Republicans are unhappy that President Obama is invoking his executive powers to govern in the face of a do-nothing-in-2014 House of Representatives. To hear them talk, you would think our chief executive is modeling himself on the late Hugo Chavez and wants to seize dictatorial control.
This, of course, is nonsense. In fact, Obama has in many ways been less aggressive in his use of executive authority than his predecessors.
Take the matter of executive orders. According to the American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Obama issued 147 executive orders in his first term. This compares with 173 in George W. Bush’s first term, 200 in Bill Clinton’s, 213 in Ronald Reagan’s, and 320 in Jimmy Carter’s single term in office. By this standard, Obama is not doing a very good job if he wants to be a tyrant.
Moreover, since getting major bills through the House is about as likely as an equatorial country dominating the Winter Olympics, Obama’s supposedly aggressive measures have been rather restrained initiatives to achieve widely shared goals. He has accomplished as much through the White House’s ability to convene and persuade as through command.
Can anyone be upset that he secured $750 million in commitments from tech companies to bring high-speed Internet to more classrooms? He’s combining that with $2 billion from service fees paid to the Federal Communications Commission to connect 15,000 schools and 20 million students. Who could oppose this? Perhaps those who think he’ll deploy this new capacity to pump left-wing propaganda to impressionable young people.
Or take his National Network for Manufacturing Innovation made up of institutes around the country that seek “to bridge the gap between basic research and product development.” Companies, universities, community colleges and federal agencies “co-invest” in R&D, education and training. Unless you see this as a subtle path to socialism, what’s wrong with a pro-business partnership to create more manufacturing jobs?
Oh yes, and he’s making the federal government a better employer by raising the minimum wage for those who work for its contractors. He’s also enlisted colleges and universities to take new steps to recruit low-income students. Leviathan’s heavy hand is nowhere to be seen.
Which brings us to the real issue: It’s not that Obama is trying to do too much. It’s that he needs to think bigger.
One of the disappointments of the Obama presidency is his failure to lead a thoroughgoing reform of the way the federal government works and to launch an inspiring campaign to bring fresh talent to its ranks.
The devotion he won from young Americans in 2008 presented him with an extraordinary opportunity to draw a new generation into government service, much as Franklin D. Roosevelt did in the 1930s and John F. Kennedy did, even in his brief time in office, in the 1960s. Alas, Obama didn’t really try. Now he can, and he should.
With the economic crisis behind him and the prospect of legislating dim, he can turn to recruitment, administration and management. These sound boring, but you have to get them right to make government exciting and attractive again. The greatest obstacle to progressive programs right now is not the anti-government theorizing of the right. It’s the dismal view of government performance held by the vast majority of Americans. The antidote is a well-run government.
Obama might take a look at “Building the Enterprise,” a report issued last summer by the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan font of smart reform proposals, and Booz Allen Hamilton. The study argues that government should not be seen as a collection of departments and agencies, but rather as a unified enterprise whose disparate pieces need to function in harmony to reach a set of clear objectives.
The report offers a variety of suggestions toward this end. One of the most important is bringing the way the government hires people in line with the best practices in the rest of society. “Today’s federal civil service system is obsolete,” its authors say. “Its major components were last retooled more than four decades ago.” It’s time for renovation.
And, yes, we all know after the health care rollout that the government’s IT acquisition needs radical improvement.
Above all, Obama should take it upon himself to lift up government service as a noble calling. The people we deride as bureaucrats are those who do the daily work of self-government on our behalf. We should never forget that self-government is a thrilling idea.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is email@example.com.