Steve Chapman

To suggest that Obama should devote his full attention to fixing a single problem (a leaking oil well) that the federal government has no competence or responsibility to fix is not leadership but childish fantasy.

Making rules for deepwater drilling is a legitimate function of government, and so is holding polluters accountable for the damage they cause. Plugging oil wells is the function of oil companies.

The federal government does have a responsibility to help mitigate the harm done by the leaking petroleum. But Obama does not need to be on hand for it to carry out that mission, any more than the chairman of Toyota needs to be carrying a wrench on the factory floor. If the president cannot formulate a policy and direct those under him to carry it out, he has no business being president -- because there is no other way to be president.

When his critics accuse Obama of being detached and passionless, they are really faulting him for being calm, rational and realistic. Those qualities, a contrast to the cocky style of his immediate predecessor, are what got him elected. If Americans had wanted a leader to channel rage or grief, they would have chosen someone more demonstrative.

Obama has gone wrong -- as conservatives have often been correct in pointing out -- when he has pressed against the limits of his rightful powers, taking on responsibilities far greater than the federal government should assume. A president who does too much is far more dangerous to life, liberty and property than one who does too little.

So if Obama is erring on the side of circumspection, more power to him. When he was running for the White House in 1968, Democrat Eugene McCarthy was asked if he felt he would be a good president. "I think I would be adequate," he replied. Here is a goal for Obama that conservatives as well as liberals should be willing to endorse: Just be adequate.

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Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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