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May 20, 2013

The Business of Government

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

You've heard it before. "Government should run like a business." Conservative candidates and office-holders cite it like a mantra. It's often used as an excuse to cut jobs or programs, drawing a parallel with the private sector's focus on shareholder return.


The reply is equally familiar. Government is fundamentally different; it serves a very dissimilar purpose, and is often the court of last resort for the desperate and down-trodden.


Having served in every level of government, and having experienced decision-making at both the legislative and executive levels, I can't help but think that the President of the United States, Barack Obama, could benefit from some private sector business experience.


When he was elected in 2008, you'll recall that his professional experience was principally his work as a college professor, two-term state legislator and his role as a community organizer.


Nowhere in his past was any evidence that he understood the complex functions of a large operating entity. There was no evidence presented during the two year-long campaign that would have led us to believe that Mr. Obama had managed any organization other than his own campaigns.


Frankly, both in 2008 and 2012, it was always more about the other guy than it was about Mr. Obama. In 2008, the campaign was as much about outgoing President George W. Bush as it was about the candidate. In 2012, the focus was on Mr. Bush and GOP candidate Mitt Romney.


President Obama benefitted from a fawning media and a compelling personal narrative. That's what our national politics has become; we're just looking at the wrong things. Maybe the parallel with Vegas magicians is accurate; we get distracted by the empty hand flailing around while the other hand grasps the rabbit's ears.


For almost five years, we've watched the president rumble with the Congress. Since our biases are fed by our respective news sources, the conservatives among us seethe with anger as Fox News tells us that the president ignores the GOP-controlled House and crams his progressive agenda down our throats.


More liberal and progressive Americans stew and fret as MSNBC attacks the heartless GOP as they continually stymie the president's important policy initiatives. Mr. Obama could have kept that routine up for four more years, and would have gone down in history mentioned alongside Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson.


And then, three scandals struck home, in overlapping succession. First, the manipulation of talking points about the Benghazi embassy attack. Next, the use of the regulatory power of the Internal Revenue Service to target the president's ideological enemies. Finally, sweeping telephone records collection by the Justice Department to root out leaks to the Associated Press.


Without breaking down the gory details or reviewing the individual or collective severity, the focus of this column is the stylistic deficiencies that have led the Obama White House to this threshold.


When we re-elected Barack Obama, we chose a man whose story captivated our attention. We found his words and phrasing appealing, and his promise of hope and change heralded a new direction for our national politics.


What we got was an aloof, distanced and distracted leader who prefers to stand before large crowds of adoring fans than working the smoky back rooms of the Congress to get his agenda passed into law.


In Obama’s world, the Congress would pass his bills simply because he said they should. The details of governance become merely process steps, carried out by legions of bureaucrats who must believe in their leader, ergo they will do the right thing, the Obama thing.


Remember Gov. Mitt Romney? That multi-millionaire bad guy who once put the family dog in a rooftop car carrier? That insensitive business executive who rolled around in cash while Americans struggled to pay their mortgages?


If you set aside the character created by Team Obama, if you look past the Monopoly game millionaire stigma, you'd see that executive management experience does still matter.


Mitt Romney built large companies, rebuilt failing organizations, and turned losses into gains. He also ran the State of Massachusetts, functioning very effectively and efficiently in spite of a large disparity in political ideology with the state legislature and bureaucracy.


We can't go back. There is no do-over. But there is no prohibition in saying "I told you so." It's very hard to imagine Mitt Romney allowing these scandals to occur, and it's even harder to imagine Mr. Romney stumbling and fumbling his response in a crisis.


You see, a real leader doesn't blame his employees for a screw up. A real leader doesn't feign ignorance simply because the company is large with many employees and services. A real leader establishes control, takes direct responsibility, and personally manages the crisis.


Unless President Obama hires a strong chief of staff who possesses these characteristics, we can expect more of this in the next three years.


Maybe he could consult with Mitt Romney about how to run a complex organization.


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