When Barack Obama announced he was running for president in February 2007, Nathan Gonzales of the Rothenberg Political Report wrote "Obama's history of voting 'present'" in Springfield, Ill.—even on some of the most controversial and politically explosive issues . . . raises questions . . . Voting 'present' is one of the three options in the Illinois Legislature (along with 'yes' and 'no') but it's almost never an option for the occupant of the Oval Office."
Mr. Gonzales's words were prescient. Barack Obama may now be president, but at times he appears to be merely present. That has been the case with his response to the environmental catastrophe unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. The president was late recognizing the disaster's magnitude, late in visiting the region, late in approving requests by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, and late in feigning outrage. He has never offered an independent plan to stop the leak.
Mr. Obama also seems disinterested in hearing from experts about the spill. The White House's "Deep Water Horizon Response Timeline" doesn't list a single meeting between Mr. Obama and industry experts, though he did send Energy Secretary Steven Chu and others to Houston May 12 to meet with BP and others.
Yet while the president says his Noble Prize-winning energy secretary has been "examining every contingency," Mr. Chu was clueless about BP's plans to install a cap over the well to funnel oil to a vessel on the surface. As the New York Times reported last Saturday, "After the cap was successfully placed, Mr. Chu wondered aloud why oil was still spewing." BP engineers had to explain that oil was still coming from vents that "would be closed very slowly to ensure that mounting pressure would not force the cap off."
Even now, Mr. Obama looks like a spectator, albeit an angry one, barking at White House aides to "plug the damn hole" (now that's a good idea no one has thought of) and telling NBC's Matt Lauer he's in search of an "ass to kick."
But the main political behind that's being kicked is Mr. Obama's. The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll says Americans give the federal government a 69% negative rating for its handling of the spill, compared to a 62% negative rating for Washington's handling of Katrina in August 2005.
This pattern of being merely present has been apparent almost since the first days of the Obama presidency. He may unveil his mighty teleprompter to help pass what Congress has drafted, but this White House seems strangely disconnected from crafting legislation. For example, last year's stimulus was largely drafted by House Appropriations Chairman David Obey of Wisconsin, one of Congress's most liberal members. As a result, what passed was a wasteful spending bill rather than an economic growth package.
And faced with a growing mountain of debt, Mr. Obama passed the issue off to an ineffectual commission whose report is due after the election. After growing the size of the federal government by a quarter in just over a year, he now says he'd like agencies to try to find 5% cuts in their budgets.
On other controversies—the attempt of high-ranking aides to entice candidates not to challenge incumbent Democratic senators, the details of cap-and-trade legislation, the resolution of big conflicts between the House and Senate versions of financial regulation, and the drafting of comprehensive immigration reform—Mr. Obama appears to be removed, distant and detached, unwilling or unable to provide the adult supervision Washington requires.
The result is that he receives a 38% approval and 52% disapproval rating on his handling of the economy in the latest Economist/YouGov poll. The GOP enjoys a nine-point lead over Democrats in Rasmussen's latest generic ballot.
This is causing the public to revisit concerns it's had about Mr. Obama since he clinched the Democratic nomination in March 2008. Then the ABC/Washington Post Poll reported that 46% of Americans found him too "inexperienced" to be an effective president, the highest number ever for a major party presidential nominee. In October, just before the election, ABC/Washington Post asked the question again: 44% called Mr. Obama too inexperienced. On issue after issue, Mr. Obama is providing plenty of evidence to validate those concerns.
Americans might hope the president's diffidence when it comes to the hard work of government might mitigate his more extreme liberal tendencies. No such luck. Mr. Obama is an odd mixture of passivity and radicalism. He's happy to be a cheerleader for policies (like nationalizing health care) that many Americans find dangerously liberal.
The country has had another president both weak and radical at the same time: Jimmy Carter.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, June 9, 2010.