The governor of Maryland is a long shot for the White House—and the best manager in government today.
Within Maryland, O’Malley’s reputation is middling and wrapped up in his rocket-propelled trajectory. He is known to be effective, but also brash and impatient. (He has a habit of feuding publicly with officials who he doesn’t believe are doing their jobs with enough zeal.) At this point, only 17 percent of Marylanders would “definitely vote” for him if he ran for president, according to a recent Washington Post poll, a dismal showing that his critics chalk up to what is often described as his ravenous ambition—a characteristic that has tended to rub people the wrong way.
Outside of Maryland, O’Malley’s reputation is limited for the most part to “Isn’t that the guy from The Wire?” The creator of that famous, and famously cynical, HBO series about crime and politics in Baltimore, David Simon, has said that O’Malley is just one of several inspirations for his fictional, stats-driven mayor, Tommy Carcetti, but it’s an association that has dogged the governor for more than a decade, much to his chagrin.
But for the vast majority of Americans, O’Malley simply has no reputation at all. Last fall, after giving a speech at Senator Tom Harkin’s Iowa steak fry fund-raiser, a local woman told the Washington Post that she thought the speech was fine, but she couldn’t remember who was doing the talking. “Deval Patrick?” she says, mistaking him for the governor of Massachusetts, who is black. “Oh damn Mike McNally? An Irish name?”
The truth is, what makes O’Malley stand out is not his experience, his gravitas, nor his familiarity to voters (Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden crush him in those regards). Nor is it exactly his policies or speeches (New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, both rumored presidential aspirants, have cultivated similar CVs). Nor is it that he plays in a band. Nor is it even the Atlantic’s breathless claim last year that he has “the best abs” in politics. (Beneath a photo of the fit governor participating in the Maryland Special Olympics’ annual Polar Bear Plunge, the author gushed, “What are they putting in the water in Maryland?”) Instead, what makes O’Malley unique as a politician is precisely the skill that was on display in that windowless conference room in downtown Annapolis: he is arguably the best manager working in government today.
That may not seem like a very flashy title—at first blush, “Best Manager” sounds more like a booby prize than a claim a politician might ride to the White House. But in an era where the very idea of government is under assault, a politician’s capacity to deliver on his or her promises, to actually make the bureaucracy work, is an underappreciated skill.
Of course, it was a conservative president who most recently demonstrated his woeful lack of such expertise (see George W. Bush, administration of), but it is the liberal and progressive bloc that stakes its identity on a belief in government, and therefore has a higher stake in getting government management right.
In 2012 Barack Obama cobbled together a motley majority, unified by a shared belief that the federal government can and should play a larger role in solving the country’s common problems. The best way to ensure that voting bloc’s enthusiasm for the Democrats lasts—and the best hope to reduce some of the antigovernment anger on the other side—is for government to deliver results. That means not only passing big legislation, but also making sure that the programs that result, and the rest of the government’s far-flung endeavors, actually work. It means eliminating waste. It means funneling increasingly scarce resources where they can make the most difference. It means making sure that health care access grows while costs stay reasonable; that when hurricanes hit, disaster relief arrives quickly; that big banks don’t implode; that oil rigs don’t explode; that the murder rate goes down and that student test scores go up. What we need in the next president, in other words, is not just creative policy-making and politicking, but a willingness to drive the bureaucracy to perform. He or she must have a passion for managing the government itself.
It’s a tough order to fill. Considering the growing complexity and size of both the federal government and the challenges it has been asked to address, many would characterize it as Sisyphean. But fortunately, over the last couple of decades, through trial and error, new systems of goal setting, data gathering, and accountability have been developed in the public sector that attempt to give elected officials some of the same tools corporate leaders use to demand bottom-line results from their organizations. These new accountability systems are hardly panaceas; in fact, they have disappointed more often than they have succeeded. But it just so happens that the politician who is most broadly recognized to have made them work the best is none other than Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley.
O’Malley comes by his faith in politics and government honestly. His parents, Barbara and Thomas O’Malley, raised their six children in the shadow of two formidable ideologies: the Catholic Church and the gospel of the Democratic Party.
Both archetypal members of the Greatest Generation, Barbara and Thomas met in the early ’50s at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in D.C. Barbara, the product of sturdy, German Democrats from Fort Wayne, Indiana, joined the Civil Air Patrol and got her pilot’s license at sixteen, then volunteered for a local congressman’s campaign. When he won, she followed him to D.C.—a natural fit for a young woman who’d grown up collecting campaign buttons at Democratic rallies. Thomas, to whom O’Malley owes his Irish complexion, joined the Army Air Corps during World War II, flew thirty-three missions over Japan in a bombardier, and returned home in time for the GI Bill to put him through college and Georgetown Law. He later became an assistant U.S. attorney at the Justice Department. He passed away in 2006.
Both Barbara and Thomas were driven by a deep belief in the power of government to do good. On the walls of the O’Malley family home in Rockville, Maryland, there were photos of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr., and dinner table discussions were often about upcoming local and national campaigns. On Martin O’Malley’s second birthday, in 1965, his parents got him a cake that read “Martin for President 2004.” It was a joke, of course, but the message was genuine. “There was always a belief that politics is an honorable profession,” O’Malley said of his childhood.
O’Malley’s devoutly Catholic upbringing, as well as his educations at the Jesuit-run Gonzaga College High School and Catholic University, was also infused with an overarching sense of public, and particularly political, service. It’s impossible, after all, to walk to or from Gonzaga, where O’Malley was in the student council, without being physically aware of the great force of American government. Just step outside, and there it is, the Capitol Dome, looming like a movie set. If O’Malley were to become president of the United States one day, he’d be the first in history to have been born and raised in the D.C. area, with the exception of George Washington himself.
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