A brand-new publication came across my desk this week
containing an essay that offers as good an insight into President Obama's
approach to government as anything I have read and is particularly
useful in understanding the current struggle over health care reform.
The publication is called National Affairs, and its advisory board is
made up of noted conservative academics from James W. Ceaser to James Q.
Wilson. The article that caught my eye, titled "Obama and the Policy
Approach," was written by William Schambra, the director of the Hudson
Institute's Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal.
Schambra, like many others, was struck by the "sheer ambition" of
Obama's legislative agenda and by his penchant for centralizing authority
under a strong White House staff replete with many issue "czars."
Schambra sees this as evidence that "Obama is emphatically a 'policy
approach' president. For him, governing means not just addressing discrete
challenges as they arise, but formulating comprehensive policies aimed at
giving large social systems and indeed society itself more rational
and coherent forms and functions. In this view, the long-term, systemic
problems of health care, education, and the environment cannot be solved in
small pieces. They must be taken on in whole."
He traces the roots of this approach back to the progressive movement
of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when rapid social and economic
change created a politics dominated by interest-group struggles. The
progressives believed that the cure lay in applying the new wisdom of the
social sciences to the art of government, an approach where facts would
heal the clash of ideologies and narrow constituencies.
Obama a highly intelligent product of elite universities is far
from the first Democratic president to subscribe to this approach. Jimmy
Carter, and especially Bill Clinton, attempted to govern this way. But
Obama has made it even more explicit, regularly proclaiming his
determination to rely on rational analysis, rather than narrow decisions,
on everything from missile defense to Afghanistan and all the big issues
"In one policy area after another," Schambra writes, "from
transportation to science, urban policy to auto policy, Obama's formulation
is virtually identical: Selfishness or ideological rigidity has led us to
look at the problem in isolated pieces …; we must put aside parochialism
to take the long systemic view; and when we finally formulate a uniform
national policy supported by empirical and objective data rather than
shallow, insular opinion, we will arrive at solutions that are not only
more effective but less costly as well. This is the mantra of the policy
Historically, that approach has not worked. The progressives failed to
gain more than brief ascendancy and the Carter and Clinton presidencies
were marked by striking policy failures. The reason, Schambra says, is that
this highly rational, comprehensive approach fits uncomfortably with the
Constitution, which apportions power among so many different players, most
of whom are far more concerned with the particulars of policy than its
The energy-climate change bill that went into the House was a
reasonably coherent set of trade-offs that would reduce carbon emissions
and help the atmosphere. When it came out, it was a grab bag of subsidies
and payoffs to various industries and groups. And now it is stymied by
similar forces in the Senate.
Schambra's essay anticipated exactly what is happening right now on
health care. Obama, budget director Peter Orszag and health czar Nancy-Ann
DeParle grasp the intricacies of the health care system as well as any
three humans, and they could write a law to make it far more efficient.
But now it is in the hands of legislators and lobbyists who care much
less about the rationality of the system than they do about the way the
bill will affect their particular part of it. Everyone has a parochial
agenda. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, for example, wants to be sure a
new cancer treatment center in Nevada has favored status.
Democracy and representative government are a lot messier than the
progressives and their heirs, including Obama, want to admit. No wonder
they are so often frustrated.