Washington Post White House reporter Scott Wilson has a very long piece on Obama in today’s Outlook section. It’s an interesting essay, but it has many of the problems that are known to plague this kind of piece. Because Wilson covers the White House, it reads like a damning indictment written by someone who doesn’t want to hurt the feelings of the very people he’s indicting.
There’s much to comment on, but I want to focus on one of the two core claims of the piece. According to Wilson, Obama is isolated in large part because he doesn’t love the nitty-gritty, human side of politics – which I believe – and that Obama prefers instead to obsess about the finer intricacies of public policy. Wilson hammers this point until you can’t see the nail any more:
In the first two years, the phrase I heard often in the White House was “Good policy makes for good politics.” Even then, the principle seemed based on a naive reading of a hyperpartisan capital.
Obama’s policy-first approach diminished the importance of people — people on Capitol Hill and along K Street, let alone throughout the country — in pushing through his program and providing the White House with valuable intelligence. Whether it was a matter of giving the American public too much credit or not enough remains an open question for many inside the administration.
The president’s supreme confidence in his intellectual abilities and faith in the power of good public policy left the political advisers and policymakers in his White House estranged. The initiatives that have emerged have often been unpopular and unsatisfying — too small, too big, too beside the point — to a country consumed by economic uncertainty.
Now I don’t think Wilson is flat-out wrong. Obama certainly does see himself as a policy wonk, and he’s surrounded himself with people who see the president in precisely the way the president likes to be seen. Funny how that works. Also Obama is one of the most zealous members of the cult of experts we’ve had in the White House in a very long time. Remember when he told Katie Couric:
“I would have loved nothing better than to simply come up with some very elegant, academically approved approach to health care, and didn’t have any kinds of legislative fingerprints on it, and just go ahead and have that passed. But that’s not how it works in our democracy. Unfortunately, what we end up having to do is to do a lot of negotiations with a lot of different people.”
So what’s my complaint? Simply this: Where’s the proof that Obama is a master of public policy? To be sure there’s ample proof that he’s a master at talking about public policy, describing the problems, summarizing the current thinking, regurgitating all of the reigning clichés and platitudes. But where’s the evidence that he’s actually good at public policy?
It’s a sincere question: What have been the truly innovative, groundbreaking or even unconventional big public policy ideas to come out of this administration? Are there any? Because from where I sit, it simply looks like Obama takes existing, conventional, liberal ideas – some of them very, very old – off the liberal pantry shelf and hawks them like it’s new inventory. Where’s the evidence that Obama’s “mastery” over public policy has translated itself into creative approaches? Not in the stimulus from what I can tell. Maybe there’s something impressive to tout in ObamaCare, but Obama didn’t actually have much to do with the crafting of ObamaCare – a fact Wilson acknowledges. Was his genius to be found in shoveling cash into Solyndra and other embarrassing white elephants? Was he the guiding intellect behind a green jobs program that has produced dozens of jobs in places where it was supposed to create thousands?
And if he’s such a genius about public policy, why did it take him so long to discover that there’s no such thing as “shovel ready jobs”? You don’t have to be a Jedi Master of public policy to have known that.
Heck, if he’s spent so much time focusing on getting the policies right, why are things so bad? Why are they so much worse than he predicted? Why did it take him so long figuring out reality was sharply veering from his assumptions?
Here’s a thought: Maybe Obama is just a big fan of public policy the way I’m a big fan of movies? I can talk about movies all day long. I can discuss camera work, acting, story, directing etc. with some fluency. I can even talk about how movies are financed and the role of foreign markets. But you know what? I don’t have a frickn’ clue how to make a Hollywood movie (and I’ve actually made some documentaries).
Maybe he’s not a public policy Scorsese. Maybe he’s, at best, the Roger Ebert of policymaking – or more likely, just a policy buff.
This also raises an interesting question: Do you even want a super-wonk to be president? As Wilson discusses in his piece, Bill Clinton was certainly a wonk and so was Jimmy Carter. But to the extent Clinton’s presidency was successful it was attributable to his political skills, not his policy genius (and to an economic boom for which he deserves significantly less credit than he claims). Jimmy Carter’s presidency demonstrates that point well enough. If Obama’s wonkiness translates itself into simply hawking the existing inventory of liberal ideas, wouldn’t it make more sense to have a salesman who can, you know, sell the inventory?
The White House spent the first two years of this administration working from a slew of false assumptions not just about the economy, but about the political skills of the president. As Noemie Emery recently laid out, this president isn’t nearly as good at politics as he and his advisors thought he was. Now their explanation is that while he may not be great at politics, it’s only because his true gift is for “getting the policies right.”
Good luck with that.