Rebuilding Morale in DC

At the Washington Monthly, John Donahue and Max Stier argue that some of government’s most intractable problems remain so because they’re in the hands of the worst-run agencies. Fixing them will take high-level commitment:

In many European and Asian countries the high status of public service helps offset modest financial rewards. But in the U.S., decades of bureaucrat bashing have exacerbated the economic factors and driven away untold thousands of talented Americans who might have tolerated lower compensation if abuse hadn’t been part of the package. Celebrating private enterprise and denigrating bureaucracy run deep in America’s political DNA. Some recent administrations have viewed federal organizations and the workers who staff them with something approaching contempt. Others have made at least some efforts to improve how federal agencies operated. But it has been a long time since federal workers had a real champion in the White House. No president since John F. Kennedy (some would argue since Theodore Roosevelt) has been willing to spend much political capital to improve the human capital that constitutes the core of the federal government.

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Two Presidents

With Bush being the lamest of lame ducks, WaPo columnist Eugene Robinson is getting concerned:

Bush could and should do it — he is still president, and preventing economic collapse is part of the job description. But he won’t. It’s ironic that after being so aggressive and proactive in other areas, the Decider is so indecisive and passive about the economy. He has limited his role to signing off on whatever Paulson says is necessary — most recently, $20 billion in cash and $306 billion in guarantees for Citigroup, a move that Bush apparently approved during his flight home from Peru.

In part, Bush’s inaction stems from ideology. If the free market is always right, it ought to correct itself and get back on course. All the government really needs to do is take care of a few emergencies such as Bear Stearns, Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, IndyMac, AIG, Wachovia, Citigroup . . . and, of course, whatever comes next. Not the auto companies, however: In Bushworld, the firms that created the toxic mortgage-backed securities that threaten to bring down the global financial system are somehow morally superior to the companies that created the Mustang, the Malibu and the minivan.

I don’t think ideology explains it all, though. Even if he wanted to make a real run at righting the economy, at this point Bush has neither the energy nor the credibility to make it happen.

With Obama legally without authority, Robinson sees very little recourse except to hope that Paulson can keep juggling.

Update: McClatchy also had an article addressing the point:

Paul Light, a government professor at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service, said the rapidly deteriorating economy is forcing Obama to become the nation’s Booster-in-Chief before he becomes president.

“The markets are saying that George Bush is irrelevant to the economic future of the country, and they want to hear from Obama,” Light said. “Obama doesn’t have much choice but to reassure the markets as best he can. The ball is in his court whether he likes it or not.”

Set The Direction

Zbigniew Brzezinski, who’d know a thing or two about dysfunctional national-security teams, is arguing quite strongly that Obama needs to be vocal about setting the direction:

[He is]  making what is, I think, an important point — if Barack Obama wants, as it seems he does, to appoint a national security “team of rivals” then he also needs to make some big, high-profile statements about the policy course he expects the team to steer. The team’s public statements have differed with each other at times and with him at times, and a world that was very excited about his election needs to hear clearly that it’s his team and his policies we’ll be looking at.

Good advice, which I suspect Obama will have no hesitation about following. Hat tip: Matt Yglesias.

How To Deal With Iran

Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has a few pointers on handling the Iranians, among them:

Washington should refrain from making any grand overtures to Tehran that could redeem Ahmadinejad’s leadership and increase his popularity ahead of the country’s June 2009 presidential elections. Since assuming office in August 2005, Ahmadinejad has used his influence to amplify objectionable Iranian foreign practices while curtailing domestic political and social freedoms and flagrantly disregarding human rights; his continued presence could serve as an insurmountable obstacle to confidence building with the United States.

He also counsels avoiding heavy-handed rhetoric and focusing on dealing with Khamenei. Read the whole thing.

Gates Stays

It’s all but official now that Robert Gates will be staying on as secretary of defense after Obama takes office.:

[Senior adviser David] Axelrod said Obama enjoys and invites strong opinions and there will be no “potted plants” in his Cabinet. 

Gates has been negotiating with Obama emissaries over his deputies — some will be retained, and some new — and how the Pentagon will be run.

It’s obvious that Richard Danzig will be getting an understudy’s job somewhere in the mix.

I like the move because Gates hasn’t hesitated to crack down on incompetence, particularly in the Air Force. As for those lefties saying that the new national security team looks too hawkish for their taste, they must not have been paying attention. Obama told anyone who would listen that he intends to pivot attention to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Torture Truth Commission

Obama seems inclined to investigate the torture allegations but not to prosecute, says Newsweek:

Obama aides are wary of taking any steps that would smack of political retribution. That’s one reason they are reluctant to see high-profile investigations by the Democratic-controlled Congress or to greenlight a broad Justice inquiry (absent specific new evidence of wrongdoing). “If there was any effort to have war-crimes prosecutions of the Bush administration, you’d instantly destroy whatever hopes you have of bipartisanship,” said Robert Litt, a former Justice criminal division chief during the Clinton administration.

Reactions in the ‘sphere are mixed, for reasons Kevin Drum puts his finger on:

At bottom we still have a public opinion problem here: like it or not, half the country still seems to think that torturing al-Qaeda suspects was perfectly acceptable.

Indeed. Even today there’d be no shortage of people willing to volunteer to take the cattle prod to 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, for instance. Memories of a historically unprecedented assault on the soil of the US will do that.

The broader reason, however, is maintain the country’s political stability. The minute one party starts believing that the only way to stay out of jail over what it sees as a political dispute is to hold onto power, it’s all downhill from there.

UPDATE: Matt Yglesias argues for trading leniency only for full cooperation:

I think it’s important to draw a distinction between simply declining to engage in war crimes prosecutions as a matter of prosecutorial discretion, and actually taking prosecution off the table. The latter should be done, if at all, only in exchange for confessions, expressions of remorse, and cooperation with investigations. The former may is probably the better part of wisdom for now, but many of the perpetrators can be expected to live for decades and absent something like a real Truth and Reconciliation Commission the door should be left open to doing something down the road if circumstances change. I don’t think it’s even remotely acceptable to just give a full retrospective stamp of approval on everything that was done during the Bush years merely because that might be the most convenient way to build legislative support for Obama’s domestic agenda.

Cabinet Reaction

Tom Barnett likes what he sees so far of Obama’s appointments:

Obama is trying to satisfy in a lot of different directions, and I think it’s a good mix to date. They reflect a true CEO mindset that wants very strong subordinates, and I like a cabinet for America right now that reflects too much agenda and too much leadership rather than too little in either category. I don’t want an America that simply accommodates or surrenders to presumed trends. I want an America that leads as it always has, but does so in a smarter fashion.