CBS News imageSooner or later, the monstrous oil spill gushing so hideously and uncontrollably was going to turn ugly for President Obama, personally. Seems it finally has.

He couldn’t distance himself from it anymore, and the fact that he had to this point was itself a crisis for his presidency. Holding Thursday’s press conference did not diminish the criticism that was inevitable. He was supposed to be competent, but his mishandling of this disaster may be emblematic of his inability to lead and govern.

This is his third political disaster in his first 18 months in office. And they were all, as they say, unforced errors, meaning they were shaped by the president’s political judgment and instincts.

There was the tearing and unnecessary war over his health-care proposal and its cost. There was his day-to-day indifference to the views and hopes of the majority of voters regarding illegal immigration. And now the past almost 40 days of dodging and dithering in the face of an environmental calamity. I don’t see how you politically survive this.

The president, in my view, continues to govern in a way that suggests he is chronically detached from the central and immediate concerns of his countrymen. This is a terrible thing to see in a political figure, and a startling thing in one who won so handily and shrewdly in 2008. But he has not, almost from the day he was inaugurated, been in sync with the center. The heart of the country is thinking each day about A, B and C, and he is thinking about X, Y and Z. They’re in one reality, he’s in another.

There’s an apt analogy in this piece of the uncontrollable U.S. border

that is in some places functionally and of course illegally open, that it too is gushing night and day with problems that states, cities and towns there cannot solve.

And now we have a videotape metaphor for all the public’s fears: that clip we see every day, on every news show, of the well gushing black oil into the Gulf of Mexico and toward our shore.

In a jarring moment when serious reality met pop culture fantasy, I noticed how much that ugly black plume hurtling up and out with ferocity resembles the black smoke monster on the tv series LOST. Only this one is actually menacing. And no one can seem to stop it.

Obama was forced to confront it, though it shouldn’t have come to that. As Noonan says” When your most creative thoughts in the middle of a disaster revolve around protecting your position, you are summoning trouble.”

In his news conference Thursday, President Obama made his position no better. He attempted to act out passionate engagement through the use of heightened language—”catastrophe,” etc.—but repeatedly took refuge in factual minutiae. His staff probably thought this demonstrated his command of even the most obscure facts. Instead it made him seem like someone who won’t see the big picture. The unspoken mantra in his head must have been, “I will not be defensive, I will not give them a resentful soundbite.” But his strategic problem was that he’d already lost the battle. If the well was plugged tomorrow, the damage will already have been done.

I’m afraid she’s right. One thing Katrina did politically, Noonan notes, was

illustrate that even though the federal government in our time has continually taken on new missions and responsibilities, the more it took on, the less it seemed capable of performing even its most essential jobs.

This, as she also notes, is no cause for joy. Or shouldn’t be.

It’s not good to have a president in this position—weakened, polarizing and lacking broad public support—less than halfway through his term. That it is his fault is no comfort. It is not good for the stability of the world, or its safety, that the leader of “the indispensable nation” be so weakened.

Government has spread and grown and intervened in our lives exponentially over the months of the Obama administration, and is on course to control even more. Whoever asked for that has the occasion here for great pause.

Because…when you ask a government far away in Washington to handle everything, it will handle nothing well.

And some things terribly.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....