Thursday, September 13, 2012

Epistemic Closure in the West Wing

Daniel Halper notes an interesting episode in Bob Woodward's new book on the Obama administration.  After serving in the White House (and acting as one of the key policy figures in debates over health-care reform), Peter Orszag turned to write for the New York Times, among other places.  While writing for the Times, Orszag penned a column that said that the president's health-care reform did "many things right" but could have included some medical malpractice reform.

Orszag then ran the column by his colleagues at the White House:
Woodward adds, "Should he alert the White House? [Orszag] wondered. Better not to surprise them. With some discomfort, because a columnist is supposed to speak for himself, not his former employer, Orszag sent his draft to Valerie Jarrett. It was about three days before the column was scheduled to run. Here’s a draft, he wrote in an email to her. Let me know if you have any comments."

Jarrett did have a comment for Orszag, according to Woodward:

"Thanks, Jarrett wrote back. She offered no comments on the draft. The column ran as scheduled, unchanged from the draft Orszag had provided the White House. Orszag was in an airport when he got Jarrett’s email. How could you have done this? It’s ridiculous. You’re so disloyal. You have got to realize the health care bill is wildly unpopular, Orszag replied. Every single speech I give, if I lead with this reflection on its imperfections, the dynamic changes. People will then listen. You can’t hold this law out as perfect. It won’t sell. People think it’s a piece of crap. The weaknesses must be acknowledged. Then it’s credible to say, here’s why it is good and why it is the only thing that will work. Jarrett’s answer was delivered with Politburo finality: You have burned your bridges."

Halper focuses on the fact that the White House was invited to comment on this column before it was released, but what I find even more striking is the substance of Jarrett's reaction.

Orszag is clearly a friend of the administration, he wrote a column that suggests what else could be added to health-care reform in the future and that in no way criticizes what was passed in Obamacare, and Jarrett's reaction is to say that he's "burned [his] bridges."  If an ally's mild advice burns bridges, what doesn't burn them?

And Valerie Jarrett is no second-tier staffer.  She's one of the president's closest advisors.

An episode like this suggests one reason why the administration has found it so hard to change course: a resistance to both internal and external critique can leave an administration digging further and further into a rut, no matter how failed that rut may be.

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