Barack Obama: An Epic Incompetent, in a Nearly Impossible Job
May 22, 2014 9 Comments
At Commentary, Pete Wehner sums up the emerging consensus on President Obama. Wehner’s indictment is all the more searing for being delivered in his characteristically measured tone:
The last eight months have battered the Obama administration. From the botched rollout of the health-care website to the VA scandal, events are now cementing certain impressions about Mr. Obama. Among the most damaging is this: He is unusually, even epically, incompetent. …
The emerging narrative of Barack Obama, the one that actually comports to reality, is that he is a rare political talent but a disaster when it comes to actually governing. The list of his failures is nothing short of staggering, from shovel-ready jobs that weren’t so shovel ready to the failures of healthcare.gov to the VA debacle. But it also includes the president’s failure to tame the debt, lower poverty, decrease income inequality, and increase job creation. He promised to close Guantanamo Bay and didn’t. His administration promised to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed before a civilian jury in New York but they were forced to retreat because of outrage in his own party. Early on in his administration Mr. Obama put his prestige on the line to secure the Olympics for Chicago in 2016 and he failed.
Overseas the range of Obama’s failures include the Russian “reset” and Syrian “red lines” to Iran’s Green Revolution, the Egyptian overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, and Libya post-Gaddafi. The first American ambassador since the 1970s was murdered after requests for greater security for the diplomatic outpost in Benghazi were denied. …
But that’s not all. The White House response to everything from the VA and IRS scandals to the seizure of AP phone records by the Department of Justice is that it learned about them from press reports. More and more Mr. Obama speaks as if he’s a passive actor, a bystander in his own administration, an MSNBC commentator speaking about events he has no real control over. We saw that earlier today, when the president, in trying to address the public’s growing outrage at what’s happening at the VA, insisted he “will not stand for it” and “will not tolerate” what he has stood for and tolerated for almost six years. His anger at what’s happening to our veterans seems to have coincided with the political damage it is now causing him.
That’s all true but would you be surprised that I’m a little sympathetic to Obama here. I know, you know, and everybody involved in any sort of business know that a high percentage of management consists of getting things done, usually by others. It doesn’t happen by magic, or by speeches, even ones where you diffidently say that you are mad as hell. You have to go and see and force the issue, sometimes to the point where you think it would have been easier to do it yourself, and it may well have been, but there are still only 24 hours in a day.
But poor Obama didn’t know that, he’s never managed getting his kids to school, let alone anything complex. He thought he would say something and it would happen, I’ll bet I’m not the only one that wishes he was right. But he’s not, not even in the private sector, where we have feedback loops built-in, in the last analysis, if we don’t make a profit we end up unemployed. But even that doesn’t exist in the civil service. Without tough and rigid supervision it’s always a runaway freight train.
Now remember we instituted the civil service in the nineteenth century as a way to help with corruption in the bureaucracy. It was felt that if the staff of the various departments had job security, albeit with lower wages than the private sector, they would be less susceptible to being bribed, because before then when a president of the other party was elected, they all lost their jobs, and so feathered their nests while the sun shone. In some ways, it has probably worked.
But with the coming of big government, especially the social programs instituted by the Progressives, it has gotten completely out of hand, not least because it is in the direct interest of the bureaucracy for the government to get bigger, and that was made much worse when we decided they could unionize besides. We can talk about that some time but, for our purposes today, it made a toxic combination, even FDR and Meany thought so. And so now we find ourselves at the point where the civil service makes somewhere in the neighborhood of 125% of the private sector comparable wage and still has that security to spend their entire career there. It’s nearly impossible to be fired, even if you commit a violent criminal act. So we need to reform the civil service.
And even that pales with the Veterans Administration. This department has always been troubled, and we have never seemed to figure out a way to fix it. The key thing here is that we have covenanted (to use an old and apt word) with these men and women who have put their lives on the line, and gotten badly hurt in our stead. We, all of us, owe them for their selfless service, and for generations we have done a crappy job of repaying them. This isn’t limited to Obama, or Bush, I can remember World War II veterans complaining about it when Johnson was president. So I think it to be much too late to worry about whose fault it is, although there is plenty of blame for everybody here. Buy how are we going to fix it?
In our next post we are going to look at what was the largest organization in the world, two hundred years ago, and had desperate problems in trying to control its people with slow and unreliable communications, especially since it was not in the best interest of the actors to act in the best interest of their employers. But they solved it, and it worked, and it worked well.
Who were they and how did they do that? Does it have lessons for us?
I think so, so stay tuned.