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Thomasson: Barack Obama leaves decisions behind and goes to Africa

President Barack Obama reviews an honor guard outside

President Barack Obama reviews an honor guard outside the presidential palace before meetings in Dakar. (June 27, 2013) Photo Credit: Getty Images

President Barack Obama tweeted his support and admiration for the Supreme Court's decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act, proving once again his dedication to the increasingly popular method of communication.

The "Where's Waldo" of American politics did this on his way to Africa on a seven-day trip that will cost the nation's taxpayers an estimated $60 million to $100 million, at a time when every department and office in his administration, including the military, is faced with large budget reductions. Why is he making this trip? No one seems to be certain, other than to visit the continent of his ancestry.

In the meantime, Congress is debating and voting on the most important immigration reform in many decades. Economic problems continue. But Obama has been noticeably absent in the efforts to find and bring back super-leaker Edward Snowden, and he just launched one of his sweeping initiatives -- this one to save the world from global warming. The list of crucial issues that he seems to leave up to others, either the Congress or his staff, grows almost daily.

Assessing his performance in the first six months of his second term, one can reasonably conclude that his reluctance to be directly involved with much of what is going on in Washington -- to get down and dirty, so to speak -- leaves his leadership rating among the lowest in recent memory.

The clue to what we were in for came earlier this year, when Obama allowed four senators from his own party to scuttle a gun control measure that was supported by an overwhelming number of Americans. His benign handling of the fight over universal background checks to buy firearms left even his most prominent Democratic supporters shaking their heads. Analysts explained that he doesn't like heavy-handed persuasion. Clearly, he prefers the bully pulpit to the nitty gritty of politics, leaving it to his supporters on Capitol Hill and to advisers who have been somewhat ineffective at best. The stump speeches are great; the personal follow-through lousy.

Critics are quick to note that Obama's international standing has been damaged by his handling of Russian President Vladimir Putin and by his lack of direct involvement in the Snowden matter. Defenders say that would be foolish and would further damage the nation's interests. Well, teaching it flat or teaching it round, the entire matter is a national disgrace. Is Obama in charge or not? Snowden reportedly got himself hired by Booz Allen Hamilton, a private contractor serving the National Security Agency, with the express motive of doing what he did. At least that's what he has said. One certainly longs for the kind of chief executive who would have met this dilemma with an angry denouncement of foreign leaders who refused to cooperate in bringing back this self-styled whistleblower, following that with an all-out executive order to examine the policy of hiring outside contractors with access to national secrets.

Sailing into climate change seems particularly ill timed. It not only deflects attention and interest from issues like immigration, the budget and the economy, but it also pits Republicans and powerful fossil-fuel interests -- needed for solving these other problems -- against him. It lends credence to the notion that this president is just a big-idea guy who can't wait to throw out the next one and dream up another.

In this modern age of communication, Obama's proponents note, he is never far from the Oval Office -- a thoroughly modern Max (sorry, Millie) always on the job. That may be all well and good, but the tweets sure don't supplant the hands-on personal presence when things get tough, in my estimation.

Teddy Roosevelt, who invented the bully pulpit, would pick off opponents one by one, as would his cousin, Franklin. And Lyndon Johnson would have his nose so close to the faces of dissenters there would be no place for them to go.

But Waldo appears constantly to be searching for adulation from the crowd without soiling his hands in the nastiness of politics.

Dan K. Thomasson is the former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.