This is not a problem unique to Obama, but the community organizer was particularly vulnerable with his lack of basic business skills. He should have channeled the late George McGovern, who once told me that his greatest regret was that when he was a senator and then a candidate for president, he knew little about running a business. He and those like him were ignorant of the many regulations that hobbled innovators and entrepreneurs. "Those who wrote the laws didn't know what they were doing," he said. He learned the hard way when he retired from politics, bought an inn in Connecticut and then soon went bankrupt.
Technology today compounds the difficulties for start-ups with what economist Arnold Kling calls the "suits-geek divide."
"In my experience, communication failures between technical staff and management reflect an atmosphere of fear and lack of mutual respect," he says. He asks his economics students, when presenting proposals to start a new business, to pose two questions: "What are the critical management functions, and what would somebody experienced in this business know that you do not know?"
If the president and Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of Health and Human Services, were in his class proposing the world's largest insurance brokerage, Arnold would expect them to know about marketing, customer education, insurance company partnerships, pricing, and underwriting standards and operations. Someone with business experience would understand that problems run deeper than simply setting up a web site. Successful negotiation and coordination between systems of the government and the insurance companies require an executive with the authority to go to the top without feeling too intimidated to suggest changes.
Obama's public performances offer clues to his management style, revealing a self-appointed "vision" man who stands above it all until he meets the public as seller-in-chief. Sibelius suggests that she didn't know the right questions to ask her contractors, and didn't make sure there was clear and effective co-ordination between the technical staff, the geeks and the business staff, the suits. She was not amused when someone gave her a copy of the familiar computer reference manual, "Web Sites for Dummies."
On a systems project as big as Obamacare, you're in a heap of trouble if you have to revisit the dynamics between the geeks and the suits after the rollout. "They're trying to change a tire on a car going 70 miles an hour down the expressway," says Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan (who's a congressman, and obviously not a coiner of workable metaphors). A more likely metaphor is a car with a dead battery.
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