Obama’s Stealth Revolution

While progressives are kvetching and conservatives are chortling over President Obama’s failures to enact his most visible policy initiatives, he’s quietly ratcheting federal control of society up to unprecedented levels.

In a lengthy TNR feature, John Judis details how “Obama has reinvented the state in more ways than you can imagine.”

Obama’s three Republican predecessors were all committed to weakening or even destroying the country’s regulatory apparatus: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and the other agencies that are supposed to protect workers and consumers by regulating business practices. Now Obama is seeking to rebuild these battered institutions. In doing so, he isn’t simply improving the effectiveness of various government offices or making scattered progress on a few issues; he is resuscitating an entire philosophy of government with roots in the Progressive era of the early twentieth century. Taken as a whole, Obama’s revival of these agencies is arguably the most significant accomplishment of his first year in office.

He details something Dave Schuler has been  stressing for some time: Obama’s confidence in an ability to micro-manage the economy with scientific efficiency. The myriad ways that the revival of this repudiated view of governance has shaped Obama’s first year is explored in Judis’ piece and defies excerpting.  I encourage you to read it.

Via Mark Kleiman, I see that Norman Ornstein argues that, despite the embarrassment thus far on health care reform, “this Democratic Congress is on a path to become one of the most productive since the Great Society 89th Congress in 1965-66, and Obama already has the most legislative success of any modern president — and that includes Ronald Reagan and Lyndon Johnson. The deep dysfunction of our politics may have produced public disdain, but it has also delivered record accomplishment.”

This argument is a tad dubious, however, because almost all of the “achievements” are a function of having passed the massive “stimulus” bill.  Then  again, as I argued at the time, it was pretty clear that, while stimulating the economy was indeed a desired impact — and one that was achieved at least somewhat, although we can argue about the efficiency — “stimulus” soon became a justification for passing a myriad of spending programs Democrats wanted irrespective of the state of the economy.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. yetanotherjohn says:

    On Obama getting more than Reagan or LBJ that is only measuring along one axis. Reagan never had a congress in GOP hands. Both worked with the opposition to get what they wanted. LBJ’s civil rights legislation would never had passed without the republicans.
    If you measure results based on convincing the other party your arguments have merit and should be supported, Obama comes up very short on that scale.
    But then Reagan’s ability to convince others of the rightness of his cause was what made him ‘the great communicator’. Obama needing teleprompters to address a 6th grade class shows his limitations.

  2. Alex Knapp says:

    James,

    I think that it’s a pretty thin support that Obama wants a “radical reinvention of the state” from the evidence that he is hiring regulators who want to make their offices more effective.

    yetanotherjohn,

    Obama needing teleprompters to address a 6th grade class shows his limitations.

    This, of course, is complete nonsense. He used teleprompters to make remarks to the media after the event. He did not use them when he was talking to the class. Additionally, his performance at the GOP in Baltimore should put the “teleprompter” meme to rest. He owned that Q&A session.

  3. Have a nice G.A. says:

    his performance at the GOP in Baltimore should put the “teleprompter” meme to rest. He owned that Q&A session.

    Owned, how do you get owned? Come on Alex. Spouting grandiose nonsense in an arrogant self righteous megalomaniacs stream of delusion to a respectful group of opponents, what were they supposed to do be honest and shout you lie after everything this nincompoop stated?

  4. This Guy says:

    Wow, this must be a record…only two posts and the conversation is totally off topic.

    I found this to be a very enlightening analysis that got me wondering if health care was not a distraction while the true work was being done. I don’t want to sound like some conspiracy theorist truther who thinks Obama is out to destroy the country, but I have often wondered why Obama seems so aloof on the direction and substance of the health care legislation. Was he hoping to attract all the attention to that while rebuilding and revamping a strong regulatory system.

    If all what is reported is true about the Bush administration’s intentional de-construction, is this necessarily a bad thing now? With a more competent FEMA, how might New Orleans have faired, How about tighter banking regulations, or mortgage and lending regulations.

    It certainly is a deep rabbit hole.

    But how much do we want to be regulated? And, who is regulating the regulators? This could become a political football.

  5. anjin-san says:

    I don’t want to sound like some conspiracy theorist truther who thinks Obama is out to destroy the country, but

    Hmmm. All over the Bay Area, long delayed, desperately needed infrastructure projects are now underway because Obama has made federal $$$ available. That looks more like building up the country to me than destroying it.

    Of course neocons would rather build Iraq, a nation that sits atop an ocean of oil with our money, but that is a discussion for another day.

  6. James H says:

    I would argue that in light of the current economic situation, the SEC needs to be revived and redirected. IMO, a great deal of the economic crisis came about because of insufficient, or perhaps improper, regulation of the financial sector.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    IMO, a great deal of the economic crisis came about because of insufficient, or perhaps improper, regulation of the financial sector.

    I think the problem was regulatory capture. Fixing that would require such a radical rebuild and alteration of approach that I despair of it happening.

  8. Herb says:

    ““stimulus” soon became a justification for passing a myriad of spending programs Democrats wanted irrespective of the state of the economy.”

    This may be true for some ARRA projects, but others –particularly some of the road construction/maintenance here in Colorado– aren’t necessarily liberal fantasy projects. In any other era, they might even be considered to be non-partisan public works projects that are more than worthy of our tax-dollars.

  9. floyd says:

    Alex;
    So you claim that The big zer”O” can actually speak at sixth grade level without a teleprompter or outside assistance?
    Is this because of his innate prowess and training or simply an indictment of public education?

  10. An Interested Party says:

    Obama needing teleprompters to address a 6th grade class shows his limitations.

    And being disingenuous shows your own limitations…

  11. Steve Verdon says:

    I think the problem was regulatory capture. Fixing that would require such a radical rebuild and alteration of approach that I despair of it happening.

    Yeah, because even if you succeed there is nothing to prevent re-capture. Dave you noted over at your blog several people in the Obama Admnistration who were likely to or came from Wall Street. Severing that incestuous relationship is a necessary first step but is it sufficient? There are still political contributions and political advertising and so on. When you have an activist government that kind of pressure will always be there. So now you are back to limiting political speech.

    I know everyone thinks there is this perfect regulatory structure but the problem is that every regulatory structure is open to capture. Some maybe less than others, but in the end they all have big incentive problems.

  12. sam says:

    Reagan never had a congress in GOP hands. [Reagan and LBJ] worked with the opposition to get what they wanted.

    As yes, but you see, that was in a galaxy far, far away and a long, long time ago. I’m told that in that galaxy, the opposition actually was willing to work with the president of the other party. I know, I know, it boggles the mind. But that is what I was told.

  13. Dave Schuler says:

    I’ve already floated my preferred approach to reducing regulatory capture: incentivize a more antagonistic relationship between regulators and regulated by allowing regulators to keep a portion of any fines and penalties levied. It’s not perfect but at least it’s a path.

  14. sam says:

    I’ve already floated my preferred approach to reducing regulatory capture: incentivize a more antagonistic relationship between regulators and regulated by allowing regulators to keep a portion of any fines and penalties levied.

    That’s interesting. In lieu of salary, of course. Regulation on commission. That might actually work.

  15. steve says:

    There is no perfect regulatory regime, but some are clearly worse than others. Take John Dugan as an example. The guy wrote the book on deregulating banks,then went to work lobbying and advising the industry on how to make that come true. He was then named to the Comptroller of the Currency. That is hiring one of the capturers.

    http://www.thenation.com/doc/20100104/carter

    You need to hire people who understand the system they will regulate. However, letting only those from the industry affected both make and enforce the rules means an abundance of rent seeking and excess. IOW, the industry folks are going to deliberately game the system. The academic folks will make unintended mistakes. The former occasionally crashing the system, the latter sometimes slowing growth.

    Steve

  16. anjin-san says:

    So you claim that The big zer”O” can actually speak at sixth grade level without a teleprompter or outside assistance?

    Well, Obama took on the GOP leaders on their turf and basically punk slapped them without a script. So if he is a “0”, what does that make them?

    Find a better talk track Floyd, that turkey does not fly.

  17. anjin-san says:

    the opposition actually was willing to work with the president of the other party.

    Funny, I was just thinking today how once upon a time Tip O’neil & Howard Baker were able to act like gentlemen, put their differences aside and sit down and get some business done. Seems like a relic from a bygone age.

  18. floyd says:

    “Well, Obama took on the GOP leaders on their turf and basically punk slapped them without a script. So if he is a “0”, what does that make them?”
    “””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””
    Well, there you go again, assuming that criticism of one politician means support for another.
    Besides your “punk slapped” conclusion is merely the subjective musing of a gullible mind.

  19. Have a nice G.A. says:

    Obama has made federal $$$ available

    You need to think long and hard about the implications this statement that you have made has on meaning and reality my friend:)

    Well, Obama took on the GOP leaders on their turf and basically punk slapped them without a script.

    Ha I tell you what Anjin I will debate him you and any 300 others liberals you can come up with while we all are hooked to lie detectors…..

  20. anjin-san says:

    Besides your “punk slapped” conclusion is merely the subjective musing of a gullible mind.

    Hmmm. Considering you are basically a list of right wing talking points with two legs and a mouse, I will take that with the several thousand grains of salt it merits.

  21. floyd says:

    Not for long … The Democrat Party is trying to cost me an arm and a leg! Heck, and to think all they deserve is a finger!