Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Governing: It's Harder Than It Looks

In 2006, Nancy Pelosi promised that the newly elected Democratic Congress would be the “most ethical in history.” It wasn’t. After Pelosi and the Democrats took Congress, Washington corruption didn’t end. William Jefferson became infamous for hiding cash in his freezer. Pork projects continued abated—in fact, the Democrats introduced even more of them.

Likewise, when Barack Obama ran in 2008, he promised that his administration would renounce the corruption and dishonesty he saw in the Bush Administration, and would usher in a new pragmatic, whatever works era of government. (In contrast to George Bush’s “unconscionable ineptitude.”) If Bush represented old Washington politics (greed before accountability, and partisanship before efficiency), Obama represented the new—he was supposed to bring integrity and efficiency to Washington.

Thing is, though, Obama hasn’t been able to bring either quality to government. A simply staggering proportion of his cabinet choices are guilty of some ethical lapse. Obama’s first choice for Secretary of Commerce, Bill Richardson, was forced to step down after being caught up in a “pay-for-play” scandal similar to that of former Illinois Rod Blagovich. Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner neglected to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes for years. Tom Daschle managed to “forget” to pay over $100,000 worth of taxes on a limo service, which forced him to withdraw his nomination. (And made Obama admit he “screwed up.”) And his proposed chief performance officer, Nancy Killefer, was also forced to withdraw her candidacy after embarrassing tax issues came to light.

(And, of course, there is the issue of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. Her work with her husband’s foundation would seem to indicate some severe conflicts of interest—but after years of Clinton corruption, Congress seems to have thrown up its hands and simply nominated her without a fight).

Sometimes it seems as though Obama didn’t even bother to vet these candidates. But he did—he must have. (Although given that his goal was to hit the ground running with his Cabinet already assembled, his vetting must have been rushed.) But governing is harder than it looks—and corrupt politicians are good at getting away with dishonesty. Obama didn’t want to nominate dishonest people for his cabinet, and the fact he did was due more to inexcusable, if inevitable, human error than calculated malfeasance. But Obama promised more than that—he promised a totally open, honest administration—and he has been unable to deliver.

Similarly, Obama hasn’t been able to deliver on his promises of a competent, efficient government. One of the reasons he tried to rush his Cabinet nominees through was so that he could hit the ground running and pass a stimulus bill quickly. (In fact, there was some hope that Congress could have a bill ready for him to sign his first day in office). Obama made passing his stimulus bill quickly a priority. And he has utterly failed.

In Keynesian economics, the fact that money is spent at all during hard times is much more important than where the money goes. (Keynes even went so far as to declare that it is better for the government to waste money during recessions than to not spend it.) But Obama got a little carried away, or rather let his allies in Congress get carried away. Spending $hundreds of million on new roads is something most Americans can support. Spending that money on contraception funding, however…not so much.

What does Obama’s failure tell us? That governing is hard. The opposition party has no executive responsibilities, meaning that it can stonewall and agitate without having to come up with its own solutions. (Think the Republicans would be so strongly opposed to the stimulus if they were the ones in power?). In addition to placating the Republicans, Obama must also satisfy his own Democrats. And of course he has also got to keep the base enthusiastic, the middle content, and the opposition placated. It’s not an easy job. And so far, Obama hasn’t been very good at it.

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