LEUBSDORF: A little drama wouldn't hurt Barack Obama

During the 2008 campaign, President Barack Obama justifiably drew praise for his calm and decisive reactions, both substantive and political, to unanticipated events, from disclosures of his pastor's racist comments to the deepening financial crisis.

Since entering the White House, Obama has pursued a far-ranging and sensible substantive agenda designed to ease the crisis he inherited and fix some underlying causes.

Though visible progress has been slow in some areas, notably in reversing the decline in jobs, he is compiling what could look by 2012 like an enviable record of long-term achievements.

But Obama has proved surprisingly less successful in coping with the politics of the presidency in responding to the inevitable unexpected crises any president faces, most recently and visibly toward the massive oil spill off Louisiana.

As was true when opponents hijacked the debate over his health care reform plan last summer, or when an attempted terrorist attack failed on a plane heading for Detroit in December, Obama's low-key, intellectual response is damaging him politically by making him appear less decisive and engaged than he likely is.

It's the downside of "no-drama Obama," acclaimed by aides for his steady, unemotional reactions to crises. And it's an increasingly important aspect in shaping public perceptions of the presidency in today's rapid-fire, 24-7 world that could prove disastrous in a major crisis that lacked a convenient scapegoat.

So far, Obama has been lucky in the circumstances of his crises. Over-the-top statements raising false issues such as alleged "death panels" helped blunt the conservative counterattack on his health plan. The attempted airborne terrorist attack failed and occurred during the Christmas holidays, when most Americans were focused elsewhere.

And while the public gives Obama poor marks for handling the oil spill, it accepts the limits to his ability to control events.

Besides, BP's primary role gives his administration a popular target against which to deflect criticism.

But the president's defensive news conference last week, the fact that it took him four weeks to make his second visit to the Louisiana coast, and local officials' complaints of administration failures to undertake proposed countermeasures underscore the fact that his response has seemed sluggish.

That same session also exposed two other ways in which inept White House management of its political portfolio has damaged Obama.

First was his refusal to discuss Bill Clinton's role in trying to persuade Rep. Joe Sestak from challenging Sen. Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania. This highlighted the White House's repeated mishandling of party-related affairs, such as filling Senate vacancies and picking candidates. It followed the bungled appointment of Obama's Senate successor from Illinois, the messy effort to keep Gov. David Paterson from running in New York, and the failure to ensure strong Democratic Senate candidates in Delaware and Colorado.

Second was his inability to say whether Elizabeth Birnbaum had resigned or been fired as head of the Minerals Management Service. This showed him out of touch on a key personnel development that suggested questions about her limited credentials for the job.

It's not the first time that Obama, despite an extensive vetting process, has encountered problems with key regulatory appointees. He's run through several candidates to direct the Transportation Security Administration, had to force the resignation of his national intelligence director and dropped nominees because of tax problems.

Now, he's given Republicans a convenient target by naming to run the Medicare and Medicaid program a professor and physician who, though bearing excellent credentials, said he was "in love" with Britain's nationalized health system.

None of these issues is, in itself, egregious enough to saddle Obama with the aura of incompetence that afflicted former President George W. Bush after Hurricane Katrina. Most Americans say BP deserves the principal blame for mishandling the oil spill.

Perhaps the most damning impact is the indication Obama has produced little of the change in politics as usual that he persuaded millions of voters he could bring.

Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.