from The Water's Edge

Friday File: Is Obama Reinventing Government?

January 13, 2012

President Barack Obama speaks about government reform at the White House on January 13, 2012. (Kevin Lamarque/courtesy Reuters)
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Above the Fold. My BlackBerry buzzed this morning with email alerts informing me that President Obama intends to ask Congress for authority to merge several of the federal government’s trade- and commerce-related agencies. The decision fulfills a pledge he made in last year’s State of the Union address to give Americans “a government that’s more competent and more efficient.” The news alert appealed to that part of me that likes nice, clean organizational flow charts. (I once co-authored an article on how to restructure the State Department for the twenty-first century. Have no fear, foreign service officers, my blueprint has no chance of ever being implemented.) And as the Government Accountability Office found last year, the U.S. government has plenty of redundant and overlapping government agencies. But what the White House is offering up is pretty small potatoes. The plan, assuming Congress blesses it, would cut 1,000 jobs and save $3 billion over ten years. To put that in perspective, the federal government has about 2.8 million civilian employees, and the Bowles-Simpson Commission concluded that the federal government needs to reduce the projected budget deficit over the next ten years by $4 trillion to get the national debt to level off. So today’s proposal isn’t going to make much of a difference in how Washington works. So why didn’t the White House put forth a truly ambitious plan to remake the federal government? Probably because such a plan would almost certainly be dead on arrival; virtually everyone would find something in it that they did not like. There’s the rub: it is easy to propose new ways to organize the federal government; it is nigh impossible to get people to agree on which one makes the most sense. But lest I leave you disillusioned about the future of American politics, here’s a piece of good news: while the population of the United States grew by nearly a third over the past three decades, the number of federal civilian employees actually declined by a few thousand.

CFR Event of the Week. Although last summer’s debt-ceiling debacle might seem like a distant nightmare, the federal government continues to bleed red ink with no relief in sight. This week, Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) sat down with Stephen Friedman, now of Stone Point Capital and the former head of the National Economic Council (under President George W. Bush), to discuss America’s current fiscal picture. Portman offered his advice on how to reinvigorate the American economy amidst continued global economic turmoil. You can read the transcript, download the audio, or watch the video here or below.

Read of the Week. Adam Davidson’s story in the Jan/Feb issue of the Atlantic on “Making It in America” starts off with an arresting statistic: the flow of goods coming out of U.S. factories has risen by about a third over the past decade while factory employment has fallen by about the same percentage. That’s not good news for the prospects of keeping and expanding the kind of robust middle class that characterized American society in the twentieth century. The inverse relationship between productivity and employment probably provides clues to the equally arresting poll result that Pew reported this week: 66 percent of Americans think that there are “very strong” or “strong” conflicts between the rich and poor in the United States.

Blog Post of the Week. The other breaking news today is that the United States has agreed to restore full diplomatic relations with Myanmar, or as we used to call it when I was learning geography in elementary school, Burma. No one would have thought this possible just a few months ago. But political change has been coming rapidly to Myanmar in recent months, and the news today shows that the White House wants to reward Naypyidaw for its political opening. One sharp-eyed analyst who recognized the changes in Myanmar long before most everyone else is my colleague Josh Kurlantzick. In keeping with his knack for looking at where we are going rather than where we are, Josh has a blog post up today analyzing the diplomatic challenges that now await the United States.

Poll Question of the Week. So what is Mitt Romney’s first name? If you answered, “Mitt,” you are among the 94 percent of Americans who don’t know that his first name is actually “Willard.” Twenty percent of Americans think that “Mitt” is his real name, 18 percent guess “Mitchell,” 8  percent choose “Milton,” 2 percent answer “Mittens” (cute), 2 percent opt for “Gromit” (huh?), and a whopping 44 percent give up and say “don’t know.” To be fair, even Mitt has gotten this question wrong. At the Republican debate back on November 22, he responded to Wolf Blitzer’s statement that “Wolf” was his real name by saying “I’m Mitt Romney and yes, Wolf, that’s also my first name.”

Chart of the Week. The United States and its European allies are now looking to squeeze Iran’s oil exports in an effort to persuade Tehran to abandon its nuclear activities. Congress just gave President Obama the power to punish foreign financial firms that purchase Iranian oil, and the Europeans are considering cutting back their purchase of Iranian oil. How well these new sanctions will work is a matter of conjecture. As the graphic below makes clear, European countries buy a relatively small fraction of Iran’s oil. Meanwhile, the U.S. sanctions could put Washington on a collision course with several of its most important Asian allies as well as with countries like China and India whose cooperation it wants on other issues.

Chart Source: New York Times.

Too Good Not to Note. Adam Segal explains the Chinese view of why cyber deterrence will be so hard to achieve. Isobel Coleman notes that quotas for women are the hot thing in the Middle East these days. Shannon O’Neil sees two elections in 2012 that could transform Latin America. Rob Danin thinks that next week’s report from the Arab League’s monitoring mission to Syria will speak volumes about the Arab League’s credibility and either help or hinder western efforts to put more pressure on Damascus. Steven Cook hopes that Egyptians realize that the perfect can be the enemy of the good. Marc Lynch thinks that President Obama did the right (and bold) thing in removing all U.S. troops from Iraq. Bill Easterly thinks that the ideologies of communism and fascism have given way to the ideology of developmentalism. Jonathan Bernstein offers up five possible scenarios for political junkies who are too impatient to let things just play out in the GOP presidential race. Former Undersecretary of State Nick Burns thinks that only Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman have the foreign policy chops that a president needs to keep the country safe.

Perils of Prediction. “Come on now!  It’s playoff time, and if any team knows how to get the job done during the postseason, it’s the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Not even The Holy Trinity (Tim Tebow, Divine Intervention, & The 12th man) can save Denver today. They’ve been forsaken, and their road ends at home today.”, January 8, 2012. Whether the credit goes to Tim Tebow, divine intervention, the 12th Man, or a bone-headed defensive call by the Steelers, the Broncos are playing football this weekend and Ben Roethlisberger and his teammates are enjoying the start of the off-season.

Quote to Ponder. “I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the ‘isness’ of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts him. I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.” Martin Luther King, Speech accepting the Nobel Prize, December 11, 1964.

A Reason to Smile.  Greyhounds. We will miss you Nina’s Dodgette.