WASHINGTON -- If there is one area where the Obama administration and the American people seem in fundamental agreement, it is in their contempt for Washington, D.C.
Not, presumably, for the actual place of schools and neighborhoods and monuments but for the conceptual Washington, the symbolic city. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, with typical delicacy, calls it "F---nutsville," a judgment that earthier tea party activists might share. Senior adviser David Axelrod has announced his spring departure. "I think he's not having fun," says a White House colleague. A recent profile claims that Axelrod's idealism was disappointed by "a ferociously stubborn, possibly irredeemable system." And Barack Obama himself constantly complains about the "politicking" and obstructionism of the capital city, where they "talk about me like a dog." Much of the senior staff of the White House seems to long for a purer, simpler, more wholesome kind of politics ... in Chicago.
The tension here is obvious. Even while depicting Washington as a flawed, fractured, hopeless mess, the Obama administration has sought to increase the influence of Washington over America's economy and health care system. In the Obama era, Washington helps run auto companies, oversees some corporate salaries, imposes an individual mandate to purchase health insurance, and seeks to rationalize the health care system with a profusion of new boards, offices, agencies and commissions -- estimates vary from 47 to 159 new bureaucratic entities.
Progressives would object that it is political Washington -- the paralyzed structure of legislators and special interests -- that is broken, not bureaucratic Washington, which needs more authority. But it is not easy to argue that citizens aggregated in a legislature are self-interested, corrupt and incompetent while citizens aggregated in a government agency are public-spirited, wise and effective. And it is not much of a communications strategy to feed disdain for politics while proposing an expanded role for government.
Conservatives, on occasion, have their own consistency problems. A misty-eyed patriotism is difficult to reconcile with anti-government radicalism. How can you love your country and hate its government? In milder forms, conservative populism asserts that "the people" are infinitely superior to their government -- even though our form of government, over time, exactly reflects the virtues and flaws of "the people." In a democracy, all criticism is ultimately self-criticism.