June 7th, 2010
By: Glenn Thrush and Carol E. Lee
Obama is feeling the heat
Barack Obama has done more to expand government than any president since Lyndon B. Johnson, but the Gulf oil crisis is testing his ability to master the federal bureaucracy in a way no other crisis has — with decidedly mixed results.
The first president since John F. Kennedy to take office without executive branch experience, Obama has struggled for the past month to find the right balance between micro- and macro-management as the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico has grown into an environmental cataclysm and political disaster.
People who have worked closely with Obama say he doesn’t think like a bureaucrat, is far more interested in changing the way Washington works than in understanding its machinations and isn’t excited by the kind of gears-of-government reforms that interested a previous generation of Democrats, particularly Al Gore.
The Gulf crisis has shed light on the strengths and weaknesses of Obama’s unique management style, which relies on a combination of his own intellect, a small circle of trusted advisers and a larger group of outside experts. But it’s also driven home a more generic lesson all presidents learn sooner or later: Administrations are defined, fairly or not, by their capacity to control stagnant backwater agencies, in Obama’s case the Minerals Management Service, which failed to detect problems with the Deepwater Horizon well.