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Is Obama leading, or ducking blame?

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
  • David Frum says Obama not being blamed in oil rig disaster points up leadership approach
  • He says in debates on health care, Afghanistan, others, Obama says Congress stalls
  • Obama leads from rear, acts only after the call for action has become a clamor, he says
  • Frum: Passive presidency may be political strategy, but raises question: Who's steering ship?

Editor's note: David Frum writes a weekly column for A special assistant to President Bush in 2001-02, he is the author of six books, including "Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again" and is the editor of FrumForum.

(CNN) -- The biggest environmental disaster in recent American history reveals an important "leadership secret" of Barack Obama:

Although President Obama has not entirely escaped blame for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, he has certainly gotten off lightly.

Why? Well, who is there to criticize him? It was not Obama who chanted "drill, baby, drill." Yes, he issued an order in March allowing more offshore drilling. But that order was squeezed from him by Republican pressure. Can the Republicans now blast him for a decision they demanded?

Obama used the same method in Afghanistan. He pondered his Afghan surge for months. The delay maddened the president's opponents, who urged action, action, action. If anything goes wrong in Afghanistan -- here again, the president was visibly forced.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said three months ago that ending the ban on gays in the military would be the "right thing to do." CentCom commander David Petraeus agreed "the time has come." Where's the president? At the back of the line.

Maybe you think the economy is recovering too sluggishly? Don't blame the president! He didn't write the stimulus -- Congress did. Hate TARP? It was Bush's policy, the president only continued it. Why did health care drag on for 15 months? The president was letting the process unfold.

George W. Bush led from the front. He enunciated big and often unpopular goals. He forced the pace of action. He put his face on issues from Iraq to Social Security, reform to immigration. If anything went wrong, he found himself alone with all the blame.

Obama leads from the rear. He acts only after the call for action has become a clamor. Accumulating national debt? Let's hear what the Simpson-Bowles debt commission has to say. Iran moving toward a nuclear bomb? The U.S. is waiting for the UN to agree on a sanctions program. And waiting. And waiting.

Back in 2007, candidate Obama excoriated Bush for hesitation on climate change: "Washington hasn't acted; and that is the real reason why America hasn't led."

Three years later, when environmentalists press the Obama administration to act and lead, administration aides wearily explain that the president cannot act until Congress is willing.

Presidential passivity can be an effective tactic. Passivity can be a realistic response to inhospitable conditions. But it can also be a feature of a presidential personality leading the world -- the nation -- and even the president's own party to wonder: "Is anyone driving this ship?"

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.