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What Obama’s Doing Right

As the honeymoon wears off, many progressives have, rightly, been starting to express their disappointments with the president—the abandonment of the public option despite wide majority support, how we’re still in Afghanistan, tepid wrist-slapping of BP—even as we shake our heads at the far worse things the right is doing and inventing to say about him.

It’s funny, in a way, that people worried that Obama was too much of a politician and didn’t have enough experience with the nitty-gritty of governing. Because from where I sit, it’s the high-profile political battles where he often falters, showing that strange Democratic weakness for trying to appease people who only want to destroy you. But when it comes to most of the technical details of running the government—all those executive branch agencies that have a huge, huge effect on our daily lives even though elections rarely rise and fall on them—he’s doing unprecedentedly awesome things. Since I’ve recently had the chance to paw through some of the more obscure corners of the federal budget, I thought it would worth pointing out a few of these hopeful trends:

(1) He’s streamlining government. I know that sounds like a Republican/libertarian catch-phrase, but the thing is, they say it, but they can’t actually do it, because you can’t make something streamlined and efficient if you don’t believe it should exist. In fact, the federal bureaucracy mushroomed under Republican leadership, who add their own pet programs on top of existing ones but don’t provide competent leadership or expend any thought or resources on to how to make it work all together.

Obviously, the Obama administration can’t make that all better with one wave of a wand, but they are making strides in that direction. A couple examples: In the Department of Education, 38 grant programs have been condensed to 11. At HUD, they have embarked on a project to take 13 different rental assistance programs, which have three separate field staffs, conflicting eligibility requirements, and different geographical boundaries, and condense them to one, with regional oversight. This not only saves money, it’s fairer and easier for those assisted (one waiting list to get on) and much more friendly to private owners of assisted housing, who can practically feel the paperwork burden rising off their shoulders.

(2) He’s making the right hand talk to the left. I don’t mean ends of the political spectrum here, just the famously isolated federal agencies who work on related problems but usually with no coordination whatsoever. Traditionally, you’d have transportation investments that were unconnected to housing development, both of which were counterproductive to attempts to support smart growth, clean water, or protected ecosystems. Now you have the Sustainable Communities Initiative, through which DOT, HUD, and EPA are working together to support regional planning that looks at these issues (and economic development) together and are also aligning their own work to support each other. There are a number of other official cross-agency collaborations like this, but even programs within one agency often have the relevant other agencies or programs that they will coordinate with or get advice from spelled out.

Going beyond strict agency turf issues, the structure of the programs themselves—such as the community-based violence prevention initiatives or Promise Neighborhoods, recognize the complexity of systems and the need to approach questions such as reducing gun violence or improving children’s school performance, in a comprehensive way, looking at the whole environment and committing to long-term interventions rather than one-shot (or one-year) splashes.

(3) He’s interested in funding things that work. Competition is another thing that conservatives like to praise in theory but never practice. Most of the new programs that the administration is supporting—Promise Neighborhoods, Choice Neighborhoods, the Social Innovation Fund—are competitive grants, rather than formula grants, with evaluation and measurement components built in so that we will actually know how they turn out and be able to replicate the best ones. And when it comes to sex ed and preventing teen pregnancy, he’s making policy based on effectiveness not ideology. Radical, huh?

(4) He’s investing in infrastructure. It’s not a national infrastructure bank yet, which has disappointed some, but the administration’s proposed $4 billion investment in transportation infrastructure projects “of regional or national economic significance” is a good start. So is the additional money being directed toward things like drinking water infrastructure, weatherization, and green jobs. All of these things will improve the economic competitiveness of the country at the same time as creating high-quality jobs that don’t require advanced degrees. If anything, we need more of this, but at least it’s on the radar.

(5) He’s moving the needs of real people and the places they live back to center stage. USDA is focusing on nutrition, regional food systems, renewable energy, and regional planning. The Department of Justice civil rights and fair housing enforcement divisions are rising from the dead.

Things like these don’t generally cause people to march on Washington, spout lies on talk radio, or donate to political campaigns. But when the dust settles, they are the kind of things that make real differences in people’s lives. There’s certainly a long way to go, but it would be a shame if the hot-button fire fights keep the administration from being able to see the good stuff through.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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