Anne Applebaum, who is no conservative, points out that the notion that President Obama should “do something” about the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico demonstrates this strange assumption held by both liberals and conservatives that our government should solve problems that are just impossible for it to solve:
In the Gulf of Mexico, plumes of black oil are gushing into the ocean, coating the wings of seabirds, poisoning shellfish, sending tar balls rolling onto white Florida beaches. It is an ecological disaster. It is a economic nightmare. And there is absolutely nothing that the American president can do about it. Nothing at all.
Here is the hard truth: The U.S. government does not possess a secret method for capping oil leaks. Even the combined wisdom of the Obama inner circle — all of those Harvard economists, silver-tongued spin doctors and hardened politicos — cannot prevent tens of thousands of tons of oil from pouring out of hole a mile beneath the ocean surface. Other than proximity to the Louisiana coast, this catastrophe has nothing in common with Hurricane Katrina: That was an unstoppable natural disaster that turned into a human tragedy because of an inadequate government response. This is just an unstoppable disaster, period. It will be a human tragedy precisely because no government response is possible.
Which leads me to a mystery: Given that he cannot stop the oil from flowing, why has President Obama decided to act as if he can? And given that he is totally reliant on BP to save the fish and the birds of the Gulf of Mexico, why has he started pretending otherwise — why is he, in his own words, looking for someone’s “ass to kick”? I suspect that there are many reasons for this recent change of rhetorical tone and that some of them are ideological. This is, of course, a president who believes that government can and should be able to solve all problems. Obama has never sounded particularly enthusiastic about the private sector either, and some of his congressional colleagues — the ones talking of retroactively raising the cap on BP’s liability, for example, or forcing BP to pay for the lost wages of other oil companies’ workers — are downright hostile.
A large part of the explanation, however, is cultural: Obama has been forced to take a commanding role in a crisis he cannot control because we expect him to — both “we” the media and “we” the bipartisan public. Whatever their politics, most Americans in recent years have come to expect a strong response — an invasion, massive legislation — from their politicians in times of crisis, and this one is no exception. We want the president to lead — somewhere, anywhere. A few days ago, the New York Times declared that “he and his administration need to do a lot more to show they are on top of this mess” and should have started “putting the heat” on BP much earlier — as if that would have made the remotest bit of difference.
This is not to say that the government shouldn’t police such things and try to keep them from happening. But the point is that to talk about limited government goes beyond thinking government should be limited. It is also to recognize that government has intrinsic limitations, that there are things that it just cannot do.