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Like Chauncey Gardiner, Obama Is Profoundly Aloof

A Commentary by Michael Barone

Monday, June 27, 2011

Which past leader does Barack Obama most closely resemble? His admirers, not all of them liberals, used to compare him to Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt.

Well, Obama announced his candidacy in Lincoln's hometown two days before Abe's birthday, and he did expand the size and scope of government. But no one seriously compares him with Lincoln or FDR anymore.

Conservative critics have taken to comparing him, as you might imagine, to Jimmy Carter. The more cruel among them, like The Weekly Standard's Jay Cost, say the comparison is not to Obama's advantage.

But there is another comparison I think more appropriate for a president who, according to one of his foreign-policy staffers, prefers to "lead from behind." The man I have in mind is Chauncey Gardiner, the character played by Peter Sellers in the 1979 movie "Being There."

As you may remember, Gardiner is a clueless gardener who is mistaken for a Washington eminence and becomes a presidential adviser. Asked if you can stimulate growth through temporary incentives, Gardiner says, "As long as the roots are not severed, all is well and all will be well in the garden."

"First comes the spring and summer," he explains, "but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again." The president is awed as Gardiner sums up, "There will be growth in the spring."

Kind of reminds you of Barack Obama's approach to the federal budget, doesn't it?

In preparing his February budget, Obama totally ignored the recommendations of his own fiscal commission headed by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson. Others noticed: The Senate rejected the initial budget by a vote of 97-0.

Then, speaking in April at George Washington University, Obama said he was presenting a new budget with $4 trillion in long-term spending cuts. But there were no specifics.

Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf was asked last week if the CBO had prepared estimates of this budget. "We don't estimate speeches," Elmendorf, a Democrat, explained. "We need much more specificity than was provided in that speech for us to do our analysis."

Evidently "first we have the spring and summer" was not enough.

Then Obama deputed Vice President Joe Biden and congressional leaders to handle negotiations over raising the debt ceiling. Biden apparently did a good job of letting everyone set out their positions and interact.

But last Thursday two influential Republicans, Rep. Eric Cantor and Sen. Jon Kyl, left the bargaining table and said that they wouldn't return until Democrats dropped demands for tax increases. After all, if the Democrats hadn't been able to raise taxes on high earners when they had large majorities in December's lame duck session, what makes anyone think this more Republican Congress will raise them now?

Cantor said it was impossible to make progress unless Obama got personally involved. Top Senate Democrat Harry Reid said the same thing. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, fresh from making a bipartisan compromise on public employee benefits, offered succinct advice: "First, the president can show up."

Well, Obama has agreed to do that Monday. But while Chauncey Gardiner, in his befuddlement, tried to answer questions squarely, Obama has seemed less interested in the substance of public policy than in framing issues for the next presidential campaign.

That was plainly the case in the decisions on Afghanistan he announced Wednesday night. Regardless of conditions on the ground, the president promised that the last of the surge troops will be removed by September 2012, the month Democrats hold their national convention.

As for Libya, Obama pretends we're not involved in "hostilities" and has been content to "lead from behind." Another sop to the antiwar left.

Sometimes it seems he's president of the AFL-CIO, not the U.S.A. The man who said he wanted to double exports in five years has nothing to say about his National Labor Relations Board appointee's attempt to shut down a $1 billion plant being built by the nation's No. 1 exporter.

And don't forget the enviro types. Obama is releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, but his appointees are barring drilling in the Gulf and Alaska and refusing approval for a natural gas pipeline from Canada.

On all these issues, Obama seems oddly disengaged, aloof from the hard work of government, hesitant about making choices.

That doesn't sound like Lincoln. Or Roosevelt. Or even Jimmy Carter. More like "then we have fall and winter."

Michael Barone, senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner (www.washingtonexaminer.com), is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.

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