Up from Sycophancy

I recommend an article by Ezra Klein in the latest issue of Bloomberg Business Week, titled How the iPod President Crashed: Obama’s Broken Technology Promise. It addresses the failure of President Obama to make good on his promise of transforming the way that government operates, by unleashing the power of the digital revolution. This failure is most evident in the spectacular dysfunction of the online front-end for Obamacare.

Klein’s criticism of Obama, limited as it is, is still noteworthy, given his history as a journalistic lapdog. Klein was the founder of the now-infamous Journolist, a by-invitation-only online community for liberal journalists, where they exchanged ideas about how to massage the news so as to advance Obama’s 2008 campaign and later, his administration’s policies.

Klein describes Obama’s intentions, and the expectations of his supporters, as follows: “His administration wouldn’t just be competent. It would be modern. And it would restore America’s faith that the public sector could do big things well.”

What did Obama do that made Klein believe he would be successful in transforming the operation of government? The President made a speech, and appointed a couple of guys to run new committees.The reality turned out quite differently. To his credit, Klein is unsparing in his criticism:

“The disastrous launch of healthcare.gov,the online portal that was supposed to be the linchpin of the Affordable Care Act, has dealt a devastating blow to Obama’s vision…Even Obama’s allies acknowledge that the healthcare.gov debacle could do damage beyond the health-care system.”

So how did it go so wrong? Is the Affordable Care Act collapsing of its own internal contradictions or because of simple incompetence? And can the mess be turned around? It seems to me that there are three possible explanations:

1) Obama is himself incompetent.

2) The government can’t do big, complicated things well, and shouldn’t try. Even Saint Barack can’t make the elephant dance.

3) The government can’t do big, complicated things well, unless we fundamentally re-engineer government, which can be accomplished by [fill in your preferred miraculous transformation].

So which is it?

The first explanation, the idea that Obama is a uniquely poor administrator, is inherently persuasive. It is a cliché that governors often make effective Presidents, while Senators seldom do, but Obama’s defects as an executive run deeper. We have never had a President whose life before the Oval Office was so entirely devoted to talking, as opposed to doing. Even Woodrow Wilson, like Obama a professor before he was President, was an academic of great distinction, President of Princeton University, and Governor of New Jersey.

Not only has Obama done virtually nothing in his life, he is surrounded to a similarly unprecedented degree by talkers-not-doers.  His first cabinet featured just over 20% individuals with any prior private-sector experience, compared to over 50% for Reagan, Bush 41, and Bush 43. By contrast Bill Clinton’s administration was relatively private-sector-friendly, with almost 40% business folks on board. Even the feckless Jimmy Carter found more than 30% who had done something other than push paper, talk, teach or scribble. The last President as disengaged from the day-to-day operations of government as Obama was Ronald Reagan, and he was surrounded by highly effective private-sector executives. Obama has Valerie Jarrett.

Given his lack of administrative experience, Obama has been particularly badly served by his choice of senior colleagues and advisers. It seems fair to say that things would never have gotten this bad if Joe Biden was alive.

The second possibility is that it isn’t Obama’s fault the website doesn’t work. Government is intrinsically cumbersome, unattractive to innovative and capable entrepreneurs, incentivized to be big instead of effective. Klein quotes Austan Goolsbee, who was Obama’s top economic adviser during the 2008 campaign:  “This plays into the suspicion that resides in really all Americans that, outside of narrow functions they can see and appreciate like Social Security and national parks, the government just can’t get it done.” (I’ve heard Goolsbee speak. He is a bright guy, balanced and non-partisan in his presentation, with the largest ears I’ve seen outside of a member of the British royal family.)

Klein offers several specific examples of the structural impediments preventing government from doing complex, innovative work, but fails to draw what seems to me the obvious conclusion — the evidence suggests that government should reduce its ambitions.

The third option is that, while the Obamacare rollout is a mess, we can still do much better. Klein’s core belief remains that government can and should do big, new things to solve large, long-standing problems. This won’t be easy, but it can and must happen. If the majority of the public believe government to be largely incapable, someone needs to do the work necessary to make people love and trust government again.  

I do not find this argument persuasive, though I do give Klein credit for providing specific examples of government projects run well. For Klein, these examples suggest that government can change. (At least, the British government can, as can perhaps a minor U. S. agency or two, as long as it is really small, new, and lucky enough to have a particularly energetic administrator.)

For most of a generation, the two parties have argued about whether government should be bigger or smaller. During most of this period, with the brief exception of Clinton’s second term, government has grown regardless of the party in control of the White House or Congress. We’ve ended up expanding government’s size and scope, while failing to pay enough in taxes to fund the actual costs of its operations.

Polling data in the wake of the government shutdown and debt ceiling battles are instructive. The Republicans in Congress attract most of the blame for Washington’s dysfunction, but Obama and Senate Democrats are also seen as partly culpable. What the polls suggest is that most Americans think government is not doing its job very well. That does not mean they want it shut down. They want it to work.

Klein’s article suggests that the key issue we should be talking about is the effectiveness of government, even more than its size. Neither starving the beast (Republicans) nor feeding the beast (Democrats) will address the issue of how the beast behaves. Clearly, even absent the over-reach of Obamacare, there are many functions of government at all levels that are central to our economic progress, to improvement of middle-class incomes, even to social stability itself. Government does many of those tasks poorly, and at great expense. Somebody needs to fix that, and it seems unlikely it will be a lame-duck President, mired in scandals, whose signature policy accomplishment is unraveling before our eyes.  

Who can fix it?  What combination of smarts, orneriness, and willingness to take on entrenched interests can break the logjam?  Does the “Nixon goes to China” principle apply here? Only Nixon, the notorious anti-Communist, could have established a relationship with the world’s most populous Communist state without inviting accusations of being soft on Communism. Similarly, it will take a genuinely innovative and far-sighted Democrat to right-size and re-engineer the modern welfare state.

Would Hillary have done better than Obama, and by extension, better than hubby Bill actually did?  (Absent cuts in defense, the Clinton administration’s Reinventing Government initiative appears to have cut a grand total of less than 0.2% from the Federal budget.) Could Romney have done so, had he been elected? (If Obama is a superb campaigner who has proved an incompetent administrator, does the fact that Romney was an incompetent campaigner suggest he would have been an effective executive?)

On the Republican side, could Republicans Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz break the Senators-are-bad-Presidents rule? How about Governors Rick Perry of Texas or New Jersey’s Chris Christie? Is there a Democratic governor who has wrestled effectively with the cost and competence of government, who can carry those skills into the Oval Office?

In any case, kudos to Ezra Klein for re-discovering his journalistic voice, and speaking truth to power. Better (very) late than never.

2 thoughts on “Up from Sycophancy

  1. I had some trouble with comments box so here are the rest of my comments. Another part of Obama’s election victories is the candidates who have opposed him. If we need someone who has been successful as a governor recently maybe we should look to the west and dare I say consider Jerry Brown. Trick or Treat


  2. It was a well done article Jim. It certainly provoked a lot of thought on our current situation. It seem many Americans get captivated by a great speaker (JFK) and forget about substance. What has the candidate accomplished? I felt from the beginning that Obama didn’t have the experience to run the country, but he certainly could talk a good game. I also felt there was resentment from Congress that a one term Senator would have the audacity to run for President.Congr



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