It's no coincidence that a Nobel laureate, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, serves in the cabinet nor that Chu was
dispatched to BP headquarters
in Houston to brainstorm and advise. Surrounding himself with the
best and brightest and relying upon their advice has always been the
president's modus operandi.
Obama addressed the financial crisis by heeding the counsel of his economic
team, particularly that offered by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner
and by Larry Summers, director of the National Economic Council. His
trust in them stemmed from their expertise gained battling the emerging
market crises of the 1990s. Agreeing
to Geithner's "stress tests'' of
ailing banks when critics were roundly panning the idea couldn't have
been easy. But Obama was persuaded on the merits. In hindsight, that
looks like the right decision.
The main components of the health care bill owed a similar debt to expert
thinking. Take cost containment. In 2008, the Congressional Budget
Office published a dense study of the efficacy of 115 possible changes
to the health care system, many designed to save money. Nearly all of
them were incorporated into the legislation. And Obama chose the study's
director, Peter Orszag, to run his Office of Management and Budget.
The enormity of the Gulf crisis is shocking. But it should come as no shock that Obama originally put his trust in the oil industry, since that's where the bulk of expertise
about offshore drilling lay.
After eight years of watching George W. Bush govern by impulse and emotion,
there's a lot to be said for a president who prefers an analytical
approach. The cartoonish Fox News image of Obama-as-radical-socialist
could hardly be more wrong. He and his top advisers more closely
resemble a team of white-coated
lab technicians engaged in earnest
argument about the best public policy. But there are limits to what
experts know -- a notion the president seemed reluctant to accept even
after the disaster struck.
When he made his ill-chosen comments about oil-rig safety, Obama wasn't
making an ideological statement or siding with corporate interests over
the public interest as a matter of principle. In this regard, he differs
from Bush, even though both found merit in expanding offshore drilling.
Obama was reaffirming his faith in expert opinion, which, until the
Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, suggested to him that
drilling in mile-deep water is safer than we now know it to be.
spotty safety record might have given him pause.) The
distinction is an important one. Bush holds an unshakable faith in
industry's ability to operate safely regardless of whether or not the
facts support it. Obama's faith derives from an assessment of the
facts, and those have now changed.
That's no comfort to the president. Expertise has failed him in a big way. But it can be a small comfort to the rest of us. Going forward, he's bound to put more stock in
skepticism and common sense.
Joshua Green writes a weekly
column for the Boston Globe.