No administration is perfect, but some are less perfect than others. Given that we are in the midst of one now arguably less competent and successful than that of Jimmy Carter or James Buchanan, it is worth asking how this came about.
Kori Schake commenting on a piece by Cass Sunstein, former White House regulatory czar and husband to current ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, writes:
Samantha Power was once a veritable Delacroix Liberty Leading the People, crying “Never again!” She made her career saying that no longer would America stand by while governments committed mass murder. It was this ringing moral clarity that made her so valuable an asset to the Obama campaign and administration — and that is precisely why its absence in the Obama administration’s foreign policy is such a disappointment.
Cass Sunstein’s work in behavioral economics may shed some insight into why: the dynamic of policymaking in the administration itself. As Sunstein and his co-author say, “a confident, cohesive, but error-prone group, giving effect to the mistakes of individual members, is nothing to celebrate. On the contrary, it might be extremely dangerous, both to itself and to others.
Well, group think is a problem in any administration, but this president suffers from additional infirmities. We see the inevitable result in a spate of domestic and foreign policy debacles.
First, President Obama’s thin skin and overarching ego made no allowance for independent-minded advisers in the second term. Only political flacks would do, and that is precisely what he got. To expect critical judgment and political courage from such a crowd would be asking too much. The natural tendency toward group think was the intentional game plan for the second term — no dissenters.
Second, like most liberals, this president overestimates government’s abilities. Of course Obamacare would work. It came as a shock to Obama and his horde of 20-something sycophants in the blogosphere that buying insurance is complicated and government does certain tasks like IT procurement poorly. Of course we’d know the instant at which Russian troops moved into Crimea. Blind faith in perfect knowledge and excessive ease in implementation was particularly acute in this administration. Liberal statism has little time for humility, and the unrealistic faith in large bureaucracies is a recipe for disaster.
Third, we have the worst class of government civilian servants than at any time in our memory. Courageous men and women go into the military. Innovators go into science and business. We are left in the elected branches and in bureaucracies with the mediocre careerists who are short on real-world experience. It is not simply that they think the same things, but that they think shallowly and without historical context. Maybe the lack of rigorous curriculum in modern universities is to blame, but there are few if any deep thinkers and/or renaissance people in government. This goes for the congress, as well as the bureaucratic and political class. It is why a successful White House must strive mightily to find the few gems to ride herd on everyone else.
Fourth, ironically the liberal elites who were suckled on moral relativism and schooled that there are few objective truths became fixated on the notions that their opinions were inconvertible facts. Hence, if they believed Obamacare was well-intentioned it must be superb policy. If you like a scientific theory it must be incontrovertible. In short, liberalism itself became both intolerant and arrogant, more so than the “establishment” generation of any prior era.
There are lots of reasons to explain the systemic failure of the Obama administration. But we must not forget that individuals matter. The president had wrong-headed views which led to wrong -headed policies which in turn fed wrong-headed conclusions and refusal to accept blame. This is a failure of character — by Obama and Power and many more. If you doubt this conclusion, ask the people of Syria, the imprisoned dissidents in Iran or Alan Gross and his family.