06/02/2010 02:54 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Smooth Barack, Tricky Dick & Helpless Jimmy: What We Learn About Our Presidents in Moments Of Crisis

Amateur historians who probably never liked him anyway have for some time now been calling what is now our greatest natural catastrophe "Obama's Katrina," and hoping that what appears at this point to be a mini-scandal, Joe Sestak's claim that he was offered a job for not running for the Senate, will grow into a full-blown Watergate-type scandal.

But real historians tell us two things about Presidents and scandal: it's rarely the crime and usually the cover-up that derails Presidents and past is often prologue. If both of those things are true then President Obama is now being tested in almost exactly the manner that Joe Biden warned us he would be, only instead of the foreign policy crisis he imagined, it turns out that it may be a clumsy oil spill and an even clumsier hack congressman who may just reveal to us what our President is made of.

Here's what anybody who's not faith-based in their devotion to the President can reasonably deduce happened in the Sestak case: Rahm Emmanuel asked for and received permission from his boss to offer Sestak the position of Secretary of the Navy in exchange for his not running for the Senate, perhaps without realizing that it broke a federal law exactly written for such situations. Which then brings us to our Nixonian moment wherein we all know what Tricky Dick would have done, but we're not quite sure about Smooth Barack. But we will soon find out.

If he's Nixonian he'll continue on the path he's started down, having his White House Counsel craft a response that raises more questions than it answers and sending Bill Clinton out to tell a story which is either true but not the story being asked about, or merely just a bad lie, trying to get us to believe that Sestak was offered the juicy job of being on an advisory board in order to give up his Senatorial ambitions.

As for the Great Spill of '10, it's Jimmy Carter not Nixon whose ghost threatens to cast a pall over Obama's Presidency for just as one could plausibly argue that the taking of the American hostages in Iran weren't quite his fault, so too its difficult to fault Obama for this tragedy-at least in its early stages. But history can be cruel to those who lead and while it may be true that Carter's inability to free the hostages and Obama's inability to plug the hole weren't their faults, none of that may be enough to stop the image of men paraded in blindfolds and oil gushing into the ocean from defining these two men and their presidencies.

Ironically, it may be President Obama himself who most clearly articulated what the American people want from him in the Gulf of Mexico and what they wanted from Carter in '79 when he spoke during the health care debate of "bending the cost curve," leaving a mental picture of a sort of Superman President who could have his way in any situation through the power of brute force by doing something -anything- to relieve the sense of powerlessness that engulfed Carter and now threatens Obama.

As President Obama faces a major scandal, the Great Spill, and a mini-scandal, the sordid Sestak affair, it will be his reactions to these and not even the scandals themselves that will tell us the kind of man he truly is and history will record whether he joins the ranks of woefully inept Presidents like Nixon and Carter or transcends them by showing the kind of leadership that Americans yearn for from their Presidents but rarely seem to get.