Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Team of Pragmatic Rivals

I find myself tiring of the media's adulation of the brain trust that President-Elect Barack Obama has been putting together. In fairness, it looks like he is reaching out to find talented, experienced, and skilled political problem-solvers to help him govern the nation. It's laudable that he's reaching across the aisle to a Republican like Gates in DOD and to a rival like Clinton at State.

Yet the media who styles this as some revisitation of Lincoln's "team of rivals" or of Kennedy's "best and brightest" are missing some critical points. Matt Pinsker, for instance, recently wrote a column debunking some of the mythology surrounding Lincoln's "team of rivals;" as he put it, Lincoln's cabinet was more of a cautionary tale of how not to assemble a cabinet. We forget that Lincoln cobbled together a cabinet out of political necessity, using appointments to unify elements of an adolescent political party in the midst of a tremendous national crisis. More importantly, twentieth-century presidents don't rely on cabinet members for advice as much as they rely on cabinet members to be predominantly one-way conduits to implement policy. Clinton and Gates might be luminary figures at the head of their posts, but it will be Mr. Obama's foreign policy, not theirs.

More bothersome, however, is the hazy focus I still detect from this proto-administration. Again, he has obviously assembled an excellent group of talented problem solvers and policy experts. But what is their guiding ideal? It seems like the closest we have to a unifying ideal is "get the country moving in the right direction." Though I acknowledge the honesty of that feeling for many, many Americans, Americans deserve a more precise articulation of vision from their leadership.

One problem with a Democratic White House right now is that the Democratic Party has not yet matured into a coherent party in this cycle. They are still defined mostly by what they do not represent, namely George Bush. The subtext I detect with all of Mr. Obama's appointments is that he is assembling smart people because Bush's people were, well, dumb.

There are a host of problems with well-meaning problem solvers guiding policy without a guiding vision that they share. It forces such groups to focus on what is right in front of them at the exclusion of what might appear down the road. A Washington Post column this summer struck a nerve with me in asserting that Americans tend to solve pressing problems and manage crises as they appear rather than implementing long-term policy strategies. Obama's White House seems like they will most likely fit this heuristic.

So, as these well-intentioned problem solvers solve problems, the debt for paying for their solutions will accumulate. Chronic problems of a capitalistic and diverse nation like the U.S. will remain incompletely solved. Inflation will rise (as it usually does with Democratic adminsitrations). Political favors will be called in, and new ones will be doled out. Four or eight years from now, the same stale issues will remain, though perhaps made a little bit better, and the price tag for stop-gaps and patch-jobs will weigh us down.

For all his faults, and there were many, the Bush administration did pursue a vision when tackling problems it saw in foreign policy, education, and other issues. That administration's lack of execution was its downfall.

I'm reminded a bit of a quotation I once heard for Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany: his approach was "All ahead full" even though he hadn't the slightest clue where he was headed. It's a bit too stern a judgment for Mr. Obama. But there is a sense of all ahead intelligently, but to where we don't know.

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