THE BLOG

Misgoverning

08/09/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As the economy today moves rapidly toward catastrophe, pressing problems such as the collapse of the mortgage market, declining housing prices, and frightening gasoline costs have pushed other critical barriers to economic recovery below the surface.

One problem that has received scant attention as an election issue is of overriding importance -- managing the federal government. The public and the pundits view the tools and techniques of sound governance as inconsequential technical concerns. They are dead wrong.

Misgovernance has been a key -- but generally unrecognized -- factor in wrongheaded presidential decisions that led both to policy failures and harmful outcomes. Gross mismanagement of the federal government can be fatal to the nation's health. It's a hidden killer. Nowhere is the direct link between presidential mismanagement and policy disasters more clear than in the case of the George W. Bush.

His administration immediately abandoned the modern techniques of governing developed and used by both Democratic and Republican presidents in the years after the end of World War II. What distinguished the Bush presidency was the small, insulated White House clique that made critical policy choices without using either sound information or outside advice to guide decisions. Bad policies continued despite overriding evidence of failure and made disastrous outcomes a near certainty.

The Bush presidency will go down as providing by far the poorest quality of governance in the modern period of big government that began with Franklin Roosevelt. Sound management, however, is not associated with political party or orientation. Conservative Republican Dwight Eisenhower ranks as far ahead of other postwar presidents in managerial capability as Bush is behind.

Political scientist Fred Greenstein wrote of "Eisenhower's capacity to think organizationally--to conceive policy problems in terms of the formal and informal group processes through which they could best be clarified and implemented." His organizational mastery stands out as the missing ingredient in most recent presidents, but he also had the political skills to work with Congress and remain popular with the public.

Ike brought to the table deep knowledge of and experience with managing the machinery of government. His decisionmaking structure provided well-thought-through policy alternatives built on sound information and analysis. Ike engaged in open discussion with his advisors including his cabinet members who played an important role. Finally, Eisenhower was the extraordinary "decider" once he had the facts and the advice to make an informed decision.

Eisenhower's organizational principles remain the blueprint for governing. However, the question is whether a president without Ike's exceptional experience and skills would be up to the job. The answer well may be yes. Gerald Ford successfully employed an Eisenhower-type system during his brief presidency

Ford lacked significant large-scale organizational experience but had served over two decades in the House including serving in major leadership positions. He had acquired a depth of knowledge about policy areas and the communication and analytic competence to be an active manager of the process. Ford's orderly and more open system showed that an ordinary president could employ the Eisenhower structure successfully.

The Bush administration ignored the useful lessons of past presidencies. The Princeton University scholar John DiIulio, the first head of Bush's Office for Faith-Based Initiatives, told the writer Ron Suskind: "There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of policy apparatus."

Nor did the administration seek honest numbers and analyses as a guide for choosing among policy alternatives. Bush and his small inner circle made decisions based on their unchallengeable beliefs and sought confirming evidence without much concern for its validity.

Not using the available tools and techniques of modern governance is so dangerous because it disfigures the entire decisionmaking process. Without a modern policy apparatus, all decisions and the resulting policies and outcomes are much more likely to be of inferior quality.

The analysis of Bush's fiscal policies in our new book The Politics of Bad Ideas graphically documents the great harm to the nation from this gross misgovernance. Wrongheaded decisions came from unsubstantiated beliefs and ideological convictions, not the hardheaded analysis of hard numbers. With their decisions based on fixed beliefs rather than sound analysis, the administration proved incapable of altering flawed policies in the face of contrary evidence.

Ultimately, Bush's intransigence pushed the federal government toward fiscal insolvency and the broad American middle class into the worst financial straits in the postwar era. The American economy has not been so close to falling off the precipice toward second class economic status since the Great Depression.

The Office of Management and Budget's recent forecast of a record (in dollar terms) federal deficit of $482 billion -- a forecast that omits $80 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan -- is almost certainly too low. This low-ball forecast is one more indicator of America moving toward fiscal insolvency and second-class economic status.

If another dysfunctional president is elected in 2008, the nation is likely to be pushed over the ledge into an economic free-fall, unless as the British jurist, historian, and politician Lord Bryce is reputed to have written: "Providence has under its special care children, idiots, and the United States of America." Just to be safe, however, let us summarize what is needed for the next president in order to develop, sell, and manage reasoned economic policies with a reasonable chance of success.

The first requirement for the next president is the political skills to mobilize support for his objectives and policies. However, a president cannot succeed by being mainly or exclusively a premier political leader. The Founders made him the chief executive with the fundamental task of managing the executive branch. This charge simply cannot be delegated or ignored.

No matter how much staff help the next president has, he personally should possess both a high level of knowledge in the key policy areas and a probing mind to provide direction to the policymaking process. Given the overriding economic and budgetary problems, he has got to be conversant with the relevant economic concepts.

The job description is mindboggling. It could be that the candidate most fit for the task at hand has already been eliminated, and neither of the two remaining in the presidential race measure up. That should not be assumed at this point. Much more needs to be known about both candidates managerial capacity.

Voters have a hard job in assessing the presidential candidates' needed skills, particularly those required for effectively managing the government. To make matters worse, little help has come from a media obsessed with the horse race that focuses too little on policies and even less on governing.

Optimism is hard to come by, but recall that an ordinary president did manage effectively with an Eisenhower-type governing system. The media may rediscover its commitment to inform and educate, especially if pushed by the public.

Or, Lord Bryce could still turn out to be right just in the nick of time after the terrible damage done by the Bush administration's gross misgovernance. Don't count on it. And don't ignore that the stakes are high. The presidential election of 2008 is the most critical one since 1932.

Walter Williams is Distinguished Fellow, Center for American Politics and Public Policy and Professor Emeritus, Evans School of Public Affairs. Bryan D. Jones is Donald R. Matthews Distinguished Professor of American Politics and Director, Center for American Politics and Public Policy. Both are at the University of Washington, Seattle and coauthors of The Politics of Bad Ideas (Pearson Longman, 2008).

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