Taking policy seriously

TAKING POLICY SERIOUSLY…. There’s been an odd trend in recent months in which mainstream media outlets criticize President Obama for caring too much about public policy. I tend to find it a refreshing change of pace after the Bush era to have a curious, intellectually engaged leader, but a surprising number of observers feel differently.

MSNBC’s First Read, for example, recently suggested the president “knows too much” about health care policy. Soon after, the Wall Street Journal‘s Jonathan Weisman also complained that the president cares too much about policy details.

David Broder raises a similar point today, riffing off a piece from William Schambra in National Affairs. Broder, relying on a conservative writer, who works for a conservative think tank, and was published by a conservative journal, highlights “the ‘sheer ambition’ of Obama’s legislative agenda.”

[Schambra] traces the roots of this approach to the progressive movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries…. The progressives believed that the cure lay in applying the new wisdom of the social sciences to the art of government, an approach in which facts would heal the clash of ideologies and narrow constituencies.

Obama — a highly intelligent product of elite universities — is far from the first Democratic president to subscribe to this approach. Jimmy Carter, and especially Bill Clinton, attempted to govern this way. But Obama has made it even more explicit, regularly proclaiming his determination to rely on rational analysis, rather than narrow decisions, on everything from missile defense to Afghanistan — and all the big issues at home.

“In one policy area after another,” Schambra writes, “from transportation to science, urban policy to auto policy, Obama’s formulation is virtually identical: Selfishness or ideological rigidity has led us to look at the problem in isolated pieces . . . we must put aside parochialism to take the long systemic view; and when we finally formulate a uniform national policy supported by empirical and objective data rather than shallow, insular opinion, we will arrive at solutions that are not only more effective but less costly as well. This is the mantra of the policy presidency.”

I’ll concede that I have not yet read Schambra’s original piece, and it’s possible that Broder’s column simply doesn’t do it justice. But given Broder’s argument, this is hardly compelling criticism.

The pitch, in a nutshell, is that the president cares far too much about facts, reason, and evidence. He insists on shaping policies based on their effectiveness. This White House, like the two other Democratic White House of the last 40 years, is convinced that problem-solving is possible through coherent policymaking.

And that’s a mistake, Broder suggests, because politics is messy. It’s better, the argument goes, to take policy matters far less seriously.

Joe Klein had a good response to this: “Yes, it is possible for liberals to go too utopian, to lose sight of the importance of private entrepreneuralism, to be deluded into believing that government can impose perfect justice and perfect order. But neither Clinton nor Obama — moderate liberals, at best — seem even vaguely utopian. The real question is this: if liberals are in favor of policy solutions to chronic societal problems, what are conservatives for? … It’s not liberals who have an existential problem right now. It is conservatives, who believe in nothing, it seems, but winning…and winning at all costs, even at the expense of truth, civility and honor.”