Forget ideology for a moment. Whether you are liberal or conservative, the Obama presidency’s parade of miscues is jaw-dropping. In this administration we’ve had the Fast and Furious debacle, the murder of four Americans in Benghazi due to insufficient security, the Internal Revenue Service scandal, the bungled Obamacare rollout (not to mention the law’s other unintended consequences), and the Veterans Affairs disaster (made worse by the specific warnings given to the current administration in 2008 that the waiting time data was unreliable).
There have been few if any consequences for those directly involved in scandals, any one of which would rival the Bush administration’s handling of Katrina and collectively which reflect the most widespread failure of executive leadership since the Harding administration.
No one was ever fired in the Benghazi mess and the terrorists haven’t been brought to justice. Attorney General Eric Holder didn’t lose his job over Fast and Furious or the attempt to criminalize ordinary journalistic work in the case of national security leaks. As of this writing Eric Shinseki remains secretary of the VA. Aside from the Obamacare mess, the president has never apologized for any of these fiascos. He’s mad, but not ashamed, I suppose.
What are the lessons to be learned here?
The presidency is an executive job. We hire neophytes at our peril.When there is an atmosphere in which accountability is not stressed you get more scandals and fiascos.Ideological issues and policy pronouncements are one part of the president’s job. But first and foremost it is about executing the laws. That means hiring and firing, demanding results and setting a tone in which mischief is abhorred.The standards for a CEO in any corporation are much higher than what we’ve seen from this administration. It is hard to believe a CEO and his senior advisors who had this many screw-ups could remain in their jobs and be considered for future employment.The plethora of errors and the difficulty in getting one’s arms around the giant bureaucracy is a persuasive argument for federalism. Government in small chunks, with closer observation from the people affected is preferable to a gigantic government in which those affected by abuse and incompetence often have trouble being heard.Liberals faith in big government, based on the idea that more is better, defies evidence. There are downsides, enormous ones, to creating complicated structures in which special interests can insinuate themselves, oversight becomes difficult, unresponsiveness becomes the rule and finger pointing is endemic. At least in the private sector businesses fail and managers get canned if they mess up this badly.Federalism is not merely a theoretical issue, then. Republicans should make the case – surely the evidence is not lacking – that big government however well- intentioned hurts a lot of people. It may be the least effective place to address big problems; the danger of systemic failure are more acute and more widespread. Federalism then is about protecting people, delivering better services, increasing transparency and holding politicians accountable.
Republican critics of the administration have it partially right. Yes, this president and his closest aides are the most negligent managers of the federal government in our lifetimes. But the policies they favor set themselves – and us – up for failure. It’s not just a new set of leaders that is necessary. Even the best executives would be unable to anticipate and prevent all the failures and monitor all the scoundrels in the federal government. That is why the best chief executive would begin figuring out a systemic way to devolve power and responsibility back to states and localities. Then, perhaps, what the federal government must do (e.g. national security) it can do well.