Running On Empty

By David S. Broder
Thursday, March 5, 2009

As if the problems in the U.S. and world economies were not enough of a challenge in themselves, the young Obama administration is also being called on to figure out simultaneously how to govern in such an emergency.

A big part of the second challenge lies in reconciling the pressure to move rapidly in rolling out its program initiatives with the much slower pace of assembling the leaders it needs to be able to function at all.

In its first six weeks in office, the administration has launched hugely expensive and ambitious programs, not only to spur employment and arrest a sickening slide in stocks, mortgages and profits, but to overhaul such complex and vital services as health care, education, and energy production and conservation.

It has done this with a mere corporal's guard of key appointees in place. The White House itself is rather fully staffed, but the departments and agencies, where broad policies must be converted into real operations, have numerous openings. Decisions are being made by career bureaucrats, Bush administration carryovers -- or not at all.

My Washington Post colleague Al Kamen reported at the beginning of the week that President Obama had announced the names of only 65 appointees and had sent 31 nominations to the Senate for confirmation. As of yesterday, 28 nominees had been confirmed. That put him ahead of presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, but neither of those predecessors felt anything like the pressure Obama is under to avert catastrophe.

The dimensions of the governing challenge this administration faces came into focus for me last week when I was invited to a daylong seminar organized by the National Academy of Public Administration, a private nonprofit group that works on projects designed to improve the functioning of the executive branch.

The other people at the table were experts in governing -- two former Cabinet members, several more from the sub-Cabinet and a passel of academics with long years of experience in administrations of both parties. I was allowed to sit in, with the understanding that I could write about the discussion but not quote anyone by name.

There was no disagreement on one point: What Obama has launched with his address to Congress and his first budget is a change of domestic policy of historic proportions. Views about its potential and pitfalls varied widely, but no one disputed that it could remake the government's relation to American society -- if the plans can be accomplished.

But many of these governmental pros clearly are doubtful whether this administration -- or any other -- can make it work. A law professor and former White House aide warned that the American habit of "muddling through" crises could prove fatal this time, given what she sees as the fragility of the economy and social structures in the industrial Midwest, where she works.

A far more rational, disciplined approach is needed, she said, but how to achieve that in a government run by politicians?

Obama was able to keep earmarks out of the stimulus bill, but Congress loaded hundreds onto the next appropriations measure and the president was forced to acquiesce.

Another participant pointed out that "many of the programs getting huge bumps up [in funding] are already on the 'at risk' list compiled by the White House Office of Management and Budget."

And repeatedly, people voiced their worries about who was going to manage these startling expenditures. "They ought to be hiring 1,000 new contracting officers," one person said.

A veteran of the Clinton White House said she worried that the administration is still in a campaign mind-set, with the president and vice president on the road every week promoting their programs. "The only thing that's important now is getting the money out the door, so it can start to work in the real world," she said. "Anything that distracts from that is a waste of time."

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