In the Arena


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Charles Dharapak / AP

President Barack Obama speaks about the initial rollout of the health care overhaul in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington on Oct. 21, 2013

The President is responsible for the quality of his Administration.

I’ve been reading Tom Ricks’ excellent book about military leadership since World War II, The Generals. In it, Ricks argues that one of the reasons  we were able to win World War II was that Generals George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower were absolutely brutal when it came to relieving field commanders who were not up to the job–and also discerning enough to leave politically incorrect, but brilliant, leaders like George Patton in their positions. He also argues that in the subsequent, cold-war bureaucratization of the military, this rigorous practice has been largely abandoned.

Firing for cause doesn’t seem to exist in the Obama Administration, either. The most high-profile government officials who were removed from their positions over the past five years were the two Air Force generals who were responsible for the sloppy handling of nuclear weapons; Secretary of Defense Robert Gates–perhaps the best cabinet officer in both the George W. Bush and Obama Adminisitrations–ordered both firings.

There may have been other high-profile dismissals over the past five years, but I can’t remember them. People like Larry Summers haven’t been hired, but few have paid the price for the Administration’s errors. This isn’t only an Obama problem; mistakes are inevitable in any administration–and most recent Presidents have taken far too long to rectify their blunders. (George W. Bush, for example, took six years to get rid of the execrable Donald Rumsfeld and replace him with Gates.)

Still, I expected more from Obama. I expected more at the Veterans Administration, since the President said that making sure that our veterans received the best treatment really mattered to him. It is remarkable that five years on, Obama still hasn’t resolved the dispute between the VA and the Department of Defense about providing a unified electronic medical records system that would follow active-duty personnel into retirement. The waste, heartache and delay caused by his inaction is appalling.

And I certainly expected more from the Affordable Care Act, since it is the most significant piece of social welfare legislation since the 1960s, and an absolutely crucial piece of our social safety net going forward. It is early days for the ACA and we should reserve judgment about whether this legislation was just too big and complicated a mess to implement. But, surely, SOMEONE–maybe many people–should be fired for these opening pratfalls. And we should also be able to get some of our money back from the private contractors who failed to implement the exchanges.

There is a larger point here. It lies in the nature of government work. It is near-impossible to fire anyone in the civil service–and without the fear of firing, the incentives for hard work diminish. (There are also very few rewards for finding creative solutions.) This is the 130th anniversary of our Civil Service system, enacted by Chester Alan Arthur. It may have been a good thing in 19th century, when even Abraham Lincoln was hiring political hacks to run the post offices–but it has transformed agencies like the VA and HHS into lugubrious sludge glaciers in the 21st century.

The President should set the tone for the way the federal government operates. This President hasn’t done that. He still has three more years in office to get it right, perhaps even to propose some radical changes in the work rules governing federal employment. He could even force DOD and VA to agree on the unified electronic records system that he promised.

Otherwise, there is a danger that the Obama Administration will be remembered as not even good enough for government work.