The Difference Between Expertise and Intelligence

By , 21 January, 2011, No Comment

There’s a fair bit of web chatter about Peter Baker’s magnum opus in the NYT Magazine on the Obama Administration’s economic policy failures, which doesn’t actually contain much discussion of economics or policy. Why this shocks bloggers is a mystery to me: if the NYTM wanted a deep look at economic policy, they’d have commissioned a piece from David Leonhardt. [Oh, wait, they did that already, three times.] Baker is a political correspondent, and instead of evaluating whether Obama’s economic vision is sound or not, he asks why the Administration failed to provide the public with any vision at all.

As Felix Salmon has noted, the piece places a large share of the blame on Larry Summers (who, as Director of the National Economic Council, was responsible for forging consensus among the President’s economic team, and instead was busy fighting with several of the other key players) and goes a long way towards attempting to exonerate the rest. Salmon correctly adds to Baker’s critique of Summers’ personnel skills a critique of his economic principles, which have never lined up neatly with the Pro-Main Street expectations voters have of this White House.

That’s all fair, as far as it goes, but I don’t think it goes very far. If the crisis in economic policy was mostly due to the specific personalities of the President’s economic advisors, we wouldn’t see the same dysfunctionality and indecision in other areas of policy. And we do. Bob Woodward has chronicled the internal squabbles and lack of clear vision from the Oval Office on foreign policy. Ryan Lizza has written powerfully about the tensions inside the President’s political team and their impact on the failed climate change legislation.

There is a pattern. This President hires smart people, and gives them too much time to debate, remaining agnostic himself until the last moment, at which point he will opt for the most intellectually exciting idea on the table. Two things are missing from this process. The first is any discussion of fast results and feasible implementation. The second is any discussion of goals and ideological principles. This Administration does not know where it’s going, nor does it seem bent on getting there very soon.

Since Obama appeared on the political scene 6 years ago, there has been much handwringing about whether he is a pragmatist or an idealist. Reading Woodward, and Lizza, and now Baker, I am coming to the conclusion that he neither. Rather, he’s an intellect, and by itself, that may be a terrible thing.

Because much like the college student who makes straight A’s writing bold, creative papers about subjects on which he has no in-depth knowledge, this President takes smart people and places them in jobs for which they have no expertise. Hillary Clinton, domestic policy expert, is at State. Leon Panetta, political expert, is at the CIA. Larry Summers, econowonk with known personnel problems is in an oversight role managing people, not policy. And so forth.

Some of these people have adjusted well to their new roles, but most of them have chosen to disregard their brief and advise the President about the things they know best. And the President is–as predicted–trusting to his personal relationships with them to make decisions. The result is chaos: the Budget Director is driving health policy, political directors are driving climate policy, and Larry Summers is bullying his peers because he really ought to be in one of their seats at Treasury or the CEA.

There are multiple lessons to be learned here. First, that Obama lacks policy vision, which is something his critics have been saying for ages. Second, that he lacks an understanding of why expertise and structure matter in running the massive bureaucracy that is the Executive Branch, which should come as no surprise to anyone who listened to him as an anti-establishment primary candidate. Third, that he lacks a sense of urgency to get things done, that his preference for long debate and lots of (unreturned) bipartisan overtures isn’t about cutting a deal (as we’d all assumed so far), so much as it is about waiting around–indefinitely–for a great idea. This, more than anything in the Baker piece, was news to me.

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