Tunku Varadarajan – formerly assistant managing editor at the WSJ – touches on a pivotal point related to the BP oil spill in the Gulf over at The Daily Beast today:

President Obama had no role whatsoever in the explosion that caused the eruption of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, whether at the level of high policy or quotidian regulation and oversight; and yet, American politics being what they are, we invest in our highest officeholder the most exacting expectations of executive potency. The oath of office is in effect a promise—cross my heart and hope to die—never to be inactive or inert. An air of impotence in a president—a perception of fallibility in a time of crisis—can be political death. And in the last few days, charges of impotence and inaction have rained down on the president like the stones of the righteous at Mecca.

Varadarajan is correct. President Obama was not directly responsible for the oil spill, yet his poll numbers have suffered.  According to a survey taken last week by Gallup, 53 percent of respondents claim President Obama has done a “poor” or “very poor” job in responding to the current crisis. 

Varadarjan is quick to blame partisan politics – “the bilge of politics-as-usual,” as he writes – for the public’s anger toward the president.  But he ignores a much more fundamental explanation.

Perhaps the reason President Obama is bearing the brunt of the public’s anger over the BP spill – and President Bush received the majority of blame for the Hurricane Katrina disaster, among other things – has less to do with the reality of the government’s response and more to do with the public’s learned expectations of government.

The fact is President Obama bailed out the country’s largest financial institutions to the tune of $700 billion.  His administration approved $4 billion for the “Cash for Clunkers” program. This same president just signed the new health care law into effect, which will cost more than $1 trillion over the next 10 years, dramatically expand the size of government, and reduce individual freedom.

In the past year and a half, since Obama came to office, he and his allies have attempted to solve every problem through more government involvement. So it’s not surprising that the public now blames the president and his administration for its poor handling of the oil spill.

(Of course, there are some legitimate complaints related to the government’s inability to respond in a timely manner and provide the resources requested. You can watch more about it here.)

But more to the point is the growing expectation by the public that the government is the answer to everything. This is certainly not new to the Obama administration – the growth of government, and the expansion of the presidency in particular, has been growing steadily since the Progressive movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Theodore Roosevelt perhaps captured it best in his discussion of The New Nationalism, when he described the modern presidency as the “steward of the public welfare.”

So before we rush to blame partisan politics for the public’s current dissatisfaction, perhaps we should give greater thought to the root causes behind this unhappiness. The fact is, Mr. President, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.