Viewpoint -- Pardon Me

Dec. 21, 2004
Let's not rush to judgment on the Bush Administration

No, this is not going to be still another diatribe about those pardons. Indeed, this commentary is about the Bush Administration and a change in tone and style in Washington, not about the Clinton Administration. It's also about, pardon me, not rushing to judgment. Ever since Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, a certain civility has come to the White House. Perhaps it has a lot to do with a President who, while confident, is not imperial. For example, it's difficult to think of just about anyone in the Bush White House going around his or her duties humming or whistling "Hail to the Chief." The President, in fact, has banished its being played from all but the most formal official occasions. Apparently George Bush doesn't need the Marine Band hailing him to remind him who or where he is. There are reports -- the usually reliable ones, of course -- that White House staffers are being encouraged to lead relatively normal lives, do such things as tend to their children, put in less than 24-hour days, and in general, actually have a life. There are other reports -- presumably reliable, as well -- that White House meetings begin and end on schedule, that agendas are limited and followed, and that once decisions are taken, there aren't hours of post-meeting agonizing or second-guessing. Even the presidential motorcade, really a convoy of motorcycles, big flag-flying limos, SUVs, and ambulances, seems to glide through Washington streets with a lot less siren-wailing than the past. At the same time, there seems to be a real focus to this new Administration; and it seems to be coming from the top. Perhaps this results from the presence of so many senior business executives in the Administration's top ranks. The President and Vice President both have been CEOs. George Bush is the first M.B.A. (Harvard) to be President. Five members of the President's cabinet -- Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony J. Principi, and White House Office of Management & Budget Director Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. -- have been senior officers of U.S. manufacturing companies. There is the impression, indeed it's more than an impression, that Bush & Co. wants to run the U.S. government like a business. Its cabinet secretaries, for example, appear to be the empowered presidents of major results-oriented divisions. And there's a business-like emphasis on measurable results. Secretary of State Colin Powell, also the holder of an M.B.A. (George Washington University), seems eager to break down the bureaucratic walls at Foggy Bottom. He's seeking out the opinions of career personnel and has, in one recent instance, reached down into the organization and brought the front-line "desk" people into a policy meeting on a specific country. It's comparable to the CEO of a manufacturing company turning to a first-line supervisor for ideas, advice, and counsel. But appearances and impressions can be like the shadows on the wall in Plato's allegory of the cave. They are not reality. The Bush Administration has yet to be substantively tested on any of its legislative priorities. For example, despite the House of Representatives' predictable Mar. 8 approval of the individual rate cuts in the President's 10-year, $1.6 trillion tax-relief package, the Senate may condition cuts on the actual existence of now-projected sizable budget surpluses. The Bush Administration has yet to be tested in foreign affairs. It's had the luxury of time to establish some strategies. Tests of its resolve have yet to be passed. More generally the whole matter of producing measurable results in myriad federal programs remains only an intention, a presidential promise. What's more, it's not yet clear what the Bush folks intend to measure. You can count almost anything you want in government, but not every number is a true measure of effectiveness. James T. Lynn, who was director of the White House Office of Management & Budget in the Ford Administration, uses the example of the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). You can count the number of small-business executives that the SBA counsels in a year. But the only meaningful measures of its programs, he insists, are the specific business gains in individual companies resulting from the SBA's assistance. There's also a follow-up question about effectiveness that needs to be asked: Could such aid be more cheaply and productively provided by the private sector? Those who advocate running the federal government like a business "really mean running the government like a well-run business," says Gilbert R. Walker, dean of the Jones School of Management at Rice University in President Bush's home state of Texas, because "not all businesses are necessarily well-run." The Bush Administration is not even nine weeks old. Let's see if the civility holds up. Let's see if it can pass the substantive tests that lie ahead. And, pardon me, but let's not rush to judgment.

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