In the Hands of the Bureaucrats

Many people, including legendary reporter Bob Woodward, were surprised and a bit upset that Barack Obama would consider Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State.  Others are worried that he’s choosing too many people with backgrounds in the Clinton Administration, softening his notion of change.  Never mind that the only exposure top Democrats have had to leading the country’s bureaucratic apparatus came in the Clinton years — the Republicans have held executive power for 20 of the last 28 years — somehow Obama was supposed turn everything around with new blood.

First, to Hillary (assuming all the rumors are accurate).  Obama knows that he is bringing an intelligent, strong willed woman into a position where she could do things that embarrass him.   Colin Powell and more importantly some of his staff were often doing and saying things that annoyed the first Bush Administration.  Going all the way back to Henry Kissinger one recognizes the possibility that a Secretary of State can sometimes outshine the President.   Obama no doubt knows that many President’s prefer a non-descript bureaucrat in the State position, so as to assert Presidential authority.  Obama’s choice of Hillary reflects a deep confidence Obama has in himself, and his ability to lead.  He is saying, essentially, that he can work with Clinton as a team, inspire her confidence, and give her space to operate within a framework the two of them agree upon.

Choosing former members of the Clinton team for other posts only makes sense.  Obama is a relative newcomer to Washington, but even if he wasn’t, he would be foolish to tap lots of academics and DC unknowns to come and run very politicized inside the beltway bureaucracies.  Bureaucracies by nature know how to evade control from above, often subverting the goals of the leadership through misdirection, standard operating procedures, or bureaucratic neglect.  Leaders can’t watch everything, after all.  A newcomer coming in to “shake things up” without knowledge of the players and the lay of the land will be distrusted and most likely disdained.   Such a person would end of fighting battle after battle to control his or her own agency, only to find at the end that it’s difficult to even figure out what the agency is doing.  This is true for just about every important government bureaucracy.

A bureaucracy needs a strong leader who knows how to get things done in a bureaucratic setting.  That means knowing the important mid-level players, inspiring loyalty, and understanding that you can’t upset the power structures too much unless you can generate real buy in.  A bureaucrat who deals with the day to day world can often ignore the commands of higher ups, realizing that no one really watches what he or she is doing.   That becomes more difficult if that rogue bureaucrat is outside the general consensus within his or her agency — people will be more likely to notice and act to limit such behavior.  If the consensus is to distrust the leadership and change, people will look the other way knowingly as change is sabotaged from below.

It’s still early, but it appears Obama plans to have the message of change come from the top, with the agents of change being those who understand power politics in the nation’s capital, and are able to effectively operate to make things happen.   This is important.

When Bill Clinton came to power in 1992, his efforts to find a cabinet suffered from a desire to have a cabinet “that looks like America,” and focus as much on symbolism of change as on power and experience.  He had some fine picks, but in others, like his effort to find an attorney journal, it looked haphazard.  The result was that during Clinton’s first two years he squandered opportunities for real accomplishments, thereby helping feed a backlash against his administration.  That caused a massive shift in Congressional power to the GOP in 1994.  From 1994 on Clinton was less about change than about bipartisan reform, making his administration not that much different than those of the twenty years of GOP governance.

Obama cannot afford to stumble his first two years on the job.  Clinton had the benefit of having his first term be a time when the economy was bouncing back and things were stable.  He could adapt, learn, and ultimately come up with a better team and more effective leadership.  Obama does not have that luxury.  With problems festering in Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran, while the economic crisis threatens the core strength of the country, he has to hit the ground running.

Yesterday he named his “economic team,” and his appointments so far reflect a real focus on expertise and continuity.  His message is clear: America will change directions, but we will do so with experienced hands on the helm.  Those doubting Obama’s experience can be heartened by the fact the government will be run by, and Obama advised by, people with extensive practical experience in government, business, finance and foreign policy.   In a sense he’s again following the Reagan example: set principles at the top, and find the right people to put them into effect below.

Obama’s confidence is important.  He’ll have to work fast, make tough decisions, and inspire the country to believe in what he’s doing.  We’re facing challenges that this country has not faced for a long time, we are vulnerable to real declines in both power and prosperity.  Over coming weeks I’ll write more about how we can adapt and some of the issues we face.  It is possible to turn this crisis into an opportunity.  We are literally at an important historical juncture.   And, while there is always a risk that “old faces” will maintain “old thinking,” I believe it’s really important to have experienced hands in charge of the various bureaucracies, people who understand how the system works and can be effective agents of change.  Ultimately, as good as Obama’s rhetoric may be, and as bold as his initiatives might be, whether they succeed or fail will depend in large part on how they are implemented.  That is something Obama cannot control, that will be in the hands of the bureaucrats.

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