Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Rumors of Competence: Obama's First Day
Are there any allegorical figures for political competence? Allegorical figures of liberty like Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People above are famous. Figures of justice, virtue, and wisdom also abound. But what about the know-how it takes to enact what is right in a complex and contraditory environment?
What about competence?
In some ways, political competence is more like an artisan skill than anything else. In political competence, elements of creativity and technical skill are mobilized to provide a practical benefit for others. The Bush administration put such a high value on values, loyalty, and membership in the conservative movement that they downgraded competence as a political virtue. The Bush people didn't want to promote peace in the Middle East or solve the problems betweent he U. S. and Iran. So there was no question about employing competence in these areas. They didn't want to forcefully regulate the financial industry, pharmaceuticals, or agriculture either. The Bush people let FEMA fall apart and haven't put it back together again despite Katrina.
It will take a long time for the federal government to regain the competence level it had when George Bush took the oath of office in 2001.
But there is a rumor of competence on the horizon. According to The Jewish Week, the Obama administration is going to appoint George Mitchell as special envoy to the Middle East. Mitchell is a former Senator and Democratic majority leader from Maine who was instrumental in forging peace between the Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. Given that Mitchell has such a stellar reputation for persistence, even-handedness, and integrity, appointing him would be a sign that Obama wants to forge a comprehensive peace in the Middle East. According to The Jewish Weekly, the Bush administration was mainly interested in letting the Israelis do what they want. Therefore they did not need or want somebody as competent as Mitchell to work on a settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians.
But the rumor of Mitchell's appointment is a sign that the Obama administration might actually want to accomplish something.