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So, Wednesday – while campaigning in Illinois, although I understand that we’re supposed to pretend that Obama isn’t actually campaigning, for some bizarre reason – the President of the United States faced with a technical question (the effects of new EPA’s soil and dust regulations on Illinois farmers) by a technical expert (an Illinois farmer). Despite the fact that the technical question is in fact supposedly within Barack Obama’s level of expertise, the President decided instead to make slight fun of the probably-not-voting-for-him-anyway technical expert by chiding him about believing rumors and suggesting that the technical expert call the Department of Agriculture.
Well. There was a Politico reporter who actually decided to see what would happen if s/he did precisely that. So s/he did. As near as I can tell, the original inquiry about “information related to the effects of noise and dust pollution rules on Illinois farmers” turned into a two day affair involving at least ten phone calls, seven separate, discrete offices (almost all of which also included internal phone tag), and at least twelve individuals. And as for the final answer? This is what they sent (yes, sent, via safely distancing email):
“Secretary Vilsack continues to work closely with members of the Cabinet to help them engage with the agricultural community to ensure that we are separating fact from fiction on regulations because the administration is committed to providing greater certainty for farmers and ranchers. Because the question that was posed did not fall within USDA jurisdiction, it does not provide a fair representation of USDA’s robust efforts to get the right information to our producers throughout the country.”
Shorter USDA: “I dunno. Call the President.”
Lots of people – Jonah Goldberg in particular – are going off on this, but I’d like to explain why the President made such a dunderheaded comment as this. It has to do with his rather parochial background. Obviously, nothing in Barack Obama’s life until 1996 would have had him dealing with the Department of Agriculture: from college on he was firmly implanted in the warm, comforting isolation unit that is urban liberal academia. The odds of him having to navigate the byzantine agricultural bureaucracies? Nil. In fact, he probably rarely had to interact with government bureaucracies at their worst at all. Many people manage not to – unless there’s an unique problem*.
And after 1996, when Barack Obama became a legislator – and thus a person who did deal with government bureaucracies on a regular basis? Well. That’s precisely when the power dynamic would have changed for him anyway. You see, when a regular citizen calls a government bureaucrat, the former is counting on the latter having a good day, or at least not a bad one. But when even a state senator calls a government bureaucrat, that bureaucrat is the one who has to worry about good and bad days all of a sudden. Put more explicitly: Illinois State Senator Obama could reliably expect that his calls would be well-received, and that a prompt response would be provided. US Senator Obama could reliably expect that calls made by his staffers would be well-received, and that a prompt response would be provided. President Obama is used to having every random information request that he makes be immediately jumped upon by an eager policy wonk and sent off to be answered by the relevant agency, who will of course treat that request with the highest possible priority.
So of course Barack Obama thinks that calling the USDA is not only a bright idea, but it’s such an obvious one that only the ignorant or obtuse wouldn’t get it immediately. He’s almost certainly never neither had the relevant life experiences, nor the intellectual curiosity, to discover otherwise.
Moe Lane (crosspost)
*To be fair, many government agencies officials do in fact at least try to be helpful; particularly if you have a genuine emergency – like, say, having a swarm of bees in your house. But you never know.