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Doing Government Well

M2X00255_9.JPGFelix 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

By Ezra Klein  |  October 5, 2009; 3:00 PM ET
Categories:  Obama administration  
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Comments

What are you talking about? Obama hasn't accomplished anything! I know 'cause I saw it on SNL.

Running the Government competently? Who cares about that? Boring!

Posted by: dailykos2 | October 5, 2009 3:10 PM | Report abuse

more dsquared mentions would be a public service.

Posted by: bdballard | October 5, 2009 3:13 PM | Report abuse

If you're citing the health care policy process as a success, then it's hard to see what constitutes failure. The administration has been consistently reactive. There's no transparency into the administration's views about the public option. There's no transparency into why the administration flipped on the individual mandate. All along, the policy process has been "wait and see what comes out of Congress." That may be pragmatic in a cynical sort of way, but it provides no insight into the administration, which might as well not have been participating at all.

Posted by: tomtildrum | October 5, 2009 3:16 PM | Report abuse

"The Obama team seems, at this juncture, to be technically proficient at the work of government."

If only they had the courage of vision to match it.

Posted by: BigTunaTim | October 5, 2009 3:38 PM | Report abuse

"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."

=======================

It really hasn't been much of a shackle at this point.

The shackle has been on raising taxes on people making *more* than $250K in a significant amount.

Taxing the wealthy to pay for Healthcare?

Ran into a brick wall.

Estate Taxes?

How many hundreds of billions again to Blanche give away to her friends the Waltons and their friends?

Bush Tax Cuts for the wealthy?

Good luck with that one.

Eventually, one will need to deal with people under $250K. But in tough times where a large chunk of the country is more than a little bit annoyed at the Super Rich running the economy into the ground, the Obama Admin hasn't even been able to take a populist position to ram through these things and fight off Blanche's amendment?

Perhaps this will all get miraculously solved in the Budget Reconcilliation process.

Or perhaps the Obama Admin doesn't want the rich to go running back to supporting the GOP.

I'm willing to pay more. The problem is that the low hanging fruit isn't even being chased, and the hundreds of billions in revenue that we're whizzing away there is pretty laughable.

John

Posted by: toshiaki | October 5, 2009 3:38 PM | Report abuse

Agree with Toshiaki. The real problem is raising taxes on the rich.

Why do we have a jobless recovery that looks to be jobless well into the future? Because the tax laws favor the rich and disfavor workers (lower top marginal rates, preference for dividends and cap gains vs payroll tax on all earned income up to ceiling) and because management of large companies prefer to dispense profits to themselves instead of reinvesting the profits in the company. So more and more goes to the top 1% (who consume at a lower rate) and less to creating jobs.

It doesn't help that employers are largely responsible for health care and that entrepreneurs can't get health care even for themsleves. Which is why I don't understand employers opposing health care reform.

Posted by: Mimikatz | October 5, 2009 4:21 PM | Report abuse

ah, the answer to Salmon's question is easy. Obama is horribly mismanaging the optics of the current Afghanistan surge decision.

Posted by: jfcarro | October 5, 2009 4:33 PM | Report abuse

This is exactly what I hope happens with health care reform:

"[it] 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"

Posted by: bmull | October 5, 2009 5:16 PM | Report abuse

Why is Lizza writing about the Clinton economic team? Isn't that history?

Posted by: KathyF | October 6, 2009 2:41 AM | Report abuse

""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."

This is not a counterexample at all. What about the implementation of not increasing taxes has been faulty? If you disagree, for ideological reasons, with keeping taxes low, then it looks like a "mistake." But it's not as if they tried to reform the tax code and just blew it because of a silly commitment to a campaign promise.

In point of fact there is no decent reason to raise taxes on anyone at the present time. Those reading that probably think it means I'm a republican - I'm actually a radical liberal democrat who is WAY, way to the left of the median Democratic member of the House, including on economic issues.

In fact what it means is that I have some basic understanding of the monetary system and realize that federal taxes do not need to be raised to "pay for" anything.

Posted by: sarah76 | October 6, 2009 9:37 AM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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