The Optimist

The occasions on which President Barack Obama says something simply preposterous are rare enough that they ought to attract some attention. Yet it passed almost without notice when, in his May 21 speech on national security, Obama explained that he is opposed to creating a commission to explore the abuses of the Bush years "because I believe that our existing democratic institutions are strong enough to deliver accountability." He continued, "The Congress can review abuses of our values, and ... the Department of Justice and our courts can work through and punish any violations of our laws or miscarriages of justice."

Maybe that's true in an alternate universe. But the idea that America's "existing democratic institutions are strong enough to deliver accountability" flies in the face of all observed reality. For at least eight years, those institutions consistently failed to deliver accountability, and the Department of Justice and courts likewise failed to punish some of the greatest abuses of power in our history.

And little has changed: In the weeks after Obama's speech, Congress was paralyzed over even the least controversial of his proposals, the closing of Guantánamo Bay prison camp, when Republicans claimed that it would result in terrorists being sent to live in your neighborhood.

But 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.

Why surprising? Most presidents, even the most power-hungry, happily embrace the occasional, superficial independent commission. Faced with any tough situation -- September 11, the revelation that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq -- George W. Bush appointed a blue-ribbon commission. It's an easy way to make a problem go away, at least for the next few hundred news cycles. And when such commissions are not providing political cover, they can actually work around congressional dysfunction, with the classic examples being the base-closing commission of the 1990s and Ronald Reagan's 1983 commission on Social Security.

Further, Obama is a political reformer. His professed mission is to change the culture and process of American politics. Reformers invariably love to construct alternative paths around political deadlock, in the form of advisory commissions, citizen assemblies, experiments in deliberative democracy, and more. Yet Obama somehow seems to resist the appeal.

And then, he's a president engaged in an enormous, rapid transformation of economic and foreign policy, a flood of new ideas and legislation. The term "alphabet soup" was first used metaphorically at the beginning of an earlier transformative era, that of Franklin Roosevelt, to characterize the dozens of new entities and new agencies that transformed our small-town capital. Sure, in response to the financial crisis, the administration has offered various versions of the TARP, the TALF, and the PPIP, but all are simply short-term initiatives under existing institutions.

Strange as it is, there is something admirable, tough, and consistent in Obama's cockeyed optimism about our institutions. It's not like he doesn't know that our democratic institutions have failed. Rather, by asserting that they are capable of actually governing, he is, in effect, demanding that they do so, calling them out in much the way that he has called out conservatism: by taking it seriously.

Obama seems to understand that creating workarounds for every problem doesn't necessarily make government work better -- it just makes it more complicated. Creating alternatives to established channels of government lets people off the hook by diffusing responsibility. And it mistakes reorganization for reform, assuming that a different structure will produce a different outcome. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the director of national intelligence doesn't seem to have solved all the problems in coordinating intelligence-gathering and security; rather, like many a corporate reorganization, they just resulted in many wasted months or years and one more layer to manage.

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.

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