Friday, February 20, 2009

Governing by newbies

By Carol Gee

We will see whether the Obama administration is doing a good job or a poor job as the days and weeks go by. Today's post focuses on a few news items that seem to indicate good governance. I am not going to include a fair and balanced litany of stories that are critical of President Obama's leadership. I will leave that to shallow pundits and Republicans; I am frankly partisan here.

Corporatocracy holds less sway. The U.S. economic meltdown happened in part because business has been far too much in charge of government. To see less of their influence now is a very good thing. Politico writer Eamon Javers wrote an interesting piece Friday titled, "The Obama Cabinet is a CEO Black Hole," highlighting the lack of people in the current cabinet primarily from the business sector and pointing out that there may not be a connection "between success in business and success in Washington." Quoting Javers further,

Whether it is a significant absence, however, is far more debatable. As it happens, only a small number of the business leaders in recent administrations were stand-outs. And several were ostentatious flops.

. . . In a new economic climate, and with populist resentment growing against the trappings of CEO life . . . it might be a long time before Fortune 500 executives are welcomed back into government, argues Michael Franc, . . . Heritage Foundation. “You have to ask yourself: Are CEOs tainted now? Is there an untainted CEO type out there who is not one of the people who got us into this mess in the first place?” But Franc also sees the influence of Obama’s own life story in the makeup of his inner circle. “Obama’s more academic, intellectual and political,” Franc said. “He comes from a whole different tradition.”

. . . Terry McAuliffe says Obama won’t be limited by the paucity of executives at the White House. “He reaches out,” McAuliffe said. “It’s not like the business community can’t get to him and hive him ideas. He’s very open.”

Indeed, in early February Obama announced the formation of the White House Economic Recovery Advisory Board, a bo[d]y stocked with economic experts who the president can turn to as a sounding board for ideas. . . “I’m not interested in groupthink, which is why the board reflects a cross-section of experience and expertise and ideology,” Obama said at the time.

Talented people are in charge of change. Because President Obama has tried to get the most competent people in the country to help him govern, crucial interventions have better chances to succeed. Ben Smith writes a great profile of OMB Director, Peter Orszag in Politico (2/19/09). Orszag recently headed the Congressional Budget Office during the Bush administration. His specialty is health care which is in need of reform. Smith revealed that Orszag played a key role negotiating the final stages of work in Congress' work to reconcile the recent Stimulus bill. To quote from the item, "Budget to Kick off Health Care Rewrite":

"In my mind, if there is a hero in all of this, it is Peter Orszag,” Reid, who knew Orszag from his previous role as director of the Congressional Budget Office, observed, unprompted, to Politico’s David Rogers after the deal was done. “He was wonderful.”

Orszag’s emergence as a central figure and key negotiator in Obama’s economic policy team has come as a bit of a surprise to watchers of the administration, from Reid on down. Orszag, at 40 the youngest member of the Obama Cabinet, left a profound mark on the stimulus, which focused heavily on healthcare technology, a major focus of his research.

. . . And the bill spends more than $1 billion on Orszag’s pet cause, research on the effectiveness of medical practices, which he sees as an opening to reforming American health care . . . With a growing body of research finding some practices more cost-effective than others, the program's reimbursement rules can be used to force changes at those hospitals — a sort of back door to health care reform.

“Medicare and Medicaid are big enough to change the way medicine is practiced,” he said.

Smart people have the insight and courage to know when they are on the wrong track and change direction, sometimes when it seems very late in the game. This story by Neil Irwin and Binyamin Appelbaum, from the WaPo (2/16/09), is the perfect illustration of my point: "Late Change in Course Hobbled Rollout of Geithner's Bank Plan." To quote:

Just days before Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner was scheduled to lay out his much-anticipated plan to deal with the toxic assets imperiling the financial system, he and his team made a sudden about-face.

According to several sources involved in the deliberations, Geithner had come to the conclusion that the strategies he and his team had spent weeks working on were too expensive, too complex and too risky for taxpayers.

They needed an alternative and found it in a previously considered initiative to pair private investments and public loans to try to buy the risky assets and take them off the books of banks. There was one problem: They didn't have enough time to work out many details or consult with others before the plan was supposed to be unveiled.

Good people who are new at the game bring all their previous life experiences with them. The best people have everything they need to do well, if they know when and who to ask for help, and if they have a bit of luck. I like it that Tim Geithner listened to his gut and changed direction, though he knew there would be grumbling. I like it that corporate interests no longer get to have things all go their way. And I like it that the health care system will be asked to use the "what treatment works best" method to assure the quality and effectiveness of what our megabucks purchase. It all bodes well for us, I do believe.

Related References:

  1. "Obama Diary: The First 100 Days" -- BBC News

  2. "Scientists Happy But Wary With Obama's Direction" -- CQ Politics (2/15/09).

  3. "Obama Governs by Committee" -- (2/13/09).

  4. "Winners and Losers in the Stimulus Fight" -- (2/13/09).

  5. "Obama Scores Early Victory of Historic Proportions" -- Memeorandum from WaPo (2/14/09).

  6. "Copernicus Vindicated" -- "Democratic Strategist" (2/16/09). To quote:
    Barack Obama's general leadership as president continues to enjoy robust public support, despite the reams of MSM, conservative, and sometimes progressive opinion suggesting that his first days in office have been characterized by a steady fall from grace.

See related items at my new blog, Behind the Links.

(Cross-posted at South by Southwest.)

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