When Professors Become Presidents

The problem with grand solutions is they often don't work in the real world.

By SHARE
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Quick now. U.S. policy in Syria on one hand; Dodd-Frank, Obamacare and immigration reform on the other. What do they have in common?

The answer is hidden in reports that have the Obama Administration saying both that it is attempting to create a democratic, pluralistic Syria and quickly end the civil war there. The administration has also made clear that it is unwilling to commit American troops, preferring to back the rebels from afar. Meanwhile, it has dithered over supplying arms to the rebels, not being sure which rebels it could trust.

Hmmm. Ambitions for a comprehensive solution; contradictory priorities (quick end to the conflict, no U.S.  troops); horrible execution. Sound familiar?

The mess in Syria starts with the insistence on a global solution not based on any reality independent of the administration's willfulness. Combine that overreach with confusion about priorities. Proceed from there.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

So is the administration's top priority a democratic, pluralistic state?  And is there any foundation among the Syrian people just now for that kind of settlement?  

Or is Team Obama's priority not to get too enmeshed in the bloody conflict? 

Or is the top objective to find a horse to back, if possible, and send it arms and equipment? But then again, the president has resisted sending any "lethal" aide at all.

This is the same kind of grandiosity and conflicting objectives combined with my-way-or-the-highway arrogance, indecision and fumbling that we have seen from the administration again and again on the domestic scene.

For example, did the troubles of American health care really require a global solution? We had a problem with as little as 2 percent of the population, or, according to some, 15 percent. Why, then, instead of addressing the 2 percent or the 15 percent did Obamacare upend the health insurance and delivery system for everyone?  And did the administration's program have to be so administratively complex and at odds with on-the-ground reality that it was almost sure to turn into, in Sen. Max Baucus', D-Mont., words, a "train wreck"?

[See a collection of political cartoons on health care.]

And was it wise to proceed with reforms so sweeping and so intrusive a change when a majority of the American people were passionately against it?

Many of the same questions can be asked about the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, which a number of economists now blame for deepening the recession and slowing the recovery.

At a Federalist Society conference last week, George Mason University Law School professor Todd Zywicki noted that the design of the consumer protection agency that the bill creates simply ignores everything the scholarship of the last several decades has concluded about how to create effective and accountable government agencies. The result has been confusion, administrative overreach and increased reluctance of banks to lend.

At a Claremont Institute meeting in Washington two weeks before that, former George H.W. Bush White House counsel C. Boyden Gray, who has mounted a court challenge to the act's constitutionality, observed that Dodd-Frank conflates the powers of the branches (putting legislative and judicial functions in the executive branch), opening a highway to crony capitalism, i.e., big business-government collusion.

Meanwhile, the best that can be said of comprehensive immigration reform is that this same brand of global-solution overreach has, it appears, produced another train wreck, this time before the legislation was passed, not after.

Much is made, appropriately, of Obama's firsts as a president – first African-American, first post-Baby Boomer. But looking all this, perhaps the more telling fact is that he is also a second: the second college professor.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

The first, of course, was Woodrow Wilson. And Wilson, too, was given to global solutions, upending local populations and traditions, imposing grand visions that were administratively complex, had little prospect for effective implementation and did not enjoy full consent of the governed. The Versailles Treaty – also a catastrophe – could serve as Exhibit A of this professorial approach.

For that is what professors do, isn't it? They theorize comprehensive systems, sometimes very fruitfully, but when their work is to good end, it is always after years of testing and adjustment in the place their students call the real world.

Here is a word of advice to the Obama crowd. Think small. 

Of course effective government benefits from a systemic understanding, but even more it requires particular application. These last five years, there have been too many big bills – vast in length, born of all-encompassing ambition. Each has essentially failed. This is exactly the model NOT to take into foreign policy. Instead, starting in Syria, take a simple and achievable goal, one tightly tied to western interests, and single-mindedly work for it. 

The nation and the world will be better for it.

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