The Coming Attack on President Obama's Management Skills

Mitt Romney's greatest strength happens to be one of his opponent's biggest weaknesses.

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Reuters

President Obama is more likeable than his general election opponent. He's sure to tout his success killing Osama bin Laden. And given Mitt Romney's inexperience and support for the unpopular Iraq War, it's going to be difficult for him to profitably challenge the president on U.S. foreign policy. So it's no surprise that Romney's touting his management experience. And trying to create the perception that Obama is in over his head.

Speaking with Hugh Hewitt over the weekend, the former Massachusetts governor gave a portent of things to come. "The people that the president has selected have very little management experience. And like the president himself, who has very little management experience, they have not been able to oversee the operations of government as you would hope they would," Romney said. "Certainly, Fast & Furious falls into that category. In the case of Solyndra, I think what you have there is just a completely misguided approach to the private sector."

The economy aside, this is where Obama is at his most vulnerable, for beyond the present headlines -- the Sunday talk shows were dominated by the story of Secret Service agents seeking prostitutes in Colombia and the lavish 2010 retreat held by the General Services Administration in Las Vegas -- this is a man who campaigned on his ability to change Washington, and whose political agenda is premised on the notion that government can work efficiently.

But he hasn't changed the way Washington, D.C., works. Special interests influence legislation, including his signature health care reform legislation, as much or more than they ever have. And if Obama has been trying to make the bureaucracy more efficient, he's overseen several public failures. Having promised that federal stimulus money would flow to "shovel ready projects," creating jobs even while improving the nation's infrastructure, Obama was later seen acknowledging what many critics warned - it's impossible for the feds to quickly and efficiently build anything.



The Obama Administration's efforts to create "green jobs" have fallen far short of what was promised, as Reuters reports in a detailed analysis that casts Solyndra as just one instance of failure. The Fast and the Furious scandal is surely going to come up in the course of the general election. And the Los Angeles Times is reporting that wasteful spending at the General Services Administration goes far beyond its now infamous 2010 Las Vegas conference. "GSA employees and contractors -- including at least one employee with responsibility for the White House -- line their pockets to the tune of millions of dollars a year, according to reports by the agency's inspector general," the story states. There were in fact "64 prosecutions between October 2010 and September 2011 of people who bilked the GSA by inflating costs, or just flat out stole from it."

Said David Axelrod on Meet the Press Sunday, speaking about Obama: "Well, on the GSA issue he is -- I think it's fair to say apoplectic because we'd made a big effort to cut waste, inefficiency, fraud against government, saved tens of billions of dollars doing it on just this very kind of thing. And so this was very enraging to him." You can see how the comments cut two ways. On one hand, it's an assertion or reminder that the president earnestly tried to cut waste. On the other, it's an admission that whatever steps he took didn't in fact succeed in preventing epic waste.

That's why this issue is so fraught for Obama. It hardly matters if a voter concludes that he's to blame or that this is just how government is. Either way, Obama's promises about making Washington work again are revealed as empty talk, whether because he didn't try or because he did and failed. Damage control is made more difficult by the fact that another scandal could always emerge or get more traction. We've already got U.S. soldiers posing with Afghan corpses. Says Buzzfeed, reporting on another possible candidate, "A State Department official has accused a high ranking member of the diplomatic corps of improper sexual behavior in Iraq."

The Transportation Security Administration is no one's idea of a well-managed agency.

Is it all Obama's fault?

Doubtful.

But it's as awkward for Democrats to argue that Obama is an honest, vigilant, capable leader, and this is just the normal level of nonsense we should expect to see from the federal government. That's the sort of pessimism that makes folks amenable to the notion that our government should attempt fewer things and thereby accomplish them more adeptly and efficiently. Just as Obama's reelection bid depends partly on the economy, including parts of it over which he has no control, he is also partly at the mercy of the executive branch. The more mini-scandals that emerge, the less capable either government itself or its current managers seem. Either way, it helps the Republican keen on cutting government, experienced at analyzing organizational failures, and as uncannily adept at avoiding personal scandal as President Obama himself.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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