How Joe Biden 're-ignited our government engine' after Donald Trump's damage

How Joe Biden 're-ignited our government engine' after Donald Trump's damage

What is the source of American power? What, to reclaim a denuded phrase, makes America great? Not the biggest economy, the most powerful military, nor the most coveted cultural icons.

Those are end products, not causes.

They beg the question.

Our strength derives from basic factors: openness to ideas, exchange of argument and ability to process information into good decisions.

If these seem like fuzzy qualities, they’re not.

Economists generally agree our greater capacity to innovate and our superior ability to process complex information in a modern economy won the economic battle of the 20th century. Our relative wealth and qualitative technology advantage flowed into military might.

That combination won the Cold War.

Our federal government plays a central role in that story.

At its best, it reflects the same advantages. That has rarely been clearer than in the way the administration under President Biden has navigated the crisis in Ukraine, displaying forethought and balance, innovating in information warfare, leading and reinvigorating our alliances in Europe, carefully calibrating devastating sanctions, and avoiding disastrous missteps that could lead to World War III.

None of this happened by accident.

Read this description from Max Bergmann, a former senior State Department official, of how our government’s process works (or is supposed to, when it is well-run) in a situation like we face right now:

There are countless inter-agency meetings. There are conversations happening on defense, on military assistance, on sanctions. Experts are exchanging information and ideas.

If State says “we need to turn the screws more on Russia on energy,” Treasury might say, we have some concerns – and then they’ll work together to figure out how to make it work, while someone from Energy will describe where our oil comes from and where we could get other supplies.

Then we might bring in the Middle East experts. Oftentimes there'll be a meeting and then you realize there's like eight other things you need to find out.

Eventually you might develop four different options, but then two options will go up further to the secretaries and the president.

And sometimes the president says “I don't like any of these options, bring me more” and then it kicks back down.

Bureaucratic and even a bit tangled? Sure.

Our system produces plenty of mistakes.

But notice the virtues: the tremendous amount of information we harness, the constructive argument, and the ability to give the big boss information he may not want to hear.

Contrast that with the disconnect, both physical and mental, between Russia’s leader and the system he presides over – whether he is sitting a field goal’s length from his advisors or overseeing a bizarre, fake “exchange of views” before berating the head of his spy service for blowing the pre-arranged script.

So why, as Bill Clinton would say, am I telling you this?

Because few people fully appreciate the true significance of the executive branch agencies in our federal government, how badly former President Trump damaged them and how much value we are thereby getting out of electing Joe Biden as president.

As Michael Lewis showed in his book The Fifth Risk, the federal government is the greatest information collection and processing machine ever devised by humankind for making better decisions and driving a nation’s business and economic success.

Trump Russia-fied it.

He rifled through his rolodex of oligarchs and installed sycophantic bumblers (a man who couldn’t recall the existence of his agency), ideologues compromised by foreign governments, grifters and corporate raiders on the make into key leadership positions.

The most senior leaders seemed to neither know nor care what their job was while experienced government professionals in the levels below stood aghast at the wreckage to good government.

Trump not only failed to leverage the potential of the system (unsurprising from a man who believed that he “alone” could fix things), he pulled a full Putin by outright ignoring the collective smarts of his massive support structure whenever he was seized by a fantastical notion or random whim.

The most famous incidents varied from the comic (think sharpie-hurricane), to the tragi-comic (injecting disinfectant), to the downright tragic (the Syria withdrawal that even leading Republicans called “disastrous” and a “betrayal”).

But the damage went much deeper.

The federal agencies are not just a source of knowledge and idea generation to support decision-making at the top.

They are the workhorses of governing in America.

In fact, given the relative dysfunction of the Congress, executive branch agencies are where most policy affecting people’s lives is made.

And it’s a normal function of any administration to use the might of federal agencies to push through their preferred policy agenda.

So even when Trump wasn’t filling the government with incompetence or larceny, his agencies were still implementing a lot more policy with real consequences than people realize.

The internet is replete with lists (here’s a great example) of how much happened each week during Trump’s four years. It is noteworthy that not all of it was rightwing – and whether by inertia or design not all of it was bad – but much of it was, and the net effect was profound.

Uber drivers lost health insurance, nursing home residents could be forced into arbitration, more defrauded students will be compelled to repay student loans, and safety measures for toxic chemical exposures in the construction industry were rolled back, to name a tiny fraction.

Not to mention the invaluable data that has fueled waves of innovation and economic growth that was diverted to Trump cronies.

All of which is why the “Biden dividend” is so much bigger and more consequential than the paltry amount he gets credit for.

By Merely putting a stop to what Trump’s team had underway as they left office and then issuing “savvy” executive actions that unwound the worst damage, the Biden administration fundamentally changed the substrate of US policy. With agency staff still coming into place and reviews still underway, the most profound impacts are yet to come.

None of this is sexy.

There will be no 30-second ads about agency rulemaking, no bumper sticker slogan about fixing the gears of government.

We won’t hear much in the fall about how Biden’s team gathered data and developed ideas to smartly navigate a great geopolitical crisis.

But make no mistake: Joe Biden has already shown he knows how to tap into the greatest gifts of the American system, and has re-ignited our government engine of policy progress and economic innovation.

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