February 27, 2009

Just call it like it is, after you've paid your dues

It looks like a bunch of interested parties are starting to judge the Obama administration based on its appointments and early policy direction. And that's just fine. But when there's Fordham's Reform-a-meter, and Diane Ravitch proclaims Duncan's USDOE to be Bush's third term, I'll chime in with Fred Klonsky: judge people for what they do, but remember the context.

Thus far into the Obama administration, I'm fairly sure on the majority of key issues where I'm going to agree with the administration on education policy, where I'm going to disagree, and where I'm not going to be sure or not going to care. That leaves some issues where it's not clear where the Obama administration is going. I'm willing to call out administration officials when they make mistakes, as well as give them credit when they shove things in the right direction.

There's a totality to be considered: even if the Obama administration goes way too far in the direction of paying teachers for student test scores, they still get credit in my book for pushing a recovery package that will save thousands of teachers' jobs (even if the package was too small). And for proposing to index Pell grants, shift all subsidized loans to the direct program, etc. If you really expect to agree with everything a president does, you need to run for the office yourself. Other than that, expect to disagree with a few hundred decisions of the person you voted for, because presidents make thousands of decisions every year.

Case in point: FDR, who did a bunch of great things, but here's an incomplete list of the completely sucky actions of his administration during 12+ years in office ("completely sucky" is a technical term in policy evaluation):

  • Forcing Japanese Americans into internment camps during WW2
  • Allowing the Federal Home Loan Bank Board to create redlining
  • Not pushing Congress on anti-lynching legislation
  • Not putting more teeth into the Fair Employment Practices Commission
  • The practices of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, which gave landowners in the South an incentive to push tenant farmers and sharecroppers off the land
  • The court-packing scheme
  • Deciding to cut back on stimulus spending early in his second term, which created the 1937 recession within the depression.

The stupid or immoral decisions did not eliminate the great ones, nor the converse. In the same way that book reviewers have an obligation to recognize what authors are trying to accomplish, there's a similar obligation when evaluating a segment of an administration's policies: pay your dues to the context and then call it like it is. The Bush administration was a disaster in many, many ways, so the fact that it pushed assistance with AIDS responses in Africa was a tiny good thing in a morass of incompetence. I suspect that my long-term evaluation of the Obama administration will be the converse in many ways.

And right now, like Paul Krugman, I'm more worried about the economy than performance-pay policies.

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Tags: Barack Obama
Posted in History on February 27, 2009 9:09 AM |