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Democracy (Deep End)

Peggy Noonan was Ronald Reagan’s speech writer and it should be no surprise that she’s also a superb columnist. For instance, here she is writing for the Wall Street Journal about the botched implementation of Barack Obama’s healthcare reforms:

“It’s a shock for most people that it’s a shambles. A fellow very friendly to the administration, a longtime supporter, cornered me at a holiday party recently to ask, with true perplexity: ‘How could any president put his entire reputation on the line with a program and not be on the phone every day pushing people and making sure it will work? Do you know of any president who wouldn’t do that?’ I couldn’t think of one, and it’s the same question I’d been asking myself.”

This is the core of her answer, (but do yourselves a favour and read the whole thing):

“It’s a leader’s job to be skeptical of grand schemes. Sorry, that’s a conservative leader’s job. It is a liberal leader’s job to be skeptical that grand schemes will work as intended. You have to guide and goad and be careful.

“And this president wasn’t. I think part of the reason he wasn’t careful is because he sort of lives in words. That’s been his whole professional life—books, speeches. Say something and it magically exists as something said, and if it’s been said and publicized it must be real. He never had to push a lever, see the machine not respond, puzzle it out and fix it. It’s all been pretty abstract for him, not concrete. He never had to stock a store, run a sale and see lots of people come but the expenses turn out to be larger than you’d expected and the profits smaller, and you have to figure out what went wrong and do better next time.”

“Because he… lives in words”: It’s the truth about Obama, but so many other politicians too – including our own.

It’s also a far better diagnosis of what’s gone wrong than the more usual complaint that modern politicians have ‘no experience of life outside politics’. David Cameron, for instance, spent years outside politics – working for Carlton Communications as its Director of Corporate Affairs. But like Obama’s non-political career, the experience gained was of a parallel world of words, where to say something is to make it real.

Certainly, it explains a lot about Cameron’s record. Consider the way that he made such a big thing of the Big Society and then did so little about it. On the face of it this might seem utterly incoherent. But when words and actions are the same thing to you, there’s no contradiction (though, sadly, no achievement either).

One final excerpt from Peggy Noonan’s article, her description of everyday working practices in the Obama White House:

“Meetings don’t begin on time, there’s no agenda, the list of those invited seems to expand and contract at somebody’s whim. There is a tendency to speak of how a problem will look and how its appearance should be handled, as opposed to what the problem is and should be done about it. People speak airily, without point. They scroll down, see a call that has to be returned, pop out and then in again.”

I’ve no idea how fair this is on the Obama adminstration, but in my experience of British politics, it could be an eye-witness account of every single meeting I’ve ever been too.

12 comments for: Elections are won with words, but governments succeed through actions

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