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Can the U.S. still tackle big problems? Lessons from the health-care battle.

Embrace the public debate.

Has our 234-year experiment with democracy failed in a fit of partisanship? William Eggers and John O'Leary revisit major U.S. government initiatives since World War II to assess what it takes to get things done.

The Marshall Plan is considered one of the greatest achievements in 20th-century U.S. foreign policy, but when the idea was first raised, most Americans and most members of Congress weren't enthused. Americans were worried about their own economy after World War II. Isolationist forces were powerful. And the Republican majority on Capitol Hill was elected on a platform of limited government, anti-interventionism and fiscal conservatism.

Yet eventually the Marshall Plan passed by a large margin in Congress and enjoyed strong public support. How did President Harry Truman, Gen. George Marshall and company make it happen?

First, they educated Americans about the benefits of the plan, launching what may have been the largest peacetime information campaign in history. Marshall, Commerce Secretary Averell Harriman, Secretary of State Dean Acheson and other supporters barnstormed the country. A citizens committee organized a massive, well-funded PR effort that included millions of pieces of pro-Marshall Plan literature, from booklets to opinion essays in newspapers across the country.

The committee was smart about several things. First, it was bipartisan, with the leadership divided equally between Republicans and Democrats. Second, it eschewed ideological arguments for a more even-handed approach. "We should not embark on a Marshall Plan program," cautioned committee member and future CIA chief Allen Dulles, "until we have counted the effort, the cost and the sacrifice that we are disposed to put into it."

Third, the committee worked to persuade Americans to commit to the key goals of the Marshall Plan -- Europe's economic recovery and social stability, and the development of private industry and free trade -- before starting to talk about specific dollar figures.

Supporters also played it smart in Congress. Rather than steamroll the bill through, they encouraged discussion and hearings. They even arranged tours of battle-ravaged Europe for members of Congress; these moving visits helped more than any abstract arguments to convert skeptical lawmakers into supporters of the plan.

Not all such education efforts will resonate -- remember President George W. Bush's push to convince the public of the need for Social Security reform, and the contentious town hall gatherings on health care last fall? -- but the absence of real discussion can raise public suspicions that politicians have something to hide.

Take failure seriously.

In public life, everything is harder than it seems. You would think that a string of disappointments might dampen our confident political rhetoric, but it hasn't. Even with public approval of our political leaders quite low, they brim with conviction that their plans will cut costs, fix problems and come in on time and under budget. Such overconfidence is very much a bipartisan phenomenon, and it only makes the job harder. Considering only the best-case scenario produces unrealistic budgets and impossible timelines.

Iraq offers a classic example. Rebuilding the country was supposed to be easy, and as a result, the Bush administration gave scant attention to what might happen after the "shock and awe" subsided. Enforced optimism meant there was no Plan B.

Politicians and bureaucrats must learn to talk to each other.

What do the Apollo mission, the 1964 Alaska earthquake recovery and the Iraq troop surge all have in common? Critical to the success of each was the presence of a "bridger." This is a leader who can move between the political and bureaucratic worlds -- the rare person who can translate bureaucratic language to politicians and tell the political masters when they are off course.

With Apollo it was NASA Administrator James Webb; in Alaska it was career civil servant Dwight Ink; with the surge it was Gen. David Petraeus. Such individuals are critical to executing history-making undertakings but are often undervalued at the time.

Webb was a quintessential bridger. President John F. Kennedy chose him to lead NASA through the political, administrative and technical challenges of putting a man on the moon, and it proved a wise decision. Though an early draft of Kennedy's 1961 man-on-the-moon speech had set 1967 as the goal for a lunar landing, Webb added what he called an "administrative discount" of two years to account for unforeseen contingencies. He also doubled the cost estimates developed by NASA for the Apollo mission before sending them to the president, adding his administrative realism to counter the optimism of his technical staff.

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