Thursday, May 16, 2013

Obama - View to the Future

Many of us have felt that Obama is a rather ineffectual President, not able to take the offensive and rally the troops.  President Bystander.  Maurine Dowd is an outstanding avatar of this view.  (See also today’s post from Not Running a Hospital on leadership and Obama --  My own view has been that, aside from his inherent elitism and probable introversion and inability to meet and have fun with other people he doesn’t know well, he reached high office too soon.  He hadn’t met enough people to know whom to appoint where, and he hadn’t found out yet how the game works in Washington.  An anti-LBJ.

On the other hand, my friend Michael Nacht says there is nothing he can do.  In the first term it was crystal clear that the Republican game plan was to oppose everything strenuously, even what were previous Republican positions.  Michael thinks that this mindset continues, that it’s all politics and nothing but.  The failure of the Democratic leadership to reform the Senate rules to make a filibuster be a real filibuster as of old – thanks Carl Levin! – simply nailed the coffin further shut, as has the failure of Democratic leadership to arise more broadly.  Maybe this view is right, I don’t know.

That being said, one has to acknowledge, as was brought forward pre-election, that the list of Obama accomplishments is more impressive than immediately comes to mind.  Can’t list them now, because they don’t immediately come to mind, but repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was one of them.  (Transparency in government, honor to whistle blowers, and freedom of the press are not among them – Eric Holder sucks.  I saw a comparison to Alberto Gonzalez today, as someone who holds on to his job because he retains the “confidence of the President” … that’s a “wow” moment.)

Other people say that Obama is actually meeting his goal, which was to exceed the record of the two previous Presidents, to get us out of instead of into wars, and not to have a sex scandal.  Low the bar might be, but passivity actually helps him meet these goals.  Who knows what thoughts lurk in the mind of the President?  The Shadow?

Nonetheless, say that Obama’s domestic accomplishments will be low in this term.  Say that his foreign accomplishments will be low profile and subtle.  What should Obama do to make his positive impression on the history books? 

I have what would have to be a very unpopular suggestion – form commissions and make plans for the future!  Set the future agenda!  That’s right, you heard it first here.  What could be more unpopular than commissions?  Those traditional means of doing nothing?  Those producers of paper to sit on the shelves.  Yuuuch.

But, on the other hand, Keynes said: “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.”

I’m not asking for something so deep as that, philosophy.  But what about producing very official documents that might influence the future, the Obama Project.  The most prominent problem has had a commission, the Simpson-Bowles Commission on fiscal responsibility.  I don’t agree with it, actually, and I would get a successor, Simpson-Bowles II, and have it headed by Krugman and joined by Bernanke after he leaves office and Stiglitz maybe.  And add George Schultz for balance.

The most important problem we face, as opposed to the seemingly most urgent, is climate change.  Get an official commission and plot out a way that developing economies can develop, China and India can get enough energy to continue rapid growth specifically, new technologies can develop rapidly, what can be done internationally, etc.  There are lots of plans around, but get something ex cathedra.  Best and the Brightest, however discredited that may be, but policy informed, not self-inflated like the guys who got us into Vietnam.

You can think of four or five other commissions on other issues pretty easily, I bet.  And then, a commission on commissions – what are the priorities?  I go after climate change first, but maybe that’s not right.  Maybe you would want to attack lower hanging fruit first, though I doubt it.  The C on C would figure out how to orchestrate the accomplishment of the goals of the commissions.

Yes, this is the piest in the skiest proposal one could think of, ridicule-beset even as I write this.  But it wouldn’t have to be a centerpiece of the Administration.  It could just be a series of commissions that would be billed as an experiment in governance.  At least the vision would be lifted from shoe tops to horizon.  Call me a wonk, call me pointy headed.  Hey, that’s not so bad!  At least I’m thinking.

Budd Shenkin

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