When the Best and Brightest Fail

The oil gusher at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico is not just a political problem for President Obama. It's a philosophical problem that challenges a central tenet of his approach to governing, his abiding faith in the judgment of experts. He's practically in thrall to them.

Two months ago, Obama's conviction about the safety of offshore oil rigs was strong enough that he proposed opening up 167 million acres of ocean to exploration. The preponderance of expert opinion about the safety of such an endeavor plainly influenced his decision. "It turns out,'' he lectured critics worried about the potential environmental impact, "that oil rigs today generally don't cause spills. They are technologically very advanced.''

But this faith in the safety of offshore drilling proved spectacularly misplaced (and ill-timed). Last week, he reversed himself and imposed a moratorium. The catastrophe provides a neat illustration of how Obama thinks and what drives his decisions.

He values smarts, admires educational attainment, and sees decisions as intensely rational processes. With this goes a technocrat's faith that government can enact them. The characteristic outlook of Obama specifically, and his administration generally, is a rigorous fealty to data and best practices.

It's no coincidence that a Nobel laureate, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, serves in the cabinet nor that Chu was dispatched to BP headquarters in Houston to brainstorm and advise. Surrounding himself with the best and brightest and relying upon their advice has always been the president's modus operandi.

Obama addressed the financial crisis by heeding the counsel of his economic team, particularly that offered by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and by Larry Summers, director of the National Economic Council. His trust in them stemmed from their expertise gained battling the emerging market crises of the 1990s. Agreeing to Geithner's "stress tests'' of ailing banks when critics were roundly panning the idea couldn't have been easy. But Obama was persuaded on the merits. In hindsight, that looks like the right decision.

The main components of the health care bill owed a similar debt to expert thinking. Take cost containment. In 2008, the Congressional Budget Office published a dense study of the efficacy of 115 possible changes to the health care system, many designed to save money. Nearly all of them were incorporated into the legislation. And Obama chose the study's director, Peter Orszag, to run his Office of Management and Budget.

The enormity of the Gulf crisis is shocking. But it should come as no shock that Obama originally put his trust in the oil industry, since that's where the bulk of expertise about offshore drilling lay.

After eight years of watching George W. Bush govern by impulse and emotion, there's a lot to be said for a president who prefers an analytical approach. The cartoonish Fox News image of Obama-as-radical-socialist could hardly be more wrong. He and his top advisers more closely resemble a team of white-coated lab technicians engaged in earnest argument about the best public policy. But there are limits to what experts know -- a notion the president seemed reluctant to accept even after the disaster struck.

When he made his ill-chosen comments about oil-rig safety, Obama wasn't making an ideological statement or siding with corporate interests over the public interest as a matter of principle. In this regard, he differs from Bush, even though both found merit in expanding offshore drilling. Obama was reaffirming his faith in expert opinion, which, until the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, suggested to him that drilling in mile-deep water is safer than we now know it to be. (Although BP's spotty safety record might have given him pause.) The distinction is an important one. Bush holds an unshakable faith in industry's ability to operate safely regardless of whether or not the facts support it. Obama's faith derives from an assessment of the facts, and those have now changed.

That's no comfort to the president. Expertise has failed him in a big way. But it can be a small comfort to the rest of us. Going forward, he's bound to put more stock in skepticism and common sense.

Joshua Green writes a weekly column for the Boston Globe.