Friday, February 20, 2015

Obama's Words (Still) Speak Louder Than Actions

"In the military, as in any organization, giving the order might be the easiest part. Execution is the real game." - Russel Honore.
President Obama's soaring speeches essentially got him into the White House. His DNC 2004 keynote speech first won him national attention.  Then a couple of "Hope and Change" oratories with mix and match phrases were key to his 2008 primary and general election victories. He also has a great sense of humor, which makes his White House Correspondents Dinner addresses and appearances on Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert shows like on Dec. 9, '14 worth watching. His policies haven't appeased most Republicans but they're quite centrist and track majority opinion fairly well. So what's his biggest problem?

His weakness per my March 2013 post is in poor implementation, neglecting routine administration, and not anticipating and addressing problems before they become critical.  When faced squarely with a crisis or challenge Obama marshals his faculties and resources to rise to the occasion. That's how he outplayed Hillary Clinton in 2008, dealt with Hurricane Sandy effectively in 2012 just before his re-election, recovered from the awful start of the website, and so on. But the Executive-in-Chief should execute well in general, not just in firefighting mode.

The President cannot do everything, so he needs to pick the right people to work under him, track their performance, press them to improve where needed, and replace them quickly if they don't. Obama here is no worse - and probably better - than "heckuva job, Brownie" G.W. Bush.

But he falls well short of Bill Clinton whose operational excellence was a largely unsung and under appreciated aspect of his presidency. Not only did the cogs of the day to day government machinery run smoothly then, but major programs took off without hiccups. Examples in health care are the Clinton launch of children's health insurance program and the overhaul and immense improvement of the Veteran's Health Administration (VA).

And how is Obama doing now, as compared to his earlier years? Significantly better in some aspects. Examples:
  • In health care he finally dispensed with Kathleen Sebelius and appointed the far more competent Sylvia Burwell as health secretary. The lackluster CMS chief Marilyn Tavenner is also gone. A post 2013 team along with Accenture now running has immensely improved operations including enrollments under ACA (Obamacare). 
  • Janet Napolitano is gone as Secretary of Homeland Security, replaced by a much better Jeh Johnson since December 2013. One change I personally noticed is the much quicker processing of international flight passengers at our JFK and Newark airports. The hour plus long lines have now decreased to a wait of 20 minutes or less.
  • U.S. postal services have improved some services, e.g., with insurance and tracking already included in Priority Mail packages.  More outlets like Staples now sell products and accept postal packages. 
There are still visible shortcomings, ranging from the trivial and irritating ones I see in my daily domestic life to those of national importance. Examples:
  • The streams of unwelcome phone calls from marketers, including robo-calls on Do-Not-Call registered land line and mobile phones has become even worse. The FTC seems totally unresponsive to complaints, and this has made marketers more brazen in flouting this one very welcome law passed in the G.W. Bush presidency. Even authentic information about U.S. based scammers and violators contained in complaints seems to disappear into a black hole. Although the FTC is an independent agency, its Bureau of Consumer Protection works closely with the Department of Justice. So the Obama Administration through Eric Holder's Department of Justice can and should get them to go after violators much more vigorously. Let's see if Holder's chosen successor (currently nominee Loretta Lynch awaiting Senate approval) turns out to be better in this regard.
  • U.S. post offices still don't display prices for common services like rates for domestic and international mail and packages. You can ascertain these piecemeal at automated stations, but these should be displayed for quick information and comparison. Why isn't this done on now so inexpensive electronic displays that can be readily updated when rates change? Plus the USPS is still losing money. A competent administrator should be improving efficiency and reversing past giveaways in pensions and benefits instead of trying to curtail services, like Saturday mail delivery.
  • Highly paid West Coast dock workers in a labor dispute are crippling the supply chains for many American businesses and hurting our economy. Yet Obama's administration is dragging its feet on ordering an end to this work stoppage. In contrast, the Canadian government moved to end a rail strike there, prompting the management and the union to quickly resume operations and agree to arbitration. 
In foreign relations there are lapses in policy as well as execution pertaining to the Middle East and Ukraine:
  • An Oct. 9,'14 Reuters report describes Obama's rejection of proposals of his senior advisers to intervene in Syria and Iraq that allowed ISIS to expand. Though liberals may defend his initial restraint, there's little excuse for the poor execution of his subsequent decision to intervene militarily, support forces against ISIS, etc. 
  • Obama's hesitance to help Ukraine militarily in countering Russian backed separatists has contributed to Ukraine's rout and loss of strategic towns in recent battles. He argued against supplying lethal weapons on the grounds that this will further antagonize Russia and kill off peace talks.  I'd have expected an effective administration to at least be feverishly positioning such arms for rapid transfer and deployment if peace fails, and to be covertly training Ukrainians in their use. After all, Russia and the separatists have repeatedly violated prior agreements. Instead, the Middle East problems of US military help coming too little, too late seems to apply to Ukraine as well. 
Some of these outcomes could have been different under a better Secretary of Defense. Obama has at least appointed the well regarded Ashton Carter as the new Secretary who emphasized competence and effectiveness after being sworn in.

In sum, the Obama Administration functions better now than till 2013, though there is still ample room for improvement in his remaining second term.  I also hope that his successor after 2016 is more into good governance from the start.