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March 17, 2009

presidents who do too much

A major question in the blogosphere right now is whether the Obama Administration is trying to move on too many fronts at once. For instance, Bill Galston's New Republic piece entitled "Barack's Too-Long Wish List" was discussed all over the place and may have even prompted a presidential reply. Obama said, "When we issued the budget, ... they said, 'Boy, these Obama people, they’re really ambitious. They’re taking on health care. They’re taking on energy. They’re taking on education. Don’t they know that there’s this bank crisis right now? We’ve got to do one thing at a time.'" The President then argued for addressing education, energy, and health care along with the financial crisis.

There haven't been all that many new presidents in American history, so it's hard to know empirically how they should act in their first six months. Our only evidence is a small set of case studies. Galston mentions Jimmy Carter, who "sent a flood of proposals down Pennsylvania Avenue, so many that Congress soon bogged down in near-gridlock. By the end of his first year, American[s] were beginning to wonder whether Carter could get things done and--worse--whether he was up to the job."

Franklin Roosevelt is famous for his ambitious agenda, but Galston notes that: (a) things were dramatically worse in 1933 than today, and (b) FDR actually focused first on the economic emergency and then used his early successes to build momentum for other reforms.

I don't know how many initiatives is too many, but I'd observe that the number of different topics that an administration addresses (call that n) is only one variable that may affect its success. It's hard to tell whether Carter failed because his n was too high--or whether FDR has his face on the dime because he got n just right. I can think of other explanations for both outcomes.

Specifically, the Zeitgeist was against poor old Jimmy Carter, as we can tell now that the Owl of Minerva has taken flight. Most of the industrialized countries moved substantially right after 1970. Liberals had already enacted the popular parts of the welfare state. They had consolidated prosperity for a majority of their populations, who were decreasingly generous toward the remaining poor. Keynsian policy couldn't seem to handle stagflation. Liberal coalitions had shattered on the shoals of controversial social issues. Conservatives offered law-and-order and lower taxes, and that was a winning package. The only reason Carter was elected was that Richard Nixon had administered a deadly wound to his own party that took eight years to heal. It was hardly time for an ambitious liberal agenda.

This analysis doesn't mean that Obama is wise to send a bunch of new proposals down Pennsylvania Avenue. It only shows that there isn't a very clear historical analogy, and the president has to blaze his own trail. The important questions are: How interconnected are the various topics he's addressing? How strong and well conceived is each set of proposals? How urgent is each topic? And how much can Congress handle? (But that last issue is only one among many.)

March 17, 2009 9:22 PM | category: Barack Obama | Comments


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