Now that fall has officially started and the World Series is not far behind, President Obama could perhaps learn a lesson or two from baseball: the use of free agency and a designated hitter (at least in the American League) to upgrade a team.
The president recently experienced this lesson. A half-baked Syrian policy and a paralyzing “deer in the headlights” mentality were rescued by none other than Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. He rode into town on his white horse (topless, of course) to rescue Obama from a weak, no-win Syria approach. What would Obama have done had Congress not approved his proposed airstrikes? Would he have gone ahead with the strikes if Congress did not approve but, as commander-in-chief, he thought them necessary? Would such strikes have led to retaliation against Israel? Thank goodness VP came to his rescue.
Putin’s assistance is not the first time our government has gotten help from non-governmental sources. The concept of the outsourcing of governmental functions has been a popular buzzword at the state and local level for years. And as a practical matter, it has been applied extensively by the federal government. Significant parts of our recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, have been conducted by Halliburton and Blackwater. Much of the logistics and supply component of the traditional military, to say nothing of supplying world class mercenary soldiers, has been subcontracted to private companies. This subcontracting means, of course, fewer official troop levels, fewer official casualties, and the ability to avoid the rigors of military justice, protocols and procedures.
Boies, Harriman, Holbrooke …
On a more visible level, the Justice Department in the 1990s subcontracted the antitrust case against Microsoft to David Boies and his law firm. Boies had been a junior partner at the Cravath law firm in the 1970s and was part of the IBM defense team that successfully bested the U.S. government in that protracted litigation. Although Boies had a non-speaking role in the IBM case, the lesson was not lost on the antitrust division of the Justice Department that you need the best talent to beat the best talent. Hence it hired Boies to head the Microsoft case 20 years later, and the government won the largest antitrust case in history. The Internal Revenue Service has outsourced various collection functions, and other agencies have outsourced various functions as well.
Lest there be any question about the longstanding precedent for the federal government to turn to non-governmental personnel in times of crises, we can look to Averell Harriman and his important role in the Paris peace talks, which led to the resolution of the Vietnam War. And more recently, we can look to the important role Richard Holbrooke played in the Kosovo accords, which ended the Serbo-Croatian war. And now there is even international precedent for hiring foreigners for senior official positions. Stanley Fischer, a United States citizen a prominent economist, recently finished a stint as Israel’s central banker. And more recently, Mark Carney, a Canadian who previously was the head of Canada’s central bank, became head of the U.K.’s central bank.
What is now the president’s most vexing problem? To borrow an old expression, “It’s the economy stupid.” Obama has drawn a line in the sand that the debt ceiling extension be voted up or down, period. Speaker of the House John Boehner has made it clear that that dog won’t hunt. With the economy healing and the stock market at near record highs, how do we prevent another stalemate where we as a country avoid shooting ourselves in the foot?
An obvious solution
The answer is clear. President Obama should hire Vladimir Putin to be his designated negotiator with Congress. To use a baseball analogy, he could be the president’s designated hitter. He saved Obama’s bacon in Syria, he is buff and in tremendous physical condition, and he just might be able to make Boehner an offer he can’t refuse. His physical and mental toughness is unquestioned. Putin also is reputed to be one of the world’s richest men, and certainly understands the value of a ruble and a dollar. He just might be able to throw in a few of his own bucks to achieve a compromise. Both the Russian president and the House speaker are “men’s men,” and over vodka and steaks should be able to resolve any problem. If necessary, they could arm wrestle to break any stalemates.
The benefits of the president turning to Putin are incalculable. First VP resolves our fiscal crisis, and then nuclear disarmament cannot be far behind. Maybe VP would like a dacha in the Hamptons. After all, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is now a United States citizen who lives in New York close to his daughter and grandchildren. And as a man who loves hunting, fishing and horseback riding, Putin might enjoy the Black Hills of South Dakota where his short hair would make him an easy addition to Mount Rushmore.
We would not ask President Putin to work for free. In the spirit of the baseball season, Obama might ask Putin for his services in exchange for two years of Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s time starting in January and a draft choice to be named later. Russia has its economic problems, and Bernanke will be out of a job — a clear “win-win” scenario by any standard. Mr. President, you might want to make Putin an offer he can’t refuse.
Alan J. Wilensky served as the acting and deputy assistant secretary of tax policy at the U.S. Treasury Department in 1992-1993. He now practices law and is a financial adviser in Minneapolis.
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