Commentary Magazine


Barack Obama and the Limits of Government

There is certainly a valid point made by those who argue that there are limits to what government can do in the face of natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the oil-rig explosion and oil-spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. No government — and indeed no human institution — can respond perfectly to such emergencies. And even if it did, it could not undo much of the damage. All of us, but especially conservatives, should recognize this.

The problem for President Obama, though, is that his comments on the government response to Hurricane Katrina were not terribly understanding of the limits of government to stop bad things from happening during a disaster. For example, then Senator Obama cited what he called the Bush administration’s “unconscionable ineptitude” in the context of Katrina. And during the 2008 campaign, Obama said, “We can talk about a trust that was broken, the promise that our government will be prepared, will protect us, and will respond in a catastrophe.”

It’s reasonable to assume, I think, that if the oil spill had happened on John McCain’s watch instead of his, Obama would be on television and giving speeches, lacerating the McCain administration for its weak and slow response, talking about a trust that was broke, the fact that our government was not prepared, that it focused on spin rather than competence.

The truth is that during situations like Katrina and the blowout in the Gulf, White House aides are working around the clock trying to mitigate the human and ecological damage. But there are enormous practical and logistical problems one faces. They are not nearly as easy to overcome as commentators pretend. We cannot make perfection the price of confidence, as Henry Kissinger — a brilliant and terrifically able public servant who also made mistakes along the way — once said.

We would all be better off if those working outside government were somewhat more understanding of the challenges facing those in government, even as they shouldn’t suspend reasonable judgments. At the same time, Barack Obama — who was hypercritical of administrations when he wasn’t chief executive — shouldn’t be shocked if he is held to the same standard he used for others.

Governing seemed so much easier when Obama was a senator rather than the president, when he could go on Sunday-morning talk shows and highlight failures here, there, and everywhere. Now that he is president and has stumbled so badly on so many different issues, broken so many different commitments, and made so many false claims, one might hope that he has been humbled a bit. But I imagine that hope is a fantastic one, given who it is we are dealing with.

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