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Adam Hanft

Adam Hanft

Posted April 24, 2009 | 05:22 PM (EST)

Move Over Obama: Can Amy Poehler Make Us Fall In Love With Government Again?


He probably hasn't considered it, but President Obama needs Amy Poehler to make government functionaries our next secular saviors. In her new sitcom Parks and Recreation she plays Leslie Knofe, a starry-eyed bureaucrat who, in the opening episode, earnestly proclaims that the conversion of an empty lot into a park will be her "Hoover Dam." She's her own perky vessel of change, channeling "Yes We Can" with prime-time gloss.

The show couldn't have come at a more appropriate and in fact monumental moment. With the government taking huge ownership stakes in our financial institutions, a new generation of sharp and relentless federal managers will be required. Sad but true: We need people smart enough to catch the bankers who are looking for every loophole to screw the same people who bailed them out.

What's more, the ambitious initiatives packed into the stimulus package will mean yet another aggressive expansion of government, a new thrust of involvement rushing deep into our lives.

But all that, of course, leads to an inevitable ant-swarm of sleepwalking dunderheads required to execute the mission. Or such is the conventional wisdom. So for Obama to succeed, he's got to make us believe in government again. Not just in him and his leadership; that seems to be working.

We also need to deposit our faith in the thousands of people it takes to build and run all these Hoover dams, and the resultant skein of unappealing systems, paperwork and clipboards that disgorge from that ambition.

Without those legions doing their thing, we will never be in a position to nab next crop of Madoffs and mini-Madoffs before the wreckage. We won't be able to spot the rogue peanuts before they hop into our food chain, or the crooked banks with their unsupportable, helium-filled capital structures.

That's a tough peanut to swallow, though. We aren't quite ready to pay homage to the thousands of small and boring tasks that, taken together, make government work. We believe government is populated by paper-pushers, clock-watchers and pension-anticipators who wake up in the morning thinking about how little they can do, how much they can get away with.

And we can't conceive of walking into a federal office pretty much anywhere, and finding a source of crisp efficiency, entrepreneurial energy -- the drive to find new and better ways of delivering service.

This tension is snappily exhibited in Parks and Recreation. Early in the show, Poehler breaks the fourth wall, turns to camera and says: "When I first tell people I work in the government they say the government, the government stinks, the lines at the motor vehicle bureau are too long. But now things have changed. People need our help, and it feels good to be needed."

The show announces that we've come a long way from the Reagan era: no longer is government the problem. But Poehler's cheery Jeffersonian hopefulness is only part of the story; the rest of her cast sees the world a bit differently. They've given up, tossed in the white flag of shrugged-shoulder surrender. Her silly idealism only yields eye-rolling.

If you want, a contrast between the shining city on the hill and the grim cubicle in the basement - including every cliché of bored civil servants in action - you have arrived at the right place. The gap between Obama's soaring rhetoric about community and a national coming together, and the daily grind of constituent service, could not be clearer.

And to mirror the level of flat expectations, the show is shot docu-style - clearly a nod to The Office - so all the banality and pettiness gain a kind of mock-heroic stature. No one emerges with much dignity, not the citizen losers at the public meeting, not the disinterested board members.

The show reflects our national dilemma. I don't think it has fully hit us yet, this need to re-believe in the redemptive and innovative powers of government. The narrative has gone in one direction for so long, after all. But now that we own huge chunks of banks and other financial institutions, the stakes are higher.

So we have to start paying salaries, for both appointed and civil service positions, that are close-to-competitive with the private sector. Government has always paid less because a) we could get away with it, an b) on a certain level, everyone knows that when you get out of Washington you can convert your currency and connections into a better paying job in the private sector.

This wink-wink allows the government to get off cheap, while acknowledging that access selling and interest peddling are part of the deal. If President Obama wants to tighten the ethics rules he's got to change the artificially low salary constraints that block all but the wealthy and patient immoralists from working in government.

Executing the Obama Audacity throughout the country will require a generation of talented idealists, pragmatists and yes, bureaucrats. If we believe that the best people work for the government and not for Google, then gradually but inevitably, they will.

Watching Parks and Recreation reminded me, in a way, of the arrival of the Mary Tyler Moore Show. When Mary Richards famously threw her hat in the Minneapolis air it was a well-timed, sitcom-perfect signal of a zeitgeist shift. It was a faux-feminist declaration of independence, for sure, but it also was the first show that tried, at least, to portray a single woman on TV who wasn't in a constant manhunt. In its way it did lead.

Similarly, I wonder if Parks and Recreation is picking up on the green shoots of a new belief, that government is not our nemesis, that the uncelebrated and the mocked who labor there actually care about what they do, and that they can change lives for the better.

If we don't start believing that soon, if we refuse to be convinced that the public sector, is not irreparably incompetent, then a lot more than Parks and Recreation is at risk of being cancelled after 13 weeks.