Sunday, January 25, 2009

Introducing the Business As Usual Index

President Obama campaigned on the promise of "Change We Can Believe In." In his acceptance speech in Denver, he said, "It's time for us to change America."

And his official Election Night victory tee shirt reads, "Change Can Happen."

And during his Inaugural Address, the new President aimed his criticism at the failed culture of complacency in Washington, accusing both parties of being part of the "stand pat" problem:

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short, for they have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage. What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.

The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works -- whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account, to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

OK, great. At a time when solid majorities think that the country is going in the wrong direction, and have felt that way for a long time, there's obviously a huge constituency for change.

But change--true change--is much more profound than just changing the names, and the party labels, of top decisionmakers and politicos in Washington. Real change comes from transformation, not just substitution. If the government isn't working, well, a different set of appointees won't make any meaningful difference. As I have said in the past, we need a new paradigm, not just new personalities.

There is evidence that the new President understands the nature of real change. He has said in the past that Ronald Reagan was one of the few presidents who really changed the direction of the government, and the country. Obama is no Reaganite, of course, but those words suggest that he knows real change when he sees it.

But there's one catch: Did anyone tell Congress? Or the bureaucracy? Or institutional Washington, including K Street? OK, maybe they were told about Obama;s big plans for change, but did they agree? Are they are part of the change we are looking for--or not? So far, at least, the answer appears to be "not."

Go down the list of House and Senate leaders, in either party, who signed on to the Obama message--really signed on. If they didn't, if they like the way that things have been done in the past--and after all, many of them were re-elected, too, in 2008--then there's reason to think that these barons and baronesses of Capitol Hill will prove to be "guardians of gridlock," as a despairing Bill Clinton once referred to them.

So what happens when "Agents Of Change" meet "Pillars of the Beltway"? Well, we're about to find out.

And so, confining ourselves to just domestic fiscal policy and the workings of the federal government, let's begin to assess how much change is coming to Washington, where "business as usual" has become synonymous with "waste, fraud, and abuse." Hence the Business As Usual Index (BAUI), aimed at measuring how much change there has been, and whether we can believe in it.

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