Everyone is doing thoughtful year-end pieces on President Obama. Writers and reporters agree he’s had his worst year ever. I infer from most of their essays an unstated but broadly held sense of foreboding: There’s no particular reason to believe next year will be better, and in fact signs and indications point to continued trouble.
I would add that in recent weeks I have begun to worry about the basic competency of the administration, its ability to perform the most fundamental duties of executive management. One reason I worry is that I frequently speak with people who interact with the White House, and when I say, “That place just doesn’t seem to work,” they don’t defend it, they offer off-the-record examples of how poorly the government is run. One thing that’s clear this holiday season: New York’s Democrats, to the degree they ever loved the president, don’t love him anymore, and have moved on. They are not thinking about what progress he might make in Washington next year, they’re talking about what Hillary might do the year after that.
My worries came home with a certain freshness after the Mandela memorial, where the United States Secret Service allowed the president of the United States to stand for 19 minutes next to the famous sign-language interpreter who, it was quickly revealed, was not only a fraud but a schizophrenic con man who is now said to have been involved in two deaths. In fairness, the event was in another country and the Secret Service wasn’t strictly in charge. That said, it still looks like very basic negligence, as if no one is keeping enough of an eye on the Secret Service, no one’s checking the quality of the advance or sending emails asking: “Hey, what do we know about the sign language guy—any chance he’s a mentally ill criminal?”
It all looks so lax, so loosey-goosey. In the place of the energy and focus that would go into the running of things, the administering and managing of them, we have the preoccupation with spin, with how things look as opposed to how they are. The odd thing still is that the White House never misses a speech, a list of talking points, an opportunity to shape the argument on TV. They do the talking part, but the doing? They had 3½ years to make sure ObamaCare will work, three years to get it right top to bottom, to rejigger parts of the law that they finally judged wouldn’t work, to make the buying of a policy easy on the website. And they not only couldn’t do that, which itself constitutes an astounding and historic management failure, they make it clear they were taken aback by their failure. They didn’t know it was coming! Or some knew and for some reason couldn’t do anything.
And it’s all going to continue. One reason this scandal isn’t Katrina is that Katrina had a beginning and an end. The storm came, the storm left, the cleanup commenced and failed and then continued and succeeded. At some point it was over. ObamaCare will never be over. It’s going to poison the rest of the administration. It’s the story that won’t go away because it will continue to produce disorder. Wait, for instance, until small businesses realize it will be cheaper to throw their people off their coverage and take the fines than it will be to reinsure them under the new regime.
I’m worried, finally, that lines of traditionally assumed competence are being dropped. The past few weeks I can’t shake from my head this picture: The man with the football—the military aide who carries the U.S. nuclear codes, and who travels with the president—is carrying the wrong code. He’s carrying last month’s code, or the one from December 2012. And there’s a crisis—a series of dots on a radar screen traveling toward the continental U.S.—and the president is alerted. He’s in the holding room at a fundraiser out west. The man with the football is called in and he fumbles around in his briefcase and gets the code but wait, the date on the code is wrong. He scrambles, remembers there’s a file on his phone, but the phone ran out on the plane and he thought he could recharge in the holding room but there’s no electrical outlet. All eyes turn to him. “Wait—wait. No—uh—I don’t think that’s the code we use to launch against incoming from North Korea, I think that one takes out Paris!”
I have to say, I’ve never worried about this with any previous administration, ever.
“They mistook the White House for the government,” said an experienced old friend, a journalist and Democratic sympathizer. We were having holiday dinner and the talk turned to White House management. His thesis was that Obama and his staffers thought they could run the government from there, from the White House campus, and make big decisions that would be executed. They thought the White House was the government, but the government is a vast web of executive agencies that have to be run under close scrutiny, and within their campuses, to produce even minimally competent work.
I have come to see this as “West Wing” Disease. Young staffers grew up watching that show and getting a very romantic and specific sense of how government works. “The West Wing” was White House-centric. It never took place at the Agriculture Department. But government takes place at the Agriculture Department.
Anyway, my friend made me think of a story about Harry Truman. On leaving the White House after the 1952 election of Dwight Eisenhower, Truman made a small prediction about the general and his presidency. From memory: Eisenhower, Truman said, will pick up the phone and say do this and do that, pull this lever, and he’ll be shocked when nothing happens.
Ike was a general used to giving orders within an organization that takes the order and executes. But a government has to be leaned on every day, through management talent earned by experience. Generals can issue orders but federal agencies must be gently guided and clubbed around the head, every day.
People who run big businesses learn these facts of executive leadership early on. So do leaders of small businesses and great nonprofit organizations, and local political leaders in charge of local agencies whose success or failure can be charted.
Most of the Obama people just don’t have a background in executing. They have a background in communicating, not doing. That’s where their talent is—it’s where their boss’s talent is—and it’s a good talent, but not one that will in itself force a government to work well.