A matter of priorities?

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Obama Just Doesn't Care About Running the Government

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
Read More.
a | A

President Barack Obama's grade as top manager of the executive branch continues to sink. At this point, a C- would be generous.

Cases of mismanagement at the agency level include:

  • The Office of Personnel Management computer hack;
  • The Snowden theft from the National Security Agency; 
  • The Department of Veterans Affairs scheduling fiasco;
  • The healthcare.gov rollout;
  • Unending problems at the Secret Service.

There are a few more marginal cases, including the General Services Administration vacation mess. And although the Internal Revenue Service scandal may have been overstated when Republicans pitched it as a partisan attack, it probably counts as general mismanagement.

QuickTake Cybersecurity

These aren't policy failures. They’re just cases where the government bungles when carrying out policy.

My suspicion is that the typical pattern is of a longstanding dysfunctional agency culture that usually preceded the Obama administration. The problem isn’t a bunch of Obama-appointed crooks or incompetents.

Instead, Obama just seems indifferent to executive branch performance. At least until there are problems that draw national press attention.

When that happens, the president appears to be pretty good at aggressively attacking the situation -- see, for example, the Obamacare rollout.

But not good enough. Especially not for a Democrat, because the party has a lot at stake in showing that a large government can function effectively.

Obama has displayed his indifference by being slow to nominate replacements for executive branch agencies. It was true from the beginning, with his foolish good-government choice to restrict the pool by excluding (some) lobbyists. Meanwhile, he’s resisted calls to streamline the nomination process by reducing burdensome excessive vetting. All of which has sent signals to executive branch departments and agencies that business-as-usual was good enough for this president.

It isn't reasonable to expect the president to personally review everything that happens in every government agency. And scandals will occur over a two-term presidency. Obama can’t be fully blamed for agency cultures that go way back in some cases.

Effective presidenting, however, includes letting the bureaucracy know that the White House is paying attention and considers effective agency work a priority. It’s hard to believe that anyone received that message over the last six and a half years. We see the consequences.

  1. Do I have to point out that the hack of background checks would be a little less damaging if there were fewer, and less extensive, background checks to begin with?

  2. It's not as if George W. Bush was any better when it came to executive branch management, and I suspect that a lot of the agency culture problems stem from Bush-era neglect or worse. Again, however, that's no excuse for Obama, who should have been looking for those kinds of problems. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net