Good luck, President-elect Obama, with slashing poor-performing programs.
I hope Barack Obama enjoyed whatever election-night celebration he had on Nov. 4. That's likely to be all the celebrating he'll get to do for quite some time. Because starting on Nov. 5, Obama had to begin making the incredibly abrupt shift from basking in the glow of his historic campaign to building his administration to govern the country. And in the nation's current economic state, that shift has taken on a greater sense of urgency than at any time in recent memory. As Brittany Ballenstedt and Alyssa Rosenberg point out in our cover story this month, Obama's challenge will be somewhat mitigated by the fact that transition planning efforts appear to have taken place earlier and in a more comprehensive way than ever before.
For its part, Obama's team showed an eagerness to hit the ground running. By the end of the week of the election, he had unveiled his new chief of staff and had begun meeting with teams of advisers. That's important, be-cause in addition to figuring out how to fill key positions in his administration, Obama must begin making good on a lengthy list of campaign promises.
But he is faced with a dilemma. Even before the Treasury Department started doling out hundreds of billions of dollars to financial institutions, the federal budget deficit was large and growing. The closest Obama came to a solution to this problem was his campaign pledge to "review the federal budget line by line and eliminate programs that don't work or are unnecessary."
But history is not on Obama's side in such an effort. Take just one agency, the Consumer Product Safety Commission. In a commentary on GovernmentExecutive.com before the election, Paul L. Posner of George Mason University and Steven L. Katz, a former adviser in the Clinton White House, argued that "years of budget reductions
and regulatory constraints left this thinly staffed agency a parody of what a real consumer protection agency should do."
By Obama's calculation, consumer product safety would seem to fall into the category of federal programs that "don't work." So does that mean he'll shut down CPSC? Highly unlikely. In fact, I bet he'll do the opposite in his first budget-propose to beef up the agency to address the issue Posner and Katz raise.
Virtually all presidents declare that they're going to slash or eliminate poor performing programs, and virtually none have any success in actually doing so. Such decisions are and always will be ideological, and thus must be handled in the messy political realm.