Memo to Obama:

Make government more effective, not smaller

By Ruy Teixeira

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 s you prepare for your State of the Union address, Mr. President, no doubt you’re getting plenty of advice about how you should respond to the two great challenges facing your administration: a stinging 2010 electoral defeat and a sputtering economic recovery. Many of your advisers probably insist that the only way to show the public you “get it” is to promise immediate action to cut spending and reduce the deficit. Otherwise, these arguments run, the independent voters who defeated your party’s candidates in 2010 will turn you out of office in 2012.

Don’t listen to this advice. It is wrong—catastrophically wrong—and if you follow it, your chances of being reelected will decline precipitously. Here’s why.

Voters in November, independents included, were primarily concerned with the state of the economy and the government’s perceived failure to improve it. This is particularly true of bona fide swing voters—independents who are not disguised partisans of one party or the other. These primarily white, working-class Americans are inclined to punish whichever party is in power during an economic downturn, and this time it was the Democrats. In these voters’ eyes, deficits and spending are symptoms of the underlying failure of government to improve the economy. But it is the latter that is the fundamental problem, not the former.

Just how low the deficit ranks as a stand-alone problem can be seen in a couple of postelection polls by CBS/New York Times and Gallup. In the CBS/New York Times poll, a miniscule 4 percent of respondents thought Congress should concentrate first on the deficit/debt problem, compared to 56 percent who thought the economy/jobs should come first. In the Gallup poll, 9 percent thought the budget deficit was the most important problem facing the country, compared to 64 percent who selected jobs/unemployment/the economy as the key predicament.

So you will be unlikely to get much love from the voters if you make progress on the deficit but the economy remains in the doldrums. On the other hand, if we see significant economic improvement, voters aren’t likely to punish you for the size of the deficit. A recent election forecasting model by Yale economist Ray Fair sees you being reelected in 2012 if the economy registers fairly solid economic growth in the period leading up to the election. But that’s a big if.

Therefore, your overriding focus must be on improving the economy any way you can. Push for more infrastructure development, for instance, particularly in the clean energy area. There are other ideas, and none are without political difficulties. But the potential payoff for you and the country’s struggling families is very large. By comparison, immediate steps to cut spending and reduce the deficit will suck demand out of the economy and undercut economic growth, exactly what you and the country do not need.

This is not to deny that there is a serious deficit problem. Part of this will be solved by the return of strong economic growth—growth that would be slowed by immediate spending cuts—since a considerable portion of today’s deficit is cyclical, reflecting declining revenues and increased safety net spending due to the recession. But there is also a structural, long-term component that reflects a current mismatch between revenue sources and spending commitments. That will have to be rectified through a responsible long-term plan. But such a plan does not necessitate and should not include immediate budget cuts.

Finally, action on the deficit, short term or long term, is probably not the best way of addressing concerns about government anyway. Negative feelings about government have been accentuated by its failure to turn around the economy quickly, but they are rooted in a long-standing public perception that public agencies are wasteful and inefficient in how they pursue their goals.

Make no mistake: a more effective government is the public’s priority, not a smaller government. In a survey I helped conduct for the Center for American Progress’s Doing What Works government reform project, we found that, by a decisive 62 to 36 margin, the public said their priority for improving the federal government was increasing its efficiency and effectiveness, not reducing its cost and size. Significantly, we found an identical result among the independents in our survey.

I know that your administration has done some excellent work along these lines. The President’s Management Council has encouraged agencies to set specific high-priority performance goals for themselves. But no one knows about it. Part of the reason is the number of goals across agencies: 128. That’s just too many to be communicated effectively to the public.

What you need is a handful of clear, quantifiable goals that anyone can understand. These goals should tie together the work of several agencies and be presented as a contract between the president and the people. You and other agency leaders should repeat these goals whenever you talk about what you’re trying to accomplish both in the next two years and, if reelected, in the four years after that. And you should emphasize that you are measuring yourself against progress toward achieving these goals, progress that the public can monitor on a government Web site.

There is good reason to believe this approach would work. In our poll, when we asked the public about a range of possible government reforms, the most popular was to require federal agencies to set clear goals measured by real-world results. Eighty-two percent of the public thought this would be an effective or highly effective reform, with 68 percent saying it would be highly effective (71 percent among independents).

As a guide, consider these goals set by Tony Blair’s New Labour in the run-up to its landslide victory in 1997. They printed them on credit card–sized “pledge cards” distributed to voters. The pledges were:

  • Cut class sizes to thirty students or under for children aged five to seven.

  • Halve the arrest-to-sentence time for young offenders.

  • Cut hospital waiting lists by 100,000.

  • Create 250,000 new jobs for young people.

  • No income tax hikes.

Another example is Bill Clinton’s 1994 promise to put 100,000 new police officers on the street.

The situation in the United States today is, of course, different from that of the UK in 1997 or our country back in 1994, so your goals will be different. But I urge you to begin the process of selecting these goals and emphasize some in your State of the Union address.

One good start would be to highlight all the money that can be saved through various agency reforms: cutting the fat out of federal procurement; modernizing information technology; stopping improper payments; increasing tax compliance; and so on. Estimates suggest such steps could save hundreds of billions of dollars over the time you are in office—not enough to have a huge effect on the deficit, but a fine demonstration of responsible governance. You have already taken some of the reform steps that will do just that. Time to let the public know about them and to commit your administration to a specific savings goal. This will capture attention and is precisely the sort of goal that, if met, could start to turn around the public’s low opinion of the government—without undercutting economic growth.

Photo: Getty Images"

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Ruy Teixeira is a senior fellow at both the Center for American Progress and the Century Foundation and the author, most recently, of Red, Blue and Purple America: The Future of Election Demographics.  
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