Curse of can’t-do government

It’s been a tough few weeks for President Obama. The disastrous launch of his controversial health care law, marked by a malfunctioning website, insurance rate hikes and millions of cancelled policies, has even the president’s most ardent admirers questioning his executive ability.

The New York Times is asking if Obama is simply a “bystander” to his own administration. And it goes without saying that the president’s opponents are having a field day pointing out the obvious problems of a White House that on more than one occasion was seemingly blindsided by major issues in its own administration.

But there’s one key point that’s being lost amidst the scramble to spin the press and pass the blame:  With a government this massive and convoluted, the president never stood a chance. The current morass in Washington is larger than one man, one administration or one political party. It’s the ultimate reality of big government—and the reality isn’t pretty.

This is not to excuse the president for his administration’s debacles. After Obama declared for the presidency in 2007, he was uncritically celebrated for his leadership and managerial skills, though at that time those skills were untested. Obama was happy to bask in that admiration and feed the illusion, which played no small role in getting him elected. So it’s only fair that he should be held to account when he’s revealed as something less than the hyper-competent, hands-on executive he presented himself to be.

Obama’s belief in results-oriented “can-do government” was the basis for his soaring speeches and “change we can believe in.” Central to this image was a self-consciously grand, sweeping vision of the government’s capabilities, which the president summed up on a sharp four-word formula in his 2011 State of the Union address: “We do big things,” he declared.

But someone should have warned the president there’s little pride to be had in doing “big things” if they’re done poorly. And the unintended consequences of trying to do “big things” through the federal government usually leads to policies that do more harm than good.

Such is the lesson of the disastrous Obamacare roll-out: Forget about the big things, because the federal government in Washington is now too bloated, incoherent and ineffectual to even do small things right. Like, say, launch a working website to undergird the president’s signature policy achievement.

Never mind the president’s vision of can-do government; the question that needs to be asked is if the government should do it.

Even if  Obama were a more capable manager, it probably wouldn’t make any difference due to the size and scope of the government. One of the president’s closest political advisors, David Axelrod, admitted as much in an MSNBC interview in May.

“Part of being president is there’s so much beneath you that you can’t know because the government is so vast,” Axelrod explained. That was intended as a defense of the president’s lack of knowledge about IRS harassment of conservative political groups. But it was actually an unwitting indictment of a government that’s grown so inconceivably large and complex as to defy any effective oversight whatsoever.

The president’s great sin was failing to recognize that reality. But Americans are catching on. A September Gallup poll found that 60 percent of Americans believe the government has too much power, and other polls suggest that the people’s confidence in the government to do anything right—to say nothing of the “big things”—is flagging.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, this could be a healthy development. As Americans grasp that a sprawling, unaccountable, ever-growing, overspending, debt-ridden leviathan in Washington won’t be capable of solving the problems we face, they may become more receptive to the case for leaner, more effective government, and creative solutions from the private sector. 

Obama has occasionally paid lip service to reducing government, but his actions have consistently expanded it. Instead, he seems to have an unwavering and abiding faith in the power of more and more government action—more programs, more bureaucrats, more taxes, more spending, more mandates, more regulations and more control of the economy. It’s time he rethink that faith.

It may be hard to imagine Obama declaring, as Bill Clinton did in 1996, that “the era of big government is over.” But if he wants to salvage the remaining three years of his presidency, he should start figuring out how to make that ideal a reality.

Hamel is executive director of Public Notice, a nonprofit group focused on the economy and how government policy affects Americans’ financial well-being. Hamel served as deputy assistant U.S. trade representative for public and media affairs in President George W. Bush’s administration.