Once again, a Gulf Coast disaster is testing a presidency.
Just as Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed New Orleans and exposed the fatal flaws of George W. Bush's administration, the BP oil spill will prove the undoing of Barack Obama's presidency, so the thinking goes. Leaders solve problems, and off with the heads of those who can't get the job done.
The Gallup poll announced new weekly lows in Obama's approval rating (it averaged 46 percent) and Republicans spoke cheerily about 2012 election prospects.
To which I offer two observations.
First, anyone who wants to be president of the United States in these times needs a mental health assessment.
The Associated Press recently tallied up some of the other challenges Obama has to deal with: The Koreas edging toward war, an intractable Iran, the terror threat increasingly felt on U.S. soil, U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, a still-fragile economic recovery, a belligerent Wall Street culture, and non-existent Republican support for energy and immigration reform.
And all that was before Israel's disastrous attempt to stop a flotilla of activists whipped the Mideast into even more turmoil.
Who in their right mind would want to take personal responsibility for all of that?
Well, a good number of people, apparently, and some of them are even sane.
Here's the second observation, which is actually more of a prediction: In the end, Obama's presidency won't be judged on his handling of the oil spill or any single crisis. It will be judged on how successfully he handles the multitude of challenges that come before him.
Jonathan Alter, a Newsweek columnist, recently published a book titled "The Promise: President Obama, Year One."
On KCUR radio's "Up to Date" talk show this week, Alter talked about his observations, based on months of interviewing people close to Obama, reconstructing key events and interviewing the president.
To his surprise, Alter said, Obama's weakness has turned out to be communication. He never developed the right vocabulary and story line to convince the American public to support health care reform, for instance. And, inexplicably, when he visited the Gulf Coast, he passed on a chance to meet with and console fishermen whose livelihood is at risk from the oil spill.
Obama's greatest strength is also a surprise, Alter said. "His strong suit is running a meeting."
Alter's reporting revealed a deliberative president who doesn't panic, who is slow to act on anger, who prepares extensively for every occasion, and who insists on a decision-making process that strips out emotion and solicits realistic scenarios and new ideas.
Case in point: the weeks of deliberations that led to the current military strategy in Afghanistan.
Obama discusses that process in Alter's book: "I had to put up with the 'dithering' arguments from Dick Cheney or others," he is quoted as telling the author. "But as long as I wasn't shaken by the political chatter, I had the time to work through all these issues and ask a bunch of tough questions and force people to sharpen their pencils until we arrived at the best possible solution."
Obama needs to get better at connecting with Americans. But he will never emote Bill Clinton's empathy or George W. Bush's folksiness. He is, first and foremost, a manager.
For that, the president owes no apologies. So far his managerial approach has staved off an economic depression, devised a strategy aimed at avoiding a quagmire in Afghanistan and secured historic legislation that will finally save Americans from facing financial ruin because they get sick.
Americans expect a lot from our presidents, and many people won't be satisfied until Obama dons scuba gear and dives into the Gulf to personally plug the leaking oil well. Others will never accept his politics, or his skin color or his unusual heritage.
But I think that in hindsight a healthy representation of Americans will come to appreciate a cool-headed president in high-stakes times.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Barbara Shelly is a member of the Kansas City Star's Editorial Board. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. She blogs at voices.kansascity.com.