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For a week leading up to the president’s Tuesday address, White House advisers were trying out yet another new catchphrase, telling any reporter they could find that President Barack Obama had discovered he had “a phone and a pen,” and he intended to use them in the year ahead. Up until now, apparently, the president has been relying on the quill and telegraph Rutherford B. Hayes left behind, so this is kind of a breakthrough.
This pen-and-phone business represents a pretty stunning admission from a president five years into his term – that he and his senior aides are still groping about for ways to wield the power of the office, and that they have essentially given up on legislating. Their latest strategy holds that, since a small number of Republican lawmakers have effectively decided to thwart the public will, Obama must resort to doing the things he can do on his own, mainly by signing executive orders and making lots of calls.
Obama has, in fact, governed at a time of intense polarity and general wackiness in Congress, and at a time of fast-fracturing media, when the so-called bully pulpit doesn’t command a room like it used to. But none of this gets to the hard truth that underlies Obama’s lagging approval ratings, which is that while most Americans may agree with the president’s assessment of what’s wrong in government, they no longer trust him to fix it.
In an ABC News poll released last weekend, a few days before Obama’s address, only 37 percent of voters said they had confidence in Obama to make the right decisions, compared with 61 percent when he took office. Only 47 percent said he understands the problems of ordinary Americans. In other words, Obama isn’t tanking simply because nihilistic conservatives are bent on blocking his policies. Rather, conservatives can get away with blocking his policies because the voters aren’t persuaded they’ll work.
If all of this perplexes Obama and his aides, it probably shouldn’t. Most Americans who voted for the president in 2008 thought they were getting a pragmatic reformer who would channel the most powerful impulse in modern American politics – to make government work. In this way, Obama seemed to echo his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, who remade the welfare system and tore down the decaying housing projects that were blighted symbols of bureaucratic failure.
From the start, though, Obama’s presidency went in a decidedly different direction. Facing an economic catastrophe and buoyed by polls that showed Americans open to activist government, Obama set about expanding the reach and ambition of the federal government for the first time in a generation. This was likely the right policy choice, and it might have been fine politically too, except that Obama’s White House has shown little sustained interest in making government more efficient at the same time.
There was debate inside the White House, in those early years, about maybe collapsing some of the sprawling bureaucracies housed in 20th century Cabinet departments. Later, in his State of the Union address in 2011, Obama vowed to bring government into the information age. (“The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they’re in saltwater,” he despaired. “And I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked.”)
But all of this came to very little; basically, the administration’s big idea was to fold the Office of the United States Trade Representative into the Commerce Department, which went nowhere. Most often, Obama has generally talked and acted like a man held prisoner by the systems he inherited, rather than the guy in charge of them.
No doubt Obama and his allies fear, as Democrats have since the Reagan years, that publicly questioning the efficiency of government would only abet conservative efforts to dismantle it. I get it. But nothing did more to erode the credibility of government than the disastrous rollout of the federal health exchange. That Obama relied so heavily on the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to design a massive, eBay-like website tells you a lot about his own abiding faith in government born of the industrial age.
And such perceptions matter when you’re proposing to increase the investments that government gets to make. White House aides should ask themselves why New Yorkers gave overwhelming support to their new mayor, Bill de Blasio, and his tax-raising agenda. Sure, residents of Park Slope and the Upper West Side are inherently more liberal than most Americans, but it’s also true that they’ve just enjoyed 12 years of ruthless efficiency under the Bloomberg administration. They take for granted the basic competence of government, and that makes all the difference when you ask them to expand it.
Obama did announce in his State of the Union on Tuesday that Vice President Joe Biden would lead an Al Gore-style effort to re-evaluate federal job-training programs. That’s a good idea, if they’re serious about it. But if Obama’s really going to give up on pushing major legislation (otherwise known as being the president) and focus instead on executive orders, then he might as well focus his power on the one place where he really can make both a substantive and political difference, which is reforming the federal government.
On the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, Obama could take up the conservative challenge to review the litany of existing anti-poverty programs and figure out which ones actually work. He could establish clear rules to reform the government’s collection of our personal data, rather than leaving it to Congress and multiple boards. He could learn the right lesson from the fiasco of the health care rollout, which is that a lot of archaic agencies throughout the government aren’t up to the technological challenges of the new age, and it’s time to reboot them.
With three years left in his presidency, Obama still has time to be something like the generational figure a lot of Americans hoped he would be, forcibly pulling government into the digital world. Or he can spend his time working the phones and signing small orders with his pen, sort of like the most powerful claims adjuster on earth.