In 2009, I warned in this space that Obama CIA nominee Leon Panetta was the most likely leaker of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s “benign neglect” memo to the New York Times in 1970. Moynihan was a Nixon White House aide at the time, and he had written the memo to President Nixon to make the case that “in quantifiable terms, which are reliable, the American Negro is making extraordinary progress.” Because of this, Moynihan argued, the administration should try to promote moderate African-American voices and try to marginalize radicals.
For decades, one common cliché of American campaign rhetoric has been the criticism that presidential aspirants are “measuring the drapes.” When news leaks that a candidate is contemplating his future cabinet, or readying a policy agenda for the first 100 days of his administration, such advance preparation is typically exploited by his opponent as evidence of unbecoming hubris. Our presidential contenders have thus had to tread very carefully, caught between two unpleasant choices: entering the Oval Office underprepared, or risking criticism for seeming to presume a victory not yet won.
This difficult balance was on my mind when, in July of 2012, I was invited to a meeting at the Washington headquarters of the Romney Readiness Project. Known inside the Romney campaign as R2P, the project (which I soon joined as director of domestic policy) was an all-out transition team, assigned to help Mitt Romney prepare for the early personnel and policy decisions he would face if he won in November. Although Romney had long since secured the needed delegates to clinch the Republican nomination, when I attended my first R2P meeting, the GOP convention was still six weeks away and the election was fully four months away. Wasn’t it much too soon to start transition planning?
As I quickly learned, however, the project was a function not of hubris but of a new federal law that will forever change the character of presidential transitions. In an effort to address precisely the impossible choice that presidential candidates face between seeming arrogant and being unprepared, Congress passed the Pre-Election Presidential Transition Act of 2010. The law provides government support — in the form of office space, technology, vetting for security clearances, assistance from federal-agency staffs, and funding — to help presidential challengers begin transition efforts upon receiving their parties’ nominations. Previously, federal transition support had been available only after the election was over. The law thus moved the transition timetable up from November to summer, offering several more weeks of crucial preparation time.
The Republican Party has just come out with a new strategy, and number 13 on its list of demographic outreach priorities is to “Expand our presence on more pop culture oriented outlets to ensure our message is reaching all voters.” This finding may be surprising, and atypical for a political party’s strategy, but it recognizes an important fact: The area where President Obama most out-competed Mitt Romney in 2012 was in the sphere of pop culture fluency.
Throughout 2012, President Obama maintained a laser-like focus not on the economy, but on his cultural image. For a sitting commander in chief, Obama continually demonstrated an unprecedented and often disturbing level of pop culture fluency, showing himself to be up to date on music, movies, and especially TV. Obama, at one time or another, mentioned Homeland, Modern Family, Boardwalk Empire, and Mad Men as among his favorite shows. In addition to being on the cutting edge of the small screen, Obama also knew where to go to demonstrate how hip he was, appearing on more than two dozen “soft” entertainment-style interviews during the campaign. He “slow jammed” the news on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and let Fallon call him the “Preezy of the United Steezy.” He told the deejays on a New Mexico radio station that he likes green chili over red, enjoys working out to Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe, and that his superpower of choice would be the ability to speak any language. He was also a popular guest on Oprah and The View, appearing five times on the latter. At one point, he chose to appear on The View over meeting key world leaders who were visiting the U.S. for the United Nations General Assembly.
Gene Sperling has reserved for himself a special place in Washington lore. In the days leading up to the sequester deadline, the city found itself immersed in a bizarre debate over whether Sperling, an economic adviser to President Obama and a Clinton administration veteran, tried to intimidate The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward by suggesting in an e-mail that Woodward would “regret” his writings about the president’s fiscal policy proposals.
Though the full e-mail message, once leaked, ended up reading far more chummy than threatening — it was virtually “e-kissed,” as one reporter put it — the spat, quickly dubbed “Woodwardgate,” had a compelling historical symmetry to it. The very notion of a senior White House adviser possibly attempting to intimidate an enterprising reporter smacked of exactly the kind of arrogance that Woodward himself uncovered decades ago in his exposes of Richard Nixon’s presidency.
And history shows that, although public respect for the news media currently resides in the basement (along with respect for Congress), press enmity has proved to be an unsustainable — though popular — tactic for the White House.
Two modern administrations in particular made press enmity a guiding force in their communications and political strategy: those of Nixon and Lyndon B. Johnson.
The White House has argued that the March 1 sequester of federal spending — a cut of approximately 5 percent from the domestic-spending programs covered by the sequester requirement, along with 8 percent cuts to defense programs — will bring about the most dire of consequences. According to the president, “this meat-cleaver approach . . . will jeopardize our military readiness [and] eviscerate job-creating investments in education and energy and medical research.”
Maybe more alarmingly, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget issued a press release earlier this month claiming that the cuts in federal spending “could” force reductions in food inspections, which “could” lead to outbreaks of more food-borne bacteria, such as E. coli. Administration officials and their allies are making similarly alarming claims regarding what “could” happen to workplace safety, law enforcement, and education.
It seems clear that the administration has the capacity to make sequestration’s impact excessively unpleasant, and these statements could make one wonder whether the administration is determined to do so. But does a sequester have to be disastrous? Could the White House wield the scheduled cuts in such a way as to minimize the impact felt by the American people? Our experience inside the executive branch suggests that this is indeed the case: The administration could have prepared for the sequester in ways that would steer cuts toward less sensitive programs and activities. In fact, it still has the capacity to adjust some, although certainly not all, of the ways in which the sequester is applied.
Let’s start with the big picture. The total amount of the sequester’s cuts — $85 billion in 2013 — is just 2.4 percent of a $3.6 trillion budget. Even with the cuts, total spending in 2013 will exceed what was spent in 2012. Indeed, federal spending has been roughly $600 billion higher during the last four years than it was in 2008, and the sequester will hardly offset that overall increase. The size of the sequester barely exceeds the $80 billion or so of new spending that was recently appropriated for Hurricane Sandy relief.
Published for Commentary Magazine, February 21, 2013
ObamaCare survived both the Supreme Court challenge to its constitutionality at the beginning of 2012 and the election close to year’s end. With these obstacles to its existence vaulted, the health-care plan can not be repealed before its full implementation begins in 2014. Even so, this disastrous piece of legislation is actually facing its greatest challenge yet. The Obama administration must now begin putting the practical pieces of its byzantine law into effect.
ObamaCare, all 2,700 pages of it, is being activated in two phases. First is the imposition of new rules and regulations on insurers, a process that has already begun. It is now clear that the law will not curb rising health-care costs, as its advocates heatedly and repeatedly promised during the year leading up to its passage in 2010. Led by the president, they claimed the new law would reduce health-insurance rates by $2,500. Since its passage, rates have instead gone up by more than $3,065—a spread in excess of $5,500 per family. Even more requirements will mean even higher costs. And more requirements are coming.
The second phase is more troublesome. The law calls for the establishment of 50 health-care “exchanges,” one per state. The battle over the development of these exchanges will dominate the health-policy debates in 2013, and the ultimate disposition of that battle will tell us most of what we will need to know about the future of innovation and access to medical care in our system.
What is an “exchange”? Exchanges are, quite simply, organized marketplaces aimed at facilitating the purchase of insurance. While the ObamaCare law calls for them to be state-run and regulated heavily by the federal government, they could also be quasi-governmental or nongovernmental. Exchanges are not insurers themselves, but they work with private insurers and give insurers a platform for selling their products while making it easier for individuals to purchase insurance.
2013 will be a crucial year in the implementation of Obamacare, and a central focus of the Obama administration. Thus far, the Obama administration’s emphasis has been on standing up the program’s basic edifice for the long run rather than making sure it rolls out smoothly. Once erected, the law’s dictates will transform the underlying architecture of the American health care system – perhaps permanently.
Given these stakes, Obamacare’s critics cannot afford to spend the next year on the sidelines and accept its intrusive excesses as the new status quo in American healthcare. Opponents must change their approach to the law, pursuing reforms that thwart its most invasive elements while laying the groundwork for a market-based makeover. This won’t be easy, of course.
With Republicans in control of the House, conservatives must develop a list of workable reforms to Obamacare that they can pursue in exchange for deals with the Democrats on debt ceiling hikes and the litany of thorny budget deals going forward.
Political considerations aside, it starts with making sure that our current system works for all Americans. That means reforming Obamacare’s immediate woes.