Big hat, cattle still on truck for later delivery

I have spent the last decade or so trying to understand how I got at the bottom of a stack of leaders that (with a very few bright spots) are either out to lunch, inept, or affirmatively evil.  About a year ago, things started to look up and I was ready for a president who not only had a heart and a head but would govern effectively.  Half a year ago, I got a new dean who is so nearly doing everything right that I left everything on the table, plus an IOU, in a negotiation over teaching last week, so at the beginning of the summer, the bottom and the top of my authority pyramid checked out OK, which is not bad in many ways.  (Actually the mayor and my city councillor are pretty good at what they do; who knows, maybe they read the RBC!).  But everything in between – my senators, congressperson, governor, regents of the university, university president, campus chancellor – is between mediocre and a wasteland, especially the last four, who have simply left me speechless at their complete ignorance of what their jobs are and fecklessness the few times they try to do it, and nothing has changed there. We have a gubernatorial election coming up and I see nothing on that horizon that I don’t fear, loathe, or both. My bitterness about this situation is wide and also deep; I hate not being able to respect people I work for, especially when they also work for me.

I wish I could share Mark’s optimism and put Jonathan’s self-protective caution aside, but until I see results I have to adopt the view that Obama has one or two critical pieces missing, and the next three years are going to be mostly heartbreak, the more so if I let myself fall for his speeches again.  I am not going to let myself be set up for disillusionment again by this one.  Obama has pooched almost everything he’s set himself to – health care, climate, the Massachusetts senate race, Guantanamo, DADT (so far), it goes on and on. A chain of vacillation, days late and dollars short, unnecessary compromises and surrenders.  W dealt him a very bad hand, but the voters gave him an extra draw or two, and all I see out of it is a shrinking stack of chips.

The way politics works is, you have a portfolio of conflicts to engage.  When you pick the first set, you have a certain amount of each of several kinds of power, and you need to figure out a few you can win going away (to demonstrate and increase the power), a few where you can negotiate a good middle-ground outcome, a few you need to leave for later, and a few crapshoots and jump-balls.

And a few you need to visibly leap on with all four feet and your claws out, even if you can’t win, because some things are just right and you ran on some principles. It’s not just a matter of counting wins; substance matters too. So does the payoff structure: some conflicts can have a good non-zero-sum “bipartisan” outcome, negotiation is appropriate, and you can even learn something from the other side that you didn’t know and get a better result than you could alone.  But others have to be fought to the end and won because the other side is wrong in a deep sense and needs to be defeated or because a crappy jerry-built pastiche is actually worse than a clean outcome either way.

Or because their utility function has a big negative coefficient on your success independent of the issue. Especially in the current environment, Obama not only has opponents on issues, but also real enemies, and as the core of the Republican ideology has collapsed intellectually; their record is so visibly, famously, toxic; and the affective tone of legislative process has become so bitter and vengeful (does anyone remember the word comity?), they matter a lot now.

After all that tactical and strategic analysis, you have to actually do the tasks you pick; you don’t have to set out to take Vienna; maybe try for Austerlitz first, but you have to advance on the objectives you do select, stay on the battlefield and be seen to do so, and keep doing it even when the folks on the other side call you very mean names and even shoot at you.

One thing I know I’m not very good at is hiring.  Again and again, outfits I work for have taken on someone who looked to me like a really bad pick, and they succeed splendidly, and I’ve expected wonders from people who didn’t deliver.  I love my colleagues who are good at this for doing it well, just as I love people who are willing to work twelve hours a day running restaurants (a job I know I would fail at almost instantly) so I can have great meals.  It won’t be the first time if I favored the wrong job applicant for Obama’s slot.  Similarly, I have my own ideas of how the issues the administration mishandled should have fallen into the boxes described above, but I’m not expert at that.  I’m happy to be surprised when someone who is picks an order of battle or makes a Gantt chart I wouldn’t have come up with, and succeeds at stuff.  Doing that much better than I can is exactly what I expect from a leader and his or her team.

I don’t know which calls he got most wrong, it’s not my expertise, but I infer from the overall record to date that he just isn’t getting it (or is a deep-down a wuss and backs away too much).  It kills me to say it, but I don’t think Obama has the discrimination to see this whole landscape as it is; and/or, he  just doesn’t like to fight. Not every articulate, well-educated, humane, smart guy does; Obama never looks happier than when everyone loves him, which is a red flag.

Mr. President, once bitten, twice shy, but  I’m way past once, actually gnawed over and badly chewed up in several places.  I loved the speech, but I didn’t vote for you to give speeches; I voted for you to be president and use speeches as one of many ways to actually make the world better.  Salvaging the little I can, I won’t be in despair and a chump both.

Go ahead, make my day: refute all I’ve said here with some accomplishment. I so want to be able to retract it all.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

11 thoughts on “Big hat, cattle still on truck for later delivery”

  1. Yeah…well no California state legislator can actually do much of anything because of the box we put them in with term limits, supermajority rules, and safe districts, so I can't really tell!

  2. What's complicated about this? You guys fell so in love with the idea of electing a black President, that you just threw all questions about his lack of experience out the window. Actively attacked as a racist anybody who raised them. So you nominated a light weight with good reading skills, (His addiction to teleprompters is becoming something of a joke.) and he got to run against McCain, so he won. I'm kind of hoping you got that out of your systems, and the next black junior Senator with no executive branch experience who thinks he's Presidential material will get appropriately told to put in some years seasoning himself.

    Start looking for a challenger, I think dumping him is your only chance of holding the Presidency come 2012.

  3. You can vote for a President that has only been Governor for a short time and fool yourself into thinking he has experience if you like. You can certainly watch as he fumbles his way through the worst terrorist attack the country has seen, or as he lies his way into one war, abandoning the other just as success seems likely. You can sit enthralled by a leadership that ends up invalidating your presumed strength in defense matters if you like. But what you cannot do is act like you have enough credibility to tell the other side that they shouldn't have voted for a President that had no experience. You've already proven yourself incompetent at making those kinds of decisions.

    One reason for your stark incompetence is that you tend to see the world a binary. Left or right, fight or cower, socialist or conservative, these are all you seem to recognize. So its no surprise when you reveal the root of the problem is racism. That you fail to see that we voted for President Obama for many reasons, none of them having anything to do with the color of his skin. That you see that candidacy as black and white really is instructive. It is understandable that you feel the President is not doing the things you think he should, what is not understandable is how you trust yourself in these matters after who you and your kind put in office in 2000 and 2004.

  4. Fr33dom,

    Dumbya was actually governor of Texas for six years when he took over the White House. He had four years as Governor when Rove started the campaign. Republicans apparently think being elected Governor is what's important (how else can you explain McDonnell's inane response to Obama's speech).

    The problem is that people look at Texas and say, "Golly, Governor Bush ran Texas. He must be okay." What people don't understand is that Texas has a weak-governor constitution. In terms of power and getting things done, the Governor is at most the fifth most powerful politician in the State. His power is exceeded by the Lieutenant Governor (who presides over the Senate and thus controls the Legislative agenda and is elected independently of the Governor); the Speaker of the House (who presides over the House and controls the other part of the Legislative agenda); the Railroad Commissioner (elected, not appointed and runs a bunch of important agencies including the [Desecration of the] Environment Department); and the Agriculture Commissioner (elected, not appointed and runs the TDoAg).

    Governor of Texas is almost a nothing job: s/he appoints a number of commissioners, and signs or vetoes legislation. The Governor doesn't control a significant chunk of the State's budget (the elected Commissioners do). Molly Ivins and Lou DuBose tried to tell us in 2000 that Bush was anything but the self-made man he presented and that being Governor of Texas sounds nice but isn't really that big a deal. In fact, it was a gig perfectly suited to a lightweight of Bushie's stature. President of the United States, not so much. We didn't listen to them in 2000.

  5. Dubya isn't the president anymore (which I completely agree is a good thing). The subject is Obama's experience, or glaring lack thereof. If you want to talk about "nothing" jobs, look at every single "job" Obama held before becoming president. Yeah, I know, I know, he was a "community organizer" (with no actual results or accomplishments that anybody can recall that resulted from all his organizing); he was a "constitutional law professor" (except, well, not really); he was a part-time state senator who voted "present" on anything controversial; and he wrote a couple of books–about himself. He has NO real accomplishments or successes except the very obvious one of marketing himself and being promoted far beyond his actual abilities. I admit those are pretty good tricks but they don't make for a successful president.

    Obama hasn't done anything — not one single thing — that's markedly different from what Dubya did, and in some ways he's worsened many of Bushs' policies, yet it's all hunky-dory because he has a D after his name? Because he makes pretty speeches?

  6. Sorry possum, I can't buy the rhetorical hype in your flatly false answer. To start with, the attack on community organizing is an ignorant insult, which clearly marks you as a republican stirring bad blood. I see a lot of change in Iraq (hint: we're leaving), Afghanistan, climate policy, civil rights, an economic stimulus, science policy…I could go on, but the complete garbage about him doing nothing better than Bush is either ignorance or hyperbole. But, then, you're a republican, so what could I expect?

    He's disappointed democrats on a variety of fronts, but that's a different story and for completely different reasons.

  7. Not a fan of Jerry Brown? How come?

    Everything I knew about Jerry Brown I learned from the portrayal of him as an idealistic near-hippie in the 1992 Presidential campaign and having heard that he'd settled down into doing a competent, relatively quiet job as mayor of Oakland and as California Attorney General (quiet as compared to his earlier portrayal as a loose cannon, at least).

    Then I read this cover piece in The American Prospect last year. From a few thousand miles away (though I'll be a California voter come the election) it looks like he's the only plausible Democratic candidate. But after reading that article you'll perhaps excuse me if I rather lack enthusiasm for his candidacy.

  8. Dennis, I tend to see 'governor' as about the best prep possible for being President. Roosevelt, Roosevelt, Reagan, Clinton – pretty good. Effective administrations, pushed forward their agendas. On the other hand, Bush 43, Carter, well, they're not my best arguments. Bush 43, though, I think you have made a case that this was misbranding: all the rest of us thought we were electing a guy who had been governor, based on our experience with governors and what our states ask governors to do. And instead he held this office called 'governor' in Texas, which is so unlike the powers/office we are used to. I tend to see 'senator' as a not very good prep for the Presidency. This didn't help the voter choosing between McCain and Obama! But John Kennedy's Presidency was not so much, once the halo of martyrdom fades.

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