Obama and the Technocrats


By Joe Campbell
August 3rd, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]Last week I wrote about Obama’s focus on using technocratic institutions to tackle the nation’s most intractable problems. I attributed to Obama a particular attitude towards our current media-political system – one consistent with many reformists – and then explained how Obama was seeking to push the change he had campaigned on, the difficult choices, onto these technocratic institutions, thus solving his political and policy problems at once. But by outsourcing significant authority to these bureaucratic and independent (and thus not quite accountable) organizations – from IMAC to the Federal Reserve to the National Infrastructure Bank – Obama was bleeding authority from elected institutions. At the same time, I tend to agree with the reformist critiques that recount the massive failures of our current media-political system to tackle most (if not all) long-term structural problems.

But since I’ve written this, I have come across a number of pieces challenging this idea from various perspectives on the left.

Mark Schmitt, an editor for the progressive The American Prospect, saw Obama’s approach as the opposite of what I did – though he focused on national security and justice issues. Schmitt agrees with the reformist attitude I attribute to Obama, writing:

[T]he idea that America’s “existing democratic institutions are strong enough to deliver accountability” flies in the face of all observed reality. For at least eight years, those institutions consistently failed to deliver accountability, and the Department of Justice and courts likewise failed to punish some of the greatest abuses of power in our history.

But he is himself frustrated that Obama does not share it. He concludes:

It takes some discipline to understand that organizational culture, not organizational structure, determines success or failure. And it takes a lot of patience to wait for an organizational culture to turn around and resist the temptation to add a commission here, a new agency there. Obama’s organizational discipline was the hallmark of his campaign, and we can only hope that his unyielding insistence that “our existing democratic institutions are strong enough” will eventually make them so.

Benjamin Wallace-Wells writing in The New Republic strongly disputes any attempts to link Obama’s technocrats with Kennedy’s technocrats (as I did) – writing that the Kennedy men weren’t brought down by their knowledge and rationality, but instead:

Their error was an excess of ideology; they were not empirical enough.

He concludes that the brilliant men of the Kennedy administration are different from the brilliant individuals of Obama’s:

Kennedy chose as his defense secretary the president of a car company. Obama chose the sitting secretary of defense. Obama’s brainiacs–people like Larry Summers and Tim Geithner and Peter Orszag–come from a different meritocracy than Kennedy’s did. They are not brilliant generalists. For better or for worse, they are experts.

It is clear that Obama’s technocrats are of a different sort than Kennedy’s – and I made that point as well. It also seems that many of them are students of history and have attempted to learn the lessons of their predecessors – from John Kennedy’s and Lyndon Johnson’s “best and brightest” to Clinton’s New Democrats. But I’m eager to see some commentary dealing with the fact that Obama has found an elegant solution to many of these intractable and politically fraught problems – from global warming to health care to financial regulation to infrastructure spending – an independent, technocratic institution that removes political considerations from these decisions and thus receives relatively broad bipartisan support. (I believe the independent agency proposed to tackle each of these problems has some bipartisan history.) And then to tease out what the potential implications and pitfalls of this are.

Because while Schmitt and Wallace-Wells make good points in disagreement with my thesis – their supporting facts do not undermine my point, just their broader generalizations from these facts.  Clearly – Obama respects existing institutions more than I gave him credit for – especially in the areas of national security and justice (and even financial regulation you could argue.) But it’s also clear that Obama’s solutions to many difficult domestic policy questions are to outsource the hardest decisions to incrementalist, technocratic, independent institutions.

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