06/08/2010 01:27 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Government Isn't Always the Answer: Thoughts on the Oil Spill

Perhaps it's the Midwestern heat getting to me -- a staunch, but hopefully enlightened conservative -- but I think President Obama is getting too much criticism for his handling of the gulf oil spill. I also think that this situation illustrates a dangerous trend in our electorate to look to government as the solution to all of our problems.

Neither President Bush nor President Obama could do anything to stop Hurricane Katrina or the oil spill, respectively, but both have been vilified for not preventing or mitigating their consequences or at least showing more empathy for victims. However, it is difficult to see what either of them could have done differently or better. Both have marshaled and deployed all relevant federal resources to the fullest extent of the law, and directed that mitigation efforts be given the highest priority. Neither is in position to directly do anything more. Especially with the oil spill, the President simply does not have the expertise to directly counsel a different technical approach; he is not a petroleum engineer, and even the genuinely accomplished engineers on the staffs of BP and its contractors (and perhaps all others) have insufficient experience with operations at these depths.

Both law governing separation of powers between state and federal government and common sense dictate that after a while, the optimal role for a president is to get out of the way and let those trained in relief efforts do their jobs.

There is a tremendous outcry for the President to be on the scene in these situations, but for what? The media clamors for photo ops of the "hands-on" president and a torrent of criticism is unleashed in its absence, but this is a purely superficial exercise. Footage of the President inspecting tar balls or wrecked homes does nothing to improve matters, and there is no doubt that it does not enhance the President's understanding of the situation. Does anyone believe that any President either does not know what is happening or is indifferent to the plight of victims? If anything, such physical presence simply diverts resources from genuine relief efforts while having only a very short term benefit for those who are impacted.

President Obama is dealing with, and has the capacity to influence, two wars, serious conflicts in the Middle East and Korean Peninsula which can draw in the US, the European financial crisis and an incipient recovery from the Great Recession, not to mention a Supreme Court justice confirmation hearing and implementation of the new health care law. For the sake of the country, his attention belongs on these matters -- not on tar balls.

We need to look to our government for strategic direction, implemented through "good" policy and senior-level appointments, mastery of the nuances of the numerous international conflicts which threaten us, and moral suasion to guide the private sector to "good" resolutions. If our last two presidents have failed anywhere, it is here. President Bush appointed a horse show judge to run FEMA, with predictable results, while President Obama has made mitigation of global warming which may have tangible effects 25-50 years from now the centerpiece of his environmental policy, while ignoring the lack of understanding of the physics and geology of extreme deep water drilling, which is having its effect right now.

As a society we need to accept that government can not prevent all harms or solve all problems which do occur. Our failure to do so in many contexts is leading to a dangerous erosion of self-reliance and ingenuity. While the oil spill is an example of a truly unfortunate sequence of events where those impacted could do little or nothing to prevent harm, this is often not the case. Pretending that our problems would be solved if only we implemented liberal (or conservative) policies is ridiculous and encourages fatalism and irresponsibility.

For example, we hear little about how those who suffered (or worse) from Katrina could have evacuated sooner, procured insurance or not built in low lying areas, but much about how government should have done a better job after the storm. Similarly, we hear much about the financial crisis being caused by Wall Street greed (which is certainly true to some extent), but little about how so many individuals and firms on "Main Street" got themselves into trouble by voluntarily taking on too much debt. We hear much about how we need to improve our schools through this or that program, but very little about how parents of school age children need to take direct responsibility for their education by turning off the TV, video game console, etc., putting aside the sports equipment (and e-mails to coaches) and working with their kids on their academic work.

The European situation is an example of what happens when society places too much trust in government and loses sight of individuals' role in their own well being. The incessant demands for our presidents to fix every problem are a disturbing indication that we are moving in this direction. This is a good time for President Obama to politely but firmly remind the polity that no president is omnipotent or infallible, and that many bad things are inevitable and others can be prevented only through private vigilance and action. Whatever our ideology, we need to be more realistic about the role and capability of government in our lives.