Obama, progressives and the centralization of power

Former Bush 43 advisor Karl Rove has an insightful article in today’s Wall Street Journal about how the staffing and organization of the West Wing reflects both policy priorities and governance at the highest levels. Rove observes that Obama is on track to almost triple the number of top advisors in the West Wing, moving key political positions from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building across the street into the White House. In doing this, Obama is consciously changing the fundamentals of how polcy will be made in his Administration.

Under Mr. Obama, the political director won’t be in the EEOB, where other presidents have placed him. He’ll occupy a West Wing office usually given to the head of presidential personnel. That’s a sign of the importance of politics for Team Obama. This is one of many of Mr. Obama’s changes to the management structure of the White House that will likely undermine his stated aims and create a more centralized and possibly incoherent policy process.

More importantly, policymaking will be even further centralized in the White House, diminishing the role and independence of cabinet secretaries even more (in a trend that accelerated under Bush). This is implicit in Obama’s decision to create “policy czars”–Daschle on health care, Summers on economic policy, Browner on environmental policy–to coordinate priorities and policies across the executive branch. Thus, cabinet secretaries (and their staffs) won’t have the influence or the authority they’ve had in the past. Their tasks will be much more administrative, and much less policy.

Aides say Mr. Obama believes the cabinet structure is “outdated.” His appointment of czars to oversee technology, automotive and environmental policies underscores this belief because each new czar weakens cabinet and agency involvement in policy decisions. The White House has always had overlapping lines of authority, which creates a certain amount of conflict while everyone figures out who really has clout. But Mr. Obama has added to the confusion by making declarations that multiple people in his cabinet or on his staff have more authority and responsibility than their predecessors. In addition to creating a protracted power struggle within the West Wing, Mr. Obama’s management decisions may lead to more intrusive, larger government policies gaining traction. Why? Because left-leaning aides will be unimpeded by the White House’s budget director or cabinet secretaries as they push new policies.

What Rove doesn’t say is that these changes are very consistent withh Obama’s progressive political views, where government is both a change agent and an arbitor for the public good in most matters of social (and economic) policy. Progressives believe in centralized power because they largely adhere to a “public intererst” view of government, which de-emphasizes the potential for public sector abuse and dismissing the inherent conflict between individual freedom and bureaucratic and legislative approaches to policymaking. Individual behavior is bounded by public “values” as embodied in government-centered policymaking. Obama’s reorganization of the White House staff can be seen as a logical extension of the scientific public management ideas that extend at least as far back as Woodrow Wilson. (My public administration professors in grad school are probably having a field day in class!) We are indeed in for “real change,” although most reading this blog are likely to believe this isn’t change we should believe in.