Worth ReadingBy: Byron York
In mid-February 2008, fresh from winning a bunch of Super Tuesday primaries, Barack Obama granted an interview to "60 Minutes" correspondent Steve Croft. "When you sit down and you look at [your] resume," Croft said to Obama, "there's no executive experience, and in fact, correct if I'm wrong, the only thing that you've actually run was the Harvard Law Review."
"Well, I've run my Senate office, and I've run this campaign," Obama said.
Seven months later, after receiving the Democratic presidential nomination, Obama talked with CNN's Anderson Cooper. At the time, the news was dominated by Hurricane Gustav, which was headed toward New Orleans and threatening to become a Katrina-like disaster. "Some of your Republican critics have said you don't have the experience to handle a situation like this," Cooper said to Obama. "They in fact have said that Governor Palin has more executive experience. ..."
"Governor Palin's town of Wasilla has, I think, 50 employees," Obama answered. "We have got 2,500 in this campaign. I think their budget is maybe $12 million a year. You know, we have a budget of about three times that just for the month. So, I think that our ability to manage large systems and to execute, I think, has been made clear over the last couple of years."
Obama ignored Palin's experience as governor of Alaska, which was considerably bigger than the Obama campaign. But his point was clear: If you're worried about my lack of my executive experience, look at my campaign. Running a first-rate campaign, Obama and his supporters argued, showed that Obama could run the federal government, even at its most testing moments. He could set goals, demand accountability, and, perhaps most importantly, bend the sprawling federal bureaucracy to his will.
Fast forward to 2010. The oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico is gushing out of control. The Obama administration is at first slow to see the seriousness of the accident. Then, as the crisis becomes clear, the federal bureaucracy becomes entangled in itself trying to deal with the problem. "At least a dozen federal agencies have taken part in the spill response," the New York Times reports, "making decision-making slow, conflicted and confused, as they sought to apply numerous federal statutes."
For example, it took the Department of Homeland Security more than a week to classify the spill as an event calling for the highest level of federal action. And when state officials in Louisiana tried over and over to win federal permission to build sand barriers to protect fragile coastal wetlands from the oil, they got nowhere. "For three weeks, as the giant slick crept closer to shore," the Times reports, "officials from the White House, Coast Guard, Army Corps of Engineers, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Environmental Protection Agency debated the best approach."
The bureaucracy wasn't bending to anyone's will. The direction from the top was not clear. And accountability? So far, the only head that has rolled during the Gulf crisis has been that of Minerals Management Service chief Elizabeth Birnbaum. But during a May 27 news conference, Obama admitted he didn't even know whether she had resigned or been fired. "I found out about it this morning, so I don't yet know the circumstances," the president said. "And [Interior Secretary] Ken Salazar's been in testimony on the Hill." Obama's answer revealed that he hadn't fired Birnbaum, and he couldn't reach a member of his Cabinet who was a few blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue.
Given all that, perhaps candidates in future presidential races will think twice before arguing that running their campaign counts as executive experience.
A few days before Obama won the White House, Bill Clinton joined him for a late-night rally in Kissimmee, Fla. Clinton, who became president after 12 years as a governor, told the crowd not to worry about Obama's lack of executive background. Given the brilliance of Obama's campaign, Clinton said -- and here the former president uncharacteristically mangled his words a bit -- a President Obama would be "the chief executor of good intentions as president."
Chief executor of good intentions? Perhaps that's what Obama is now. But with oil gushing into the Gulf, that's just not good enough.