Doing Government Well
Felix Salmon reads Ryan Lizza's profile of Larry Summers and the Clinton economic team and comes away impressed. On the big things, like nationalization, Salmon thinks they got it right. And not only did they get it right, but the underlying process that led to their decisions appears to have been healthy, and the subsequent implementation appears to have been effective. He writes:
[I]n homage to the great dsquared, I’ll ask a question: can anybody give me an example of something with the following three characteristics:
1. It is a policy initiative of the current Obama administration
2. It was significant enough in scale that I’d have heard of it (at a pinch, that I should have heard of it)
3. It wasn’t fundamentally extremely well-managed during the execution.
The point here is that policy initiatives are sometimes good and sometimes bad. We all disagree with some of the Obama administration’s decisions, like for instance the tariffs on Chinese tires. But once that decision was made, it was handled very well, and seems to have had very little in the way of negative knock-on consequences. Similarly, after the PPIP was announced with great fanfare, it was allowed to get scaled back to a tiny fraction of its original size and ambition once it became clear that it was neither particularly useful nor particularly popular.
This question is a bit complicated, I think. The Obama administration has been in office less than a year. They don't have that many policy initiatives in the implementation stage. The big exception is the stimulus, and a lot of that money hasn't been spent, and a lot of the problems there are the fault of centrist senators.
What we can evaluate is the process by which they decide on policies to support, and that's seemed pretty good. I have a lot of substantive problems with the basic structure of health-care reform, but in each case, I understand what the administration was thinking, and on a couple of key issues, such as the individual mandate and the employer tax deduction, the White House showed a real flexibility and willingness to reverse course from stupid campaign rhetoric. It's been a broadly impressive performance, and that's reflected in the fact that health-care reform is further along than it's ever been before.
The big counter-example was the pledge to keep taxes stable on everyone making less than $250,000 a year. That's proven a continual shackle, and the politics in this country make it difficult to reverse. But it's a bit hard to say whether mistakes related to the political pressures of the campaign should count in an assessment of the administration.
Overall, though, Salmon is right: The Obama team seems, at this juncture, to be technically proficient at the work of government. My hunch is this is largely a function of hiring so many veterans of the Clinton White House, as that imbued the young Obama administration with a level of skill and seasoning that other White Houses don't develop until their second term, if they ever develop it at all.
Photo credit: By Bill O'Leary — The Washington Post
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