

In the case of the BP disaster, the president’s powers are assumed not only to surmount the separation of powers but even to extend to the limits of physics itself. The primary dynamic at work must be Obama’s willpower. 

To question the assumption of presidential omnipotence is not to absolve Obama of any responsibility. Some elements of the disaster clearly fall within the purview of executive action. Some critics have persuasively impugned the rapidity of Obama’s efforts to mobilize containment of the spill. Others have, less persuasively, damned his failure to quickly reform the Minerals Management Service. (Reforming a dysfunctional culture takes time; consider Michelle Rhee’s Battle of Stalingrad-esque struggle to remake D.C. public schools.) 

But the cult of the presidency has made it impossible to differentiate between problems Obama can handle directly and those he can’t. Obama has been bombarded with demands that he “take control” of plugging the leak through some unspecified rhetorical maneuver. Or, perhaps, that he just solve the problem himself. “I’ve been asked this week, ‘Well, what does the president do to do a better job, you know, connecting on all this?’ ” says NBC’s David Gregory, “You, you plug the leak, is what you do.” 

In reality, the federal government has no agency tasked with capping undersea oil leaks. All the necessary equipment, along with the expertise for operating it, resides with the private sector. Moreover, since BP will likely bear the full cost of the spill, it has every incentive to deploy its equipment as aggressively as possible. I have seen nobody even attempt to argue, in either practical or theoretical terms, that the government could do a better job of plugging the leak. The demand that Obama solve the problem is not an argument but an emotional state. To accept that Obama is not the man who will plug the hole or fail to do so would be like plunking down ten dollars to see Superman at the Cineplex only to watch Jimmy Olsen save the world. 

Conservative critics have leapt upon the image of a hamstrung Obama to discredit the president and activist government. Both George Will and Charles Krauthammer recently cited Obama’s 2008 speech promising that “the rise of the oceans [would begin] to slow.” “Serves him right,” snickered Will, who insists that the helplessness of government strikes at the core assumptions of “progressive politics.” “[W]hen you anoint yourself King Canute, you mustn’t be surprised when your subjects expect you to command the tides,” gloats Krauthammer. 

Of course, neither Obama nor liberals in general believe that government has limitless powers or responsibilities. Obama’s promise to slow the rise of the oceans was not a claim of godlike powers. It was a specific promise to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions, one measurable effect of which is the rise of worldwide sea levels. This is a task well within the purview of government. The intellectual task of liberalism is not to make government responsible for everything. It is to rationally determine which things cannot be handled by the private sector. No less than the dogmatic anti-statism of the right, the cult of the presidency is an enemy of that task.

Jonathan Chait is a senior editor of The New Republic.

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