Obama Plays Institutionalist?

By , 9 October, 2009, No Comment

Two weeks ago, I mentioned that I was frustrated with Obama’s approach to big international issues like climate change, because it followed his preference for decentralized consensus governance over the institutions and realpolitik of great power diplomacy. (Worse still is the extent to which others seem to buy into his vision.)

On the environment, the opportunity to throw some real institutionalist punches and ram climate legislation through the Senate passed us by in June, when the House passed the bill and the health care debate hadn’t taken over everyone’s attention spans. Being individualists, the Obama-ites failed to think about the institutional structure of the Senate and the fact that it doesn’t take on more than one big bill at a time, as well as about the institutions of other governments who would not, despite their general admiration for Obama, be duped into taking a handshake from him in December instead of real policy commitments to reduce emissions.

That said, there are occasional fleeting moments where it seems that Obama has grown savvy to these problems with his radical individualism. That’s why, as I reported in Fortune today, he’s using the institutions he still has power over (the executive agencies) to regulate individual industries in lieu of getting a comprehensive bill. In some ways, discretionary regulation beats Congressional oversight–career bureaucrats tend to be less beholden to lobbyists. On the other hand, discretionary regulation tends to be less economically efficient in the policies it produces, because industries are considered piecemeal and without proper attention to the way they interact in the macroeconomy. Furthermore, discretionary regulation is, well, discretionary, and doesn’t have any value once power changes hands. Congressional policies, on the other hand, are very hard to undo once they’re in place. Still, is this better than nothing? Hell, yeah.

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