Barack Obama is learning the hard way about the limits of the power of the presidency.
Obama told Louisiana residents, who are confronting the worst environmental disaster in history because of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, that he couldn’t “suck it up with a straw.” “Even though I’m president of the United States, my power is not limitless,” Obama told residents from Grand Isle as they sat around a table together. “So I can’t dive down there and plug the hole. I can’t suck it up with a straw.”
When a major American city was 80 percent under water due to a breached levee caused by one of the worst hurricanes in our history, then-Senator Obama was silent about the limits on the power of the president. In fact, he excoriated his predecessor for his “unconscionable ineptitude” in the context of Katrina, despite the fact that George W. Bush had to deal with local and state leaders far more incompetent than the ones facing Obama. “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,” Obama said in 2008.
There was no mention of straws.
Obama’s comments to Louisiana residents come on top of what Obama told Politco’s Roger Simon in an interview. “The overwhelming majority of the American people” have reasonable expectations, Obama said. “What they hope and expect is for the president to do everything that’s within his power. They don’t expect us to be magicians.”
I think most American do have reasonable expectations of what a president can and cannot do. But if their expectations are reasonable, it is not because of anything Barack Obama has ever said before. In fact, you can review his speeches during the campaign, and you will find a lot about what a magical, transformational, hopeful, and historical moment his election would be. Even when offering a perfunctory acknowledgement of his own limitations, what Obama promised America was, even by campaign standards, extraordinary (see here and here.)
Yet almost 17 months into his presidency, the man who was going to remake this nation, who was going to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless, who was going to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace, who was going to open doors of opportunities to our kids and replace cynicism with hope and stop the rise of the oceans and heal the planet — this man has come up short. None of this has come to pass. It turns out he cannot even, in his own words, “plug the damn hole.” He has not issued waivers that he should, nor has he provided Gulf Coast governors with the requests they need, nor coordinated the clean-up effort that the people of the Louisiana are begging for. He can do nothing, it seems, except blame others. The man whom, we were told, was the next Lincoln and FDR is coming to grips with his own impotence and ineptitude. From Iran to the Gulf of Mexico, from Middle East peace to job creation, from uniting our country to cleansing our politics, Barack Obama is being brought to his knees.
This doesn’t mean the Obama presidency is broken or beyond repair. And Obama’s admission of the limits to the power of the presidency is justified. The problem for the president is that his comments now were preceded by so much hubris. Obama and his aides set mythic expectations. Those expectations now lie in ruin. What we’re seeing was, therefore, inevitable and predictable. Barack Obama is reaping what he has sown. Let’s hope for the sake of the country that he learns from the punishing blows reality has dealt him.