The President Who Hates to Govern

The president now says he wants to rebuild our roads. So why has he been stalling on the highway bill since 2009?

According to Mark Knoller, CBS Radio News White House Correspondent, President Obama has attended 60 campaign fund-raisers this year. That's one every four days since he kicked off his re-election on April 4. By comparison at this point in 2003, President George W. Bush had appeared at only 28 fund-raisers.

Mr. Obama has done more than lap Mr. Bush in raising campaign cash. He's also already eagerly barnstorming critical battleground states via Air Force One or Bus One. His goal is another term, though his ostensible reason for the trips is to push for passage of Stimulus II.

His renewed enthusiasm shows that nothing rejuvenates this president more than leaving Oval Office duties behind to reprise his role as stump speaker. We're even seeing snappy new slogans: the latest is "We can't wait," a clever way to hide Mr. Obama's discomfort with the business of convincing Congress to pass his bills.

This slogan unintentionally showcases an essential truth about the Obama presidency: comfortable on the political hustings, he's uncomfortable doing the job. Energetic at campaigning, he's lethargic at governing. From the start of his administration, he has left the policy details and heavy lifting to others.

Which brings us to this week's campaign appearances. The topic was infrastructure. In Las Vegas on Monday, Mr. Obama called for "funding to rebuild our roads and our bridges and our airports." At a Los Angeles fund-raiser on Tuesday, the president was more expansive, saying "Let's get construction workers . . . and let's put them back on the job rebuilding our roads and our bridges and our hospitals and our schools." By week's end, Mr. Obama could be promising to rebuild corner gas stations and ugly backyard storage sheds in swing states.

The problem with the president's pitch is that it's disconnected from reality. Where exactly has Mr. Obama been the last several years? Washington pays for highway and airport construction through multiyear bills—normally six and four years in length, respectively. This makes it possible for states and highway contractors to know how many dollars will be available for the foreseeable future.

The highway bill lapsed shortly after Mr. Obama took office in 2009. That June, his transportation secretary announced with great fanfare that the administration opposed the renewal being introduced the next day by the Democratic chairman of the House Transportation Committee. Fair enough. There can be disagreements about legislation even among political allies.

But the Obama administration then failed to work with the Democratic Congress to reach an accommodation. Though Democrats had big majorities in both houses, the highway bill renewal has languished since then with only eight temporary extensions keeping the program alive.

There is a price for Mr. Obama's failure in 2009 to get it renewed for six years. State officials would have had the confidence to commit to projects. Contractors would have the incentive to purchase more equipment and hire more people, providing more certainty for one important part of the economy.

Mr. Obama's indifference to governing has led him to outsource the drafting of the key legislation. That happened with both the Stimulus I and ObamaCare, resulting in ineffective, unpopular and unworkable laws. This also explains his diffidence towards the government's incompetence in arenas as different as lending to Solyandra and curing the housing markets. There are exceptions here and there, of course, but the pattern is unmistakable.

It's an odd, even jarring, combination: Mr. Obama embraces hyperkinetic government spending and a powerful and all-intruding federal state while having a hands-off attitude toward its workings. More and more, Mr. Obama looks like a one-trick pony—a man who is good at giving campaign speeches but very little else. He would much rather talk about legislation than have a hand in crafting it. He's much more comfortable attacking political opponents than negotiating with them.

That might be fine if he were the challenger in 2012. But Mr. Obama's problem is he's the incumbent. To paraphrase what Joe Louis said of Billy Conn, he can run from his record but he can't hide from it. Mr. Obama is past the point of being judged mostly on words. This time around, he'll be judged mostly on competence. Americans expect more of their chief executive than a passion for the campaign stump.

This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, October 27, 2011.