January 28, 2008

Hillary and competence

A couple of people have observed that the recent flurry of senatorial endorsements for Barack Obama raises questions about whether Hillary Clinton really would be vastly more competent as President. This seems to be missing the mark a bit. What Hillary's touting above all is her experience and dexterity at managing the bureaucracy, not so much shepherding legislation though Congress. To her credit, I think the bureaucracy is something that she really does understand--better than Bill ever did, in fact. Here she is talking to George Packer about how power works in government:

“The water will flow downstream, and often pool in great reservoirs of power that will then be taken advantage of by those who have been smart enough to figure out how to pull the levers. And I know from my own experience, and certainly watching how deeply involved Bill was in those areas that he thought were important, what it takes to try to get the government to respond. It’s not easy. We’re talking about this massive bureaucracy . . . and you have to be prepared on Day One to basically wrest the power away in order to realize the goals and vision that you have for the country.”

I think that Hillary's great fault is that she sees this task as the primary work of the presidency, and fails to grasp the importance of communicating with citizens and winning meaningful support for her ideas. But she's absolutely right that the task of managing the bureaucracy is critical, and no president can succeed without mastering it. This, incidentally, is the area where I worry most about Obama. Mark Kleiman agrees:

"Those 100 Regent University Law School grads in the Justice Department are now civil servants; they don't leave automatically when the White House changes hands... it's possible that [Obama's] extensive reading didn't include Neustadt's Presidential Power, and that he doesn't know how to do — or doesn't even know that a President needs to do — the part of a President's job that involves wrestling with the various bureaucracies to get them to perform in the public interest. That would be bad."

In addition to Presidential Power, I also recommend The Best and the Brightest for a primer on how easy it is for bad policies to gain an unstoppable momentum within the government, regardless of what the president wants to do.