Barack Obama is not just late to discover the most elementary workings of government. With alarming regularity, he professes obliviousness to the workings of his own government. He claims, for example, to have known nothing about the IRS targeting scandal, the AP phone records scandal, the NSA tapping of Angela Merkel. And had not a clue that the centerpiece of his signature legislative achievement — the online Obamacare “exchange,” three years in the making — would fail catastrophically upon launch. Or that Obamacare would cause millions of Americans to lose their private health plans.
Hence the odd spectacle of a president expressing surprise and disappointment in the federal government — as if he’s not the one running it. Hence, the repeated no-one-is-more-upset-than-me posture upon deploring the nonfunctioning website, the IRS outrage, the AP intrusions and any number of scandals from which Obama tries to create safe distance by posing as an observer.
The paradox of this presidency is that this most passive bystander president is at the same time the most ideologically ambitious in decades. The sweep and scope of his health care legislation alone are unprecedented. He’s spent billions of tax money attempting to create, by fiat and ex nihilo, a new green economy. His (failed) cap-and-trade bill would have given him regulatory control of the energy economy. He wants universal preschool and has just announced his unwavering commitment to slaying the dragon of economic inequality.
Obama’s discovery that government bureaucracies don’t do things very well creates a breathtaking disconnect between his transformative ambitions and his detachment from the job itself. How does his Olympian vision coexist with the lassitude of his actual governance, a passivity that verges on absenteeism?
What bridges that gap is rhetoric. Barack Obama is a master rhetorician. It’s allowed him to move crowds, rise inexorably and twice win the most glittering prize of all. Rhetoric has changed his reality. For Obama, it can change the country’s. Hope and change, after all, is a rhetorical device. Of the kind Obama has always imagined can move mountains.
That's why his reaction to the Obamacare website's crash-on-takeoff is so telling. His remedy? A cross-country campaign-style speaking tour. As if rhetoric could repeal that reality.
Managing, governing, negotiating, cajoling, crafting legislation, forging compromise. For these — this stuff of governance — Obama has shown little aptitude and even less interest. Perhaps, as Valerie Jarrett has suggested, he is simply too easily bored to invest his greatness in such mundanity.
“I don’t write code,” said Obama in reaction to the website crash. Nor is he expected to. He is, however, expected to run an administration that can.