A Recklessness Born of Arrogance

Mike Allen and Jim Vandehei of Politico wonder whether President Obama’s “big-bang” approach to his first year in office might have been misguided. The term big-bang refers here to the administration’s attempt to push through major reforms on a variety of fronts — energy, financial regulation and health care — in a condensed time period. The approach also goes by the name “doing too much too fast.”
Allen and Vandehei suggest that a better strategy would have been to focus on passing measures that deal directly with the economic downturn. Once the economy recovers, as it almost certainly will, Obama could take the credit and use his enhanced popularity to seek broad reform in areas like health care and energy.
I tend to agree with Allen and Vandehei, and have made similar arguments in the past. To be sure, a “good crisis” provides a president with opportunities to push through legislation that ordinarily would be deemed too radical. But this is so only to the extent that the legislation can be viewed as clearly connected to addressing the crisis. If the legislation is seen as too unconnected, then the existence of a crisis might make passage less likely, not more.
This is particularly true if the legislation can be viewed as anti-growth (cap-and-trade) or too expensive (health care). In any event, the desire to make health care more widely available or to improve the environment will be felt more acutely in good economic times than in bad.
Administration officials are now offering excuses for adopting the faltering “big bang” approach. David Axelrod says:

The times demanded it. We didn’t have the luxury of taking things sequentially, year after year, and hoping we got there. That’s the reason that all these major issues had been deferred for decades: Change is hard.

But these are just slogans posing as analysis. If change is hard, then change on a massive scale all at once is that much harder. And the “times” never “demand” that a losing strategy (if that’s what this turns out to be) be preferred over a more sensible one.
Allen and Vandehei also report:

The confidence of Obama’s aides was bolstered by their fresh memory that a similar approach had worked very effectively for then-President George W Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks. With the public on edge, Bush was able to enact restrictive policies under the banner of protecting American soil, and build an entire new department of government that voters otherwise might have opposed. The economic meltdown would be Obama’s Sept. 11 — the predicate for sweeping legislation that he wanted to enact anyway.

But Bush’s post 9/11 policies were correctly perceived as directly relating to 9/11. And Bush’s anti-terrorism policies had bi-partisan support. In fact, it was the Democrats who wanted “an entire new department of government” to deal with terrorism. Obama is proceeding with virtually no Republican support.
In short the administration’s excuses cannot be taken seriously. The real explanation for Obama’s attempt at a big bang is recklessness. And the explanation for the recklessness is arrogance.
UPDATE: Dafydd ab Hugh tells me that I must have misunderstood Axelrod’s explanation. Axelrod probably did not say “the times demanded.” He must have said “the Times demanded it,” in which case his explanation of Obama’s decision to adopt the “big bang” approach certainly makes sense.


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