Before envisioning dramatic change, the Roman emperor Augustus is said to have warned, "Make haste slowly." The reformer Augustus was eager for radical social transformation. But he also knew he had to deal with generations of Roman tradition and habit -- and thousands of entrenched special interests.
President Obama should heed Augustus' advice before he plans any more doomed top-to-bottom change.
Take his stalled health-care reforms. Rather than trying to turn a largely private system all at once into a huge state-controlled and regulated industry at a time of historic deficits, he would have been better off advocating incremental changes.
Tort reform, for example, would reduce frivolous lawsuits that drive up medical expenses. Or health insurers could be allowed to compete across state lines. Tax credits and grants could focus on the uninsured. The costs of such changes would have been marginal, the savings large.
Instead, a 1,000-plus-page health-care bill had so many regulations that not even its congressional authors could explain all the details or predict their effects. And so President Obama's massive overhaul looks like it will meet the same fate as Bill Clinton's doomed 1993 "comprehensive" effort to remake American health care.
Obama also promised a remake of the war on terror -- including changing even its name to "overseas contingency operations." He campaigned on ending military tribunals, renditions and the Guantanamo Bay detention center. The Patriot Act and Predator drones were supposed to be trimmed back.
Candidate Obama wanted combat troops to leave Iraq in March 2008 and declared the surge there a failure.
That comprehensive "reset" strategy was also quietly dropped. Obama has instead continued almost all the old Bush anti-terrorism protocols. Despite campaign talk of quickly getting out of Iraq and criticizing our supposed terrorizing of civilians in Afghanistan, Obama follows most Bush policies in Afghanistan and Iraq. Loud promises to close Guantanamo, investigate former CIA interrogators and try terrorists like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York so far have not happened -- and probably won't.
Unfazed by his health-care implosion, about-face on terrorism and falling polls, the president has promised Hispanic groups he will seek comprehensive immigration reform, and will probably support the Democratic-sponsored "Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America's Security and Prosperity Act."
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