Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Common Sense Setting In

Gregg Easterbook writes a weekly column for called Tuesday Morning Quarterback. Aside from being a great read with an interesting perspective on football, the article is often interwoven with Easterbrook's political musings. I've read him for close to ten years now and I'd say he leans moderately to the left, in the old style, JFK Democrat manner. This hasn't stopped him catching a few annoying bouts of BDS over the past year or two, though. Now it seems, however, that the common sense bug is biting a pop culture liberal, as he turns a critical eye toward President Obama, focusing in first on his incessant speech-giving, and later on the incredible beauracracy that continues to unfold.

President Obama -- Stop Talking! In the first half of the George W. Bush administration, when the 43rd president was popular, Bush spent a great deal of time traveling around the United States giving speeches: sometimes advocating various causes, sometimes at fundraisers, sometimes simply appearing before some organization. That any president should use the public's time -- and the million-a-day cost of moving and protecting the president -- at partisan political fundraisers is offensive. All postwar presidents, Democratic and Republican, have appeared at partisan fundraisers at taxpayers' expense, and TMQ thinks this should be banned. Some Bush speaking appearances became controversial, when the Secret Service or Republican Party operatives tried to forbid anyone critical of Bush from entering the speech locations. But the key point was not that Bush was making speeches under questionable circumstances; the key point was that he was making way too many speeches, period. Ultimately, substituting speechifying for governing diminished Bush's presidency. Now Barack Obama has started down the same path.

Merely in the past two weeks, President Obama has given a major health care address to Congress, a major address on bank regulation on Wall Street, a speech to the nation's schoolchildren (who were considerably better behaved than Congress), a major address on the economy to the AFL-CIO in Pittsburgh, a speech on health care in Minneapolis, a speech on health care at the University of Maryland, a speech marking the anniversary of 9/11, a speech to the UAW at an auto plant in Lordstown, Ohio, a speech in New York honoring Walter Cronkite, a speech at an Arlen Specter fundraiser in Philadelphia, a speech to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (it's not a caucus, it's a Caucus Institute), a speech at a picnic in Cincinnati, a speech lauding a posthumous winner of the Medal of Honor, a speech about community colleges in Troy, N.Y., and a major speech on climate change at the United Nations. You can track presidential speechmaking here. This paragraph lists only his prepared speeches at public events: I exclude media appearances and informal presidential remarks during the greeting of world leaders, literary figures or sports teams. Obama is making way too many speeches.

The first reason he's making too many speeches is that speechifying is time-consuming. Writers prepare the texts, but Obama must think about what he wants to say; rehearse what the writers come up with; travel to the speech location; give the speech and travel back. A speechmaking appearance outside the nation's capital pretty much nails the day. Obama's trip to Los Angeles to give a speech and appear on "The Tonight Show" nailed two days, taking jet lag into account. Just because jets make travel convenient -- when FDR left on the battleship Iowa to attend the 1943 Tehran Conference of Allied leaders, his travel time each way was more than a week -- does not mean constant flying around is sensible. When does Obama have time to do the actual work of governing?

The next concern is that too-frequent speechmaking devalues the presidential voice. When the president speaks occasionally, he commands attention; a president who speaks all the time becomes just another clanging cymbal in the background yammer. I bet Obama gives 10 speeches for every one given by John Kennedy. At the current rate, by 2010, an Obama speech will no longer be viewed as an important moment.

More than this is the concern that speeches are stage-managed to stroke the president's ego, which is the last thing any chief executive of either party needs. There's always an adoring crowd, waving banners, saluting soldiers, with thunderous applause. Surely all recent presidents come away from such stage-managed speeches thinking, "They love me!" Surely the younger George Bush gave so many speeches in his first term because it was flattering to his ego to be surrounded by cheering crowds who would clap loudly even for inutile banalities. But the office of the presidency isn't about fun for its holder. Bush wanted to give speeches to sympathetic crowds to make himself feel good. If Obama is speechifying for the same reason, this does not speak well of him.

Most important, too-frequent speeches turn the president into an actor reading lines. Barack Obama's job is not to get applause: his job is to improve the country. But improving the country is pretty challenging, whereas going out and getting applause is a snap. We don't yet know if Obama can reform health care or negotiate with hostile powers or reduce the national debt; we know for sure he can get applause. It's disturbing to see him spending so much time and energy chasing ovations, which have zero lasting value, while putting off the real work of reform. A president who gives speeches all the time becomes a blowhard who likes to hear himself talk but never gets around to accomplishing anything. For Bush, by his third year in office, his road speeches sounded like he was campaigning -- he would speak vaguely about an agenda while wagging his finger against Washington, skipping the complication that he was in charge of Washington. This is already creeping into Obama's speechmaking. Lately he has been wagging his finger about "folks in Washington" as though he's not one of them, to say nothing of Folk Number One.

One of the core realities of politics is that it is a thousand times easier to campaign than to govern. Sarah Palin quit being a governor because that's a lot of work, the work requires you to cooperate with opponents, and you're held accountable. In campaign speeches, by contrast, you can denounce opponents and promise the moon, but never take responsibility. Being president of the United States is a huge amount of work. Giving speeches and being love-bombed by adoring audiences sure sounds like a more pleasing way to spend the day. It's time Barack Obama stopped giving so many speeches and concentrated on leadership.

Will The Car Czar's Children Inherit His Title? Right now, Glenn Beck and others on the right are obsessing about President Obama having too many czars, some of whom are not Senate-confirmed. Is this shocking? As Paul Light of New York University showed in his 1999 book "The True Size of Government," the number of political appointees directly controlled by the president is surprisingly small, fewer than 3,000 positions. Most Washington executive officials are civil servants, military personnel or foreign-service officers, over whom the White House has suasion but not hiring-and-firing authority. It does not offend me that the president grants portfolios to advisers: I am not clear on why this offends Beck, other than, perhaps, he needs his rabies booster shot. Conservatives rarely object when governmental czars behave like actual czars, such as in 2002, when Tom Ridge was George W. Bush's security czar and was busily approving restrictions on civil liberties. But I do worry that recent presidents have too much redundant overlap among councils, directors, czars and czarinas, and that Obama is worsening this trend, which seems most pronounced in intelligence, economics and environmental policy. Consider:

Obama has an Environmental Protection Agency, plus a Council on Environmental Quality chaired by Nancy Sutley, plus a White House-level special environmental adviser, TMQ's pal Carol Browner, plus environmental divisions in the departments of Energy, Transportation and Interior, plus a Fish and Wildlife Service, plus a Bureau of Land Management. He has a Treasury Department, plus a Federal Reserve, plus a Council of Economic Advisers chaired by Christina Romer, plus a National Economic Policy Council chaired by Lawrence Summers, plus a White House special economics adviser, Paul Volcker, plus an Office of the Trade Representative, which does economic policy. The Council of Economic Advisers has, in turn, its own staff of economic statisticians, though an entire Bureau of Labor Statistics exists to compile economic data, while the Federal Reserve also has an econ stats division. What do such overlapping advisers and councils do? Fight for the president's attention.

Overlap is worst on the security, military and intelligence fronts, where the top of the United States government increasingly looks like a scene that Gilbert & Sullivan cut from "H.M.S. Pinafore" as unrealistic. Obama has a Secretary of Defense, a Secretary of State, a CIA director, a Director of National Intelligence, a National Security Adviser, a National Security Council, a President's Intelligence Advisory Board, a President's Intelligence Oversight Board, a National Security Agency, a Defense Intelligence Agency, separate Air Force, Navy and Army intelligence commands, a National Counterterrorism Center, a Department of Energy Office of Intelligence, an FBI Directorate of Intelligence, a State Department Intelligence and Research branch, a Treasury Department Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, an Office of National Security Intelligence at the Drug Enforcement Administration, an Office of Intelligence at the Department of Homeland Security, a Secret Service, a National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and a National Reconnaissance Office. All these in turn have their own internal hierarchies: For instance, the Treasury Department Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence has a Deputy Assistant Secretary to the Office of the Secretary.

Several of these top-heavy, intersecting security and intelligence entities were created in the wake of 9/11, apparently on the assumption that terrorists would be afraid of very large, slow-moving bureaucracies. Though the United States already had a CIA director, whose grand formal title is Director of Central Intelligence, in 2004, Congress added the Director of National Intelligence; at the time, Tuesday Morning Quarterback quipped that the new official should be dubbed the Director of the Director of Central Intelligence. On paper, the Director of National Intelligence is superior to the CIA director, so surely you know who this august individual is. One canny tactic of the Director of National Intelligence is to post our antiterrorism strategy on the Web, complete with colorful graphics. Are the Director of National Intelligence and the Director of Central Intelligence working together tirelessly in the national interest? No, they are engaged in a childish food fight regarding who gets to sign memos. You can bet all the overlapping councils and directorates spend as much time in turf wars regarding trite markers of personal prestige, such as sitting close to the president during photo-ops, as they do in service to the taxpayer.

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