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The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

Every four years in the United States, we elect a new president. Like clockwork, in anticipation of the election, a plethora of new books are written about the office of the president. These range from histories of various presidents to practical guides for whomever the people ultimately elect. One such recently published book caught my attention with its intriguing title, Why Presidents Fail: And How They Can Succeed Again (2016). Written by Elaine Kamarck, its thesis is that presidents spend way too much time on communication and the development of policy, and not enough time on the implementation of those policies. This, she explains, is often a carryover from the campaign, where candidates are in perpetual communication mode.

While being careful not to underplay the importance of communication and policy formulation, she argues that the failure of presidents to truly learn the inner workings of the vast bureaucracy they lead and to pay attention to the nuts and bolts of policy implementation has resulted in avoidable failures. “In politics as in business, the ability to deliver matters. Modern presidents may get elected because of their ability to inspire us and make us feel good. But they succeed, both in the short term and over the long term, by their actual ability to do good” (p.4).

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Among her case studies are Jimmy Carter’s failed hostage rescue attempt in April 1980, George Bush’s abysmal response to Hurricane Katrina, and Barack Obama’s inept rollout of his signature program, Obamacare.

Jimmy Carter failed to properly take into account that the American military and its various service branches were suffering from an inability to work smoothly on joint operations. Without that level of coordination, Carter should have realized that the chances for his rescue mission to succeed were low, at best. George Bush and his administration were so focused on responding to terrorist threats that they failed to comprehend the inadequacies of policies guiding the involvement of FEMA in natural disasters. For example, “In Hurricane Katrina, only the military had the capacity to accomplish the kinds of rescues that were needed given the incapacitation of nearly all local first responders. For example, on August 28 (2005), FEMA asked the Department of Defense to airlift swift water rescue teams from California to Louisiana. But because the secretary of defense had to sign the order, the teams did not begin rescue operation until August 31” (pp.85-6).

Barack Obama focused so much on the rhetoric surrounding the ACA (Affordable Care Act) he completely ignored the complexities of the implementation phase. This is all the more astounding because unlike Carter’s rescue mission and Bush’s response to Katrina, the rollout of the ACA was planned over an extended period of time. Additionally, from Obama’s perspective he had staked his presidency on this legislation. One would think that he and his team would want to ensure its successful implementation down to the smallest detail.

However, he assigned the staff members who were responsible for getting the bill through Congress to handle its rollout. Harvard economist David Cutler lamented that, “They were running the biggest start-up in the world, and they didn’t have anyone who had run a start-up, or even run a business. It’s very hard to think of a situation where the people best at getting legislation passed are best at implementing it. They are a different set of skills” (p.95).

The Torah, in this week’s parsha, alerts leaders to the importance of paying attention to the details of implementation. When Moshe articulates his request to Hashem to appoint a new leader of the Jewish people, he delineates several attributes. He asks (27:16) that the “G-d of spirits” appoint a leader over the nation. Rashi explains that this description of Hashem as the “G-d of spirits” underscores the importance of appointing a leader who understands all people and can deal with each of them on their own level in the appropriate manner.

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Rabbi Dr. David Hertzberg is the principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Middle Division. He is also an adjunct assistant professor of History at Touro College. Comments can be emailed to him at mdrabbi@aol.com.