Last month, I wrote a National Journal cover story on Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, portraying him as the Democratic face of government reform. As a two-term governor, O'Malley argued that he'd shown how to harness the levers of government effectively, allowing him to make the progressive case for a more activist government. Politically speaking, that's becoming a prerequisite for President Obama and the Democratic Party, given the expansion of federal programs amid ample evidence that the government isn't working effectively as it should be.
The latest snafus in the health care law's implementation are merely the latest signs that government isn't working as advertised. The administration delayed the effective date of the employer mandate by a year, and quietly acknowledged that eligibility for the exchanges will initially begin on the honor system. The most generous interpretation of the political targeting that took place at the Internal Revenue Service was that it was a case of "horrible customer service," in the testimony of the scandalized former director Stephen Miller.
So it's no coincidence that Obama himself personally kicked off the White House's "new management agenda" Monday in the State Dining Room, attempting to make the case for more government innovation—at the same time he's calling for more government. "I directed the Cabinet to develop an aggressive management agenda for my second term that delivers a smarter, more innovative, and more accountable government for its citizens," Obama said. His view of redesigned government was also premised on more executive authority, calling on Congress "for the authority to reorganize and consolidate the federal bureaucracy."
The speech conveniently ignored the reality of the bureaucracy's all-too-evident limitations, with the president taking credit for any small signs of improved efficiency under his administration. (He touted a relaunched HealthCare.Gov site, ignoring his administration's inconvenient news that the online verification systems won't be ready in time.) All while pitching a grand vision where entrepreneurs can be enticed to work for the government, helping to fix the myriad challenges. It's similar in many ways to O'Malley's message, but without the track record of results.
As with many presidential speeches, the news from this one is what was left unsaid. Presidents don't feel the need to promote an "aggressive" management agenda if Americans perceived the government as being run well. Polls show voters have an increasingly dim opinion of government's capabilities: In May, Quinnipiac found that only 15 percent of voters trusted the federal government to "do the right thing" all or most of the time, while 36 percent responded "hardly ever"—up 9 points in the last three years.
At the end of the speech, Obama also hinted at the biggest ideological fissure dividing the two parties—the role of government in American life. In calling for the smartest entrepreneurs and innovators to serve in government, Obama concluded: "We all have a stake in government success—because the government is us." It's the type of line that could be used in an out-of-context Republican campaign spot, but it speaks to a larger truth about the president's core worldview. Obama sounds wedded to the belief that more government is automatically good, even as he acknowledges the results of the bureaucracy around him have been less-than-stellar. It's akin to Republicans instinctively calling for tax cuts, no matter the size of the deficit.
In the O'Malley feature, I argued that in a post-Obama world, Democrats will need to prove that government can work effectively if they are going to successfully call for more of it. Americans' interactions are more bottom-up than ever, but the administration's solutions have been predominantly top-down.
Government reform may not seem like an urgent challenge now, but with delays in the rocky health care implementation, don't be surprised if it becomes a central issue in the 2016 elections. If she runs for president, Hillary Rodham Clinton will have to decide whether to embrace Obama's activist instincts, or agree with her husband's famous claim in his 1996 State of the Union that "the era of big government is over."
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