Obama and the Institutions

Mark Schmitt has a column out smartly arguing that “Obama’s apparent belief that existing institutions can do what they have so far failed to do — and his resistance to creating new ones — is emerging as an odd, surprising theme of his presidency.” I’m much less sure I agree with Schmitt’s conclusion that this might be a good thing:

It takes some discipline to understand that organizational culture, not organizational structure, determines success or failure. And it takes a lot of patience to wait for an organizational culture to turn around and resist the temptation to add a commission here, a new agency there. Obama’s organizational discipline was the hallmark of his campaign, and we can only hope that his unyielding insistence that “our existing democratic institutions are strong enough” will eventually make them so.

It’s not so much that I do think we need “a commission here, a new agency there” but have been taken aback by the extent to which the administration appears not to believe that substantive and procedural reforms need to go hand-in-hand, especially given that Obama has a substantial background as a political reformer.

It seems to me that presidents’ most lasting achievements are often structural/institutional in nature. We don’t have a lot of New Deal initiatives still in place, but we definitely do have a modern administrative state. Ronald Reagan didn’t just cut taxes, he indexed tax brackets to inflation and forever changed the politics of taxes. There are a lot of problems with American political institutions. Many of these problems aren’t amenable to immediate and total amelioration. But things could be better. And it’s important for the one person in the planet capable of claiming a general mandate from the citizens of the country to push things in the right direction.