Marc Ambinder

Is Obama a bad good president?

Ezra Klein versus Joe Klein versus Ron Fournier

TIME's Joe Klein, whose mental heuristics about Washington closely match those of the president, has been warning about the Veterans Affairs catastrophe for years. Today he writes:

The president cares deeply about the troops; he visits the wounded in the hospitals all the time; it's just not his style to make a public deal of it. But he has been sadly ineffective on the veterans-­health issue. [TIME]

Ron Fournier, the veteran journalist and analyst for National Journal, distinctly does not share President Obama's attitude about getting stuff done in Washington. Yesterday, he wrote:

News quiz: President Obama and his communications team hope that Americans are: 1) Dumb; 2) Distracted; 3) Numb to government inefficiency; 4) All of above.

Answer: 4, all of the above.

That answer along with utter incompetence are the best explanations for why the White House thought it could get away with claiming that the departure of Veterans Affairs official Robert Petzel was a step toward accountability for its scandalous treatment of war veterans. [National Journal]

Obama, apparently, failed to do something. It was in his power to do something about this crisis, and he didn't do it. Fournier thinks that Obama believes he cannot do anything about these bureaucratic crises and is therefore not willing to hold himself to account for them. Klein thinks that Obama should have knocked heads together and shown more empathy, more immediately, and publicly recognized the crisis as a crisis and somehow taken command of it, and... well, done something more.

Ezra Klein, the Great Explainer from the Land of Vox, believes that the fact that Fournier and Klein can't find a predicate for their "The President could have fixed this problem by...." supposition is the result of their own adherence to a flawed theory of the presidency, rather than a recognition of some deficiency inherent in Obama's governing style.

He writes:

The executive branch is a big and powerful entity that manages programs of enormous consequence to Americans — and it's often run quite poorly. That's something the president really should answer for. But political reporting in America tends to focus more on new laws that are being pushed through Congress than on the implementation of existing government programs. That's a process the president is involved in, but not one, contrary to how Green Lantern theorists portray it, that the president can ultimately control. [Vox]

Fournier's critique of Obama's leadership style has more substance than Klein's implied caricature, but Klein's point about the locus of political accountability, the confluence of historical and structural obstacles, and the lazy habits of poorer journalists is apt. Somewhere in the middle is a grand theory, one that portrays Obama as a good president who has done good things but who, when it comes to being presidential, is not all that good, and who overlearned, or become overly fearful of, reproaches from an anti-governing Republican Congress.

What Fournier and Joe Klein both believe, having marinated in the Clinton era's can-do Weltanschauung, is that presidential leadership is a game-changing force that Obama has never fully taken advantage of because of an almost spiritual disjunctive between the man and the plan. Obama is simply inattentive to governing. Applied to the case of the VA scandal, a good good president would have:

(a) recognized, as candidate Obama did in 2007, that the VA health care system is at over-capacity because of disastrous policy choices (wars); and

(b) made it a priority to find managers inside the White House who could figure out how to assess the relative progress of reforms, and

(c) chosen staff who could provide early warning of disasters, both political and humanitarian, and

(d) gotten ahead of the story early on, using the mere presence of the president to convince his political appointees and the civil service that they would be held accountable if they did not, and

(e) understood that a massively inept bureaucracy needed a massive infusion of new money and new talent, and would have found a way to make sure that both were provisioned, and

(f) made realistic promises to the American people about VA health and kept the public informed at various waypoints about reform.

A bad good president would have

(a) delegated the problem to a general like Eric Shinseki

(b) assumed that the Obama example would suffice to hold the bureaucracy accountable, and that human beings would act outside the constraints of their bureaucratic imperatives and would go the extra mile to help people because helping people is the decent thing to do, and

(c) believed that Washington was too broken for the president to use the bully pulpit to force change, and

(d) backstopped his own confidence with some degree of internal monitoring.

Boiled down to the bone, the question is whether personality and executive branch choices should matter as much as Fournier and Klein seem to think that they do.

What would have happened if the president, knowing that the VA records system was abysmally constituted, were to go to the podium in the White House briefing room, and say something like:

"The Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs are dithering. Today, I am ordering Secretary Hagel and General Shinseki to sit down with my chief of staff, and make together the decisions necessary to speed up the implementation of a new medical records and appointments system. In addition, I'm instructing my campaign staff to take a few weeks break from thinking about the 2014 elections and instead devote their resources to coding and whatever else is necessary to get this off the ground. If there are Hatch Act issues, we'll recognize them and get around them. Also: I will hold both secretaries accountable for making sure that, within two months time, the following metrics are met. If those metrics can't be met, both men must explain to me why. Finally, I am asking that the Department of Health and Human Services activate its Stand-By Doctor corps, and allow people who are in the VA system to seek non-routine appointments at any provider of their choice, subject to Medicare reimbursement rates. If there's no such thing as a Stand-By Doctor corps, then I will order the creation of one. To veterans, I say this: if you have not gotten your appointment, and if you need one, call any doctor you'd like, and bill me for the first appointment. To doctors, the first appointment is on me. Don't overcharge. Be patriotic and help us get out of this crisis."

And so on.

Ezra Klein would say that in the post-9/11 era, it is unrealistic to expect that the bureaucracy and Congress would respond to even such a stark presidential message like this, where Fournier and Klein would say that fixing ObamaCare is a good example of how decent presidential leadership can work, an example that Obama ought to have learned from.

The White House would say that my example is ridiculous because, as much of a real crisis as the VA scandal is turning out to be, the president has so many other things to do and has to apportion his bully pulpit time wisely.

To which I would say: Is what you're doing right now working for ya?


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