Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who has covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

March 4, 2009


Sam Smith - There's an awful lot we don't know about Obama. That's not surprising; that was part of his campaign strategy, sort of like going into a restaurant and buying dinner without a menu.

But some hints are taking form. One that should be of concern is what might be called a tendency towards technocratic autocracy. This is quite different from the blatantly unconstitutional destruction of the system by Bush & Company, but that doesn't mean it should be ignored. A system can wither as well as collapse.

In his relations with both Congress and officials at the state and local level, Obama presumes a superior role that reflects not only a personal view but also a somewhat indifferent attitude towards others in our federal system.

This is not to say that he doesn't have a long list of role models among his predecessors, only that in his early actions he seems disinterested in returning balance to our system and desires to empower the presidency even more. And because the media is massively indifferent to such issues, it doesn't even mention them except in passing.

Take the budget. The way the media covers the budget and the White House acts, one might assume that Congress' job is merely to nod its head in agreement with the president. We are miles from the time when James Madison called Congress' real budget powers "the most complete and effectual weapon with which any constitution can arm the immediate representatives of the people."

As the former member of Congress Lee Hamilton has described it:

"Accustomed as we are to the President laying out the agenda for how the federal government ought to raise and spend the people's money, for most of our nation's history it was different. The framers of the Constitution were quite explicit in giving Congress, rather than the President, the authority to tax and spend. . . In fact, before 1921 the President didn't even prepare an overall budget proposal; instead, the various executive-branch agencies sent their requests for funding directly to Congress.

"All of this began to change as the power of the presidency increased during the New Deal and World War II. More recently, however, what began as a re-balancing of budgetary initiative has become a wholesale shift in power far beyond anything this nation has encountered before. If there is comprehensive debate over budgetary priorities these days, it takes place within the administration, as the various agencies and departments argue with the powerful Office of Management and Budget over their funding levels. Debate and votes within Congress, where the heart of our democracy is supposed to lie, often feel like an after-thought and, at best, affect the budget only on the margins. In a major reversal of roles, Congress has put itself in the position of influencing the budget only through 'vetoing' presidential spending proposals, which it is generally reluctant to do. The Founders would be flabbergasted by this development."

The bank bailout - and the reluctance of administration officials towards revealing what is really going on - reflects how far we have moved in this direction. Underlying the attitude is a presumption that wisdom, knowledge and righteous decisions properly reside in a few technocrats like Tim Geithner. There is no constitutional or logical basis for such a presumption, only precedent that has grown like kudzu vine over our system.

Similarly the media thought it was quaint at best that Senator Robert Byrd raised questions about Obama setting a new record in the czarization of the White House. These czars, who require no Senate confirmation, are diminishing the role of the constitutionally created cabinet positions. As Byrd rightly said, "The rapid and easy accumulation of power by White House staff can threaten the Constitutional system of checks and balances. At the worst, White House staff have taken direction and control of programmatic areas that are the statutory responsibility of Senate-confirmed officials."

Wrote Byrd to Obama, "Too often, I have seen these lines of authority and responsibility become tangled and blurred, sometimes purposely, to shield information and to obscure the decision-making process."

Reported the NY Times: "Byrd, who carries a copy of the Constitution with him and often cites it in floor speeches, said the czars are not accountable to Congress or to Cabinet officials and rarely testify before congressional committees."

Besides the expanding number of czars we have more traditional bodies such as the National Security Council and presidential advisors in various fields who alter substantially the constitutional architecture of our government while making it more difficult for others to know what they're up to or for Congress to get answers. Obama has not only embraced this technocratic autocracy, he has enlarged it.

Two places you can see this happening is in health care and education. Obama - who has no medical degree or experience - is presuming to exercise extraordinary power over American medicine, beginning with his privacy-damaging medical records plan. It seems logical to the technocratic mind - neat and orderly and efficient - but, in fact, if carried out as planned, anyone on drugs, who is an alcoholic, or has mental problems can reasonably expect this information to be available to an assortment of the improperly curious, ranging from the federal government itself to local law enforcement and employers. It's not meant to happen, but neither was NSA wiretapping of our phones or the problems with computerized voting.

Those who propose reforming health care in the least intrusive manner - through single payer or expanded Medicare - can't even get a seat at the White House table even as the technocrats happily rearrange things to satisfy their view of efficiency.

The problem in education is similar, an assumption that White House appointees know more than teachers or principals, that the corporate model that so disastrously failed our economy will work in our schools, and that our students are there to become obedient drones of the American system, answering questions right on tests but not having the slightest training in imagination, cooperation, creativity or all the other things that make a system thrive. Our new education secretary even wants to cut the length of summer vacation.

Mind you, we're not talking politics here so much as personal values as applied to a system of government. The Obama administration has a high proportion of well educated people in limited fields with a somewhat limited view of life yet expansive views of their own ability that one gains from such an education. Such people are useful but need to be well balanced by others.

That's the sort of thing our founders understood and we seem to have forgotten. When Obama scolded mayors and governors about filing proper reports on funding from the stimulus, his attitude was that of a CEO and not as the president of a federal system. If, in fact, the stimulus had been prepared in a wiser and more democratic spirit, many more funds would have been passed to the state and local level without federal prescription and proscription.

So the morning line on the Obama crowd is this: because of what they think they know, they feel entitled to use their position of power to make others accept what they think is best. This is not so much a reflection of ambition as it is of admiration of their own presumed skills and knowledge. It will be our task to teach them to respect the constitution, the importance of the devolution of power, the value of common sense as well as learned knowledge, the true distribution of wisdom, the proper limits of government and the fact that we elected them to help us, not to tell us what to do.


Anonymous wellbasically said...

"All of this began to change as the power of the presidency increased during the New Deal and World War II"

Yes yes yes yes

March 4, 2009 11:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This technocratic arrogance is cribbed from the "scientfic" community, which is at least as dangerous and (yes) irrational as religious groupings.

The overall trend in the USG shows one thing clearly: we're no different than the hundreds of nations that came before us - the same propensity for noble ideas or utter folly. Without getting past American exceptionalism, evolving out of this tailspin simply won't happen.

Thanks again, Sam.

March 5, 2009 10:28 AM  

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