Column: Obama needs to start sweating the small stuff

President Barack Obama likes doing the big things. This is, after all, the man who claimed that his victorious 2008 campaign was "the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal."

He was roundly and rightly derided for the grandiosity of that statement. But it's true that he has done some big things well: speeches, health care reform, even bipartisan gestures, as Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey can attest.

The president is not, however, always so good at the little things. It's why the scandal at the Internal Revenue Service has been so damaging: It's as if big blunders by a second-tier agency aren't something he should trouble his gray head about.

Like most Democrats, Obama wants Americans to trust government to do big things well. Therefore the president might try a kind of broken-windows theory of governing: Fix the small things first and the big things will follow.

By that measure, he would have been invested in making the IRS work. It is the federal agency that most resembles a state's Department of Motor Vehicles, intersecting with the most citizens the most often. Shorten a few tax forms, and the president could instantly improve the reputation of an annual and feared irritant in the side of every citizen.

Because Obama is Too Big To Fret over the little things, they often get Too Big To Fix by the time he does. The current IRS scandal arose not because there was impermissible political interference, but because there wasn't enough political oversight. Obama hadn't appointed an IRS commissioner who would have his back and could have sniffed out a political problem.

Instead, Obama let the most sensitive agency continue under the direction of the previous president's appointee, Douglas Shulman. When Shulman testified in March 2012 about the extra scrutiny given to tea party groups applying for tax-exempt status, he knew nothing about nothing. He wasn't pressed by a Republican committee as a Democrat might have been. (Aside: Why do people assume that only Democrats would want to hobble the tea party? It is much more of a thorn in the side of the Republican establishment.)

The scrutiny was necessary to stop the scam of political groups dressing themselves up in social welfare clothing to get special tax status. An examination of applications by the New York Times shows that some of the groups targeted were openly engaged in political activities.

The only mistake the IRS made was its method. An astute political appointee would have known the Citizens United decision would send a flood of applicants the IRS's way. He would have known many of them would be bogus. But he would have seen this ham-handed shortcut for what it was, and found another way.

Obama does have another chance to make a big effort to save an important agency and help restore faith in government. The Department of Veterans Affairs doesn't touch as many lives as the IRS, but it does touch ones Americans feel most indebted to. There are more than 22 million veterans in the United States, many of them elderly and suffering, and almost 900,000 unanswered medical and disability claims.

About once a week since Obama took office, there has been a public shaming about this problem, which predates Obama but bedevils his administration. It's the sort of issue that demands that the guy in charge roll up his sleeves — maybe Obama can roll up Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki's sleeves for him — and get computers that work to tackle claims so old some are filled out in triplicate on paper.

Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has already rolled up her sleeves. She dragged Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Shinseki and everyone else with authority before her committee last week to stop the "slacking and dragging" as a way to "commemorate Memorial Day." For each agency, there will be one person whose job is to focus on the claims. They'll have to report to one another and to Mikulski every 60 days.

Shame and heart-rending stories haven't broken the logjam so far: The VA has 839,000 pending claims, including 559,000 that are more than 125 days old and 205,000 backlogged more than a year. Concentrating responsibility at the top and having a four-star general watching over just might work.

And there is Mikulski herself, of course. If I had to choose one person to solve an intractable problem, it would be her. But even she could use more support from the president.

© 2013 Bloomberg News

Column: Obama needs to start sweating the small stuff 05/29/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 29, 2013 2:08pm]

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