Thursday, May 13, 2010

"Competence Is the Antidote to ... Sick Feeling about Public Authority"

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. pointed out recently that "this moment's anti-government feeling reflects two entirely different strains of thinking."

One strain, he wrote, is "exemplified by the tea party movement, opposition to government bailouts and an absolute hatred of Congress. This is the old-fashioned, garden-variety conservatism that somewhere between a fifth and a third of Americans have long subscribed to. These are the citizens you see on television at the anti-Obama rallies, the members of Congress who give speeches denouncing 'overregulation,' and the think tankers who insist that the private sector always performs more efficiently and effectively than 'government bureaucrats.'"

But Dionne observes that, apart from the tea-baggers, there is a "more important and dynamic force" at work. These are Americans who believe that government can work and should work, but who are distressed at how badly government has failed to work over the last decade or so:

"They do not think that the market is automatically rational or that the government has to be dumb. They are not fed up with government because their ideology or philosophy tells them to be but because they don't think government has been doing a proper job of promoting prosperity, equity and fair dealing."

These Americans, Dionne argues, are still just begging for President Obama to bring on change they can believe in. The trouble is that competent governance cannot be wished into being overnight and that so far Obama's team has not done a very good job of demonstrating government's competence.

Dionne sees the cooperative effort between street vendors and police in preventing the recent attempted car-bombing in Times Square as a basic model for how government needs to partner with private citizens. Obama's challenge is to deliver a lot more instances of this model in action:

"Conservative ideas generally gain ground when government is discredited.

"But progressives who insist on government's constructive role can't succeed unless they persuade voters that public agencies are up to the missions they undertake.

"Starting with the newly urgent threat of domestic terrorism and the environmental disaster in the Gulf, the administration does not lack for obvious challenges to which it must respond effectively. Competence is the antidote to the electorate's sick feeling about public authority."

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