The Obama administration declared the mid-June announcement that BP was establishing an escrow fund worth $20 billion to pay compensation claims to Gulf Coast residents and businesses to be a resounding victory for the White House, but what it actually showed was Obama’s hands-off, indifferent management style, in which nothing is ever clearly or properly delegated.  Whether responding to an unexpected private failure or crafting major legislation, Obama leaves the relevant actors to their own devices, offering little or no guidance as to how they should proceed.  Only when things seem to have reached a critical point does he feel obliged to involve himself directly.  The problem is not that Obama delegates—most successful leaders do—but that he often delegates to the point of abdicating any role at all.  Having contributed remarkably little to the outcome, Obama then takes credit for whatever final product others produce.  This may be clever politics, but one does not have to be a devotee of our presidential cult to see that it is not good leadership.

Unfortunately, Obama is blessed with an opposition that has completely unrealistic expectations of what presidents should do, which makes his underwhelming leadership seem far more defensible.  Many of Obama’s opponents are reflexively hostile to everything remotely associated with him, and this frequently forces them to adopt absurd, politically ruinous positions as they attempt to show that Obama is always wrong regardless of what he has done.  Many Republicans in Congress and the mass media typically wanted to be more pro-corporate than BP itself and decried the escrow fund as a “shakedown,” which gave Obama far too much credit for achieving the result.  This also put them in the ridiculous position of aligning themselves with the multinational responsible for massive ecological and private-property damage in states that represent an important part of their political coalition.

Another typical overreaction came from former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who penned a June 10 op-ed for USA Today in which he claimed that responding to the oil spill was the “quintessential responsibility” of Obama’s presidency, one that he must not delegate to anyone else.  On its own, delegating responsibility is hardly a sign of bad leadership, but Romney must believe it is, if he is serious in what he wrote.  Had Obama heeded this advice, refused to rely on BP at all, and attempted to insert himself into the situation as the technocratic emperor Romney imagines the President should be, he would have been guilty of the far greater and potentially more destructive error of trying to micromanage the efforts to contain the oil spill.

Behind Romney’s criticism is a worrisome overconfidence in the efficacy of technocratic management and a disturbing craving for executive activism that come from his experience as a corporate “turn-around artist.”  Obama’s leadership does not inspire confidence, but the technocratic arrogance and executive overreach under a President Romney would be terrifying.  Unfortunately, given the alternative Republicans are currently offering, we may have to endure many more years of Obama’s poor leadership.