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In a progressive stew

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David Broder
September 24, 2009
— 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 at home.


"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 presidency."


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 overall coherence.


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.




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