Can Obama Make Wonks and Hacks Work Together?

A lot will change on Jan. 20, when George W. Bush takes one last wistful glance around the Oval Office before heading back to Texas, and a few thousand Republicans begin finding out whether having "former Bush administration official" on their resum é is a help or a hindrance in getting that next job. It's more than just a new set of policy goals and a round of executive orders undoing some of Bush's worst offenses. For the first time in eight long years, the federal government will be managed by people who have a clue about what they're doing.

During the election, Barack Obama's Republican opponents liked to criticize him for not having actually run anything before. But the one thing he did run -- his presidential campaign -- was as well-organized, efficient, and effective as any in American history. When Obama's campaign started, some believed it would be a replay of Howard Dean's 2004 run -- inspiring, exciting, and doomed. But Dean's effort was held together with duct tape and string, while Obama's was a BMW of a campaign: fast, beautiful, and engineered with uncommon skill and care.

And even before it was over -- indeed, months before -- members of Obama's team were already planning for the transition now underway. Though there has been some grumbling about the number of former Clinton administration officials working for Obama, almost all of the Democrats with experience actually running the government got it in the Clinton administration. And the ones Obama has hired, including Rahm Emmanuel and Ron Klain (who will be Joe Biden's chief of staff, the same job he did for Al Gore), are universally acknowledged to be among the smartest and most skilled operatives around.

In other words, Obama seems to be staffing his key positions not with the people who have proven their loyalty to him (as George W. Bush did), but with those most likely to get things done. And the task before them is enormous. After all, the government of the United States is a gargantuan beast, the single largest enterprise on the planet. According to the president's 2009 budget, spending next year will top $3 trillion, spread through thousands of programs. Over 1.8 million civilians work for the federal government, not to mention a military that brings the total number of employees to over 3 million. Even if we weren't simultaneously facing two wars, an economic crisis, a health-care crisis, and a climate crisis, the federal government presents a management challenge of unequaled scale.

Not that it has always been treated with the seriousness it deserves. As former Clinton adviser Bruce Reed noted in a 2004 Washington Monthly article, under Bush, the balance in the endless struggle between wonks and hacks -- the policy people and the politics people -- had gotten seriously out of whack. "The Bush White House," Reed wrote, "is so obsessed with the politics of its agenda that it never even asks whether it will work."

And much of the time, whether a policy "worked" was almost beside the point. The Bushies may have argued that cutting taxes for the wealthy would ultimately bring economic benefits for all, but the real point was cutting taxes for the wealthy. They saw it as a moral imperative in and of itself, regardless of whether the effects would be positive or negative. As far as they were concerned, it was just the right thing to do. In the same way, they wanted to outsource as many government operations as they could, regardless of whether the private contractors would do a worse job for more money, as was so often the case. Bush may or may not have actually believed retirees would be better off if they had moved their Social Security savings into the stock market, but mostly he was seeking to privatize the program, a goal conservatives have held since it was enacted seven decades ago.

And when they did think of the long term, they believed that the application of their manly will would bend the world to their bidding, and everything would work out in the end. As a senior Bush aide famously told journalist Ron Suskind in 2002, the Bush administration had little time for the "reality-based community," so naïve as to "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." "We're an empire now," the aide said, "and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do." This was at a time when the Iraq War was being prepared, and the contemplation of unintended consequences was plainly not something on which "history's actors" could waste their time.

In retrospect, some features of the Clinton administration look almost as dysfunctional, albeit for different reasons. For instance, seen today, Clinton's 1993 health-care reform effort looks like Wonks Gone Wild, a gigantic Rube Goldberg machine of a bill, so mind-bogglingly complex and politically disastrous it never even came to a vote. It was just one of the contradictions of the Clinton presidency that he could produce such a monument to the excesses of wonkery, and also hire the reptilian toe-sucker Dick Morris to guide his re-election effort with bite-size "policy" ideas like the endorsement of school uniforms. Indeed, no president ever personally combined both hack and wonk to quite the same degree as Clinton, a political genius who understood the details of policy as well as any green-eyeshade-wearing bureaucrat. Yet if the Bush administration were all hack and no wonk, the Clinton administration seemed too often to be cycling back and forth between one and the other without ever quite achieving the balance that could have made a good presidency into a great presidency.

Regardless of all the ups and downs Clinton experienced over eight years, the new Democratic president shares with the last one a broad and ambitious agenda. That's what happens when you believe that government is actually capable of solving problems. And the ultimate measure of your success will be not just whether you did what you hoped to but whether the things you did actually solved the problems they were meant to. There may be no liberal or conservative way to build a bridge, but ideology does determine whether you think building the bridge is a good idea in the first place. If you do, you're going to need some good engineers.

So if, as seems apparent, Obama is interested in actually using government to solve problems, the pendulum will have to swing back in the wonks' direction. That is not to say that his administration will exist in a state of wonkish purity, unsullied by political considerations as it methodically banishes all the country's ills one by one. But there are some signs that it may just find the right balance between politics and policy, between the hacks and the wonks. Up until now, Obama has shown a remarkable ability to achieve the balance that political success requires. In the campaign he offered inspiration and idealism, but also made hardheaded political decisions when the situation demanded it. If he hadn't, he wouldn't have succeeded where so many Democrats before him failed.

Of course, campaigning and governing aren't the same thing. Campaigns are run by hacks, while government needs wonks. But the wonks can't do it by themselves. Without the hacks, a wonk is like a quarterback without an offensive line. He may be able to throw a beautiful pass, but that won't matter much if he's flattened by four hulking defenders before he can even cock back his arm. The most brilliantly imagined policy will do no one any good if the opposition can't be overcome to ensure its passage.

A truly successful administration will thus be marked by visionary leadership from the top, skillful political work to get legislation passed and maintain political capital, and smart management to implement the administration's goals. After eight years in the wilderness, the reality-based community is back in charge. Now they have a chance to prove that they know what they're doing.

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