The Pothole Presidency

When Anthony Villaraigosa was mayor of Los Angeles — one of the biggest and most complex cities in the U.S. — he became famous for fixing potholes. Villaraigosa loved potholes. He loved fixing them and then holding press conferences to announce that they were fixed. “Operation Pothole” was his signature program until he hit a personal pothole when he admitted to an extramarital affair with a local TV reporter.

In a city built on glamor, potholes are decidedly unglamorous. But there was something deeply satisfying about Villaraigosa’s love affair with fixing city streets. This is an essential role of good government — keeping the streets safe, the trains running on time and the lights on. These are the first steps in governing, the foundational things that must be done before moving on to loftier ambitions like bullet trains and a carbon-free future.

One of the toughest professors I had in college was a guy who taught poetry. Everyone in the class wanted to arrange words randomly on the page and call it “free form” verse. He railed against us. “Before you write free-form,” he bellowed, “you’ve got to master iambic pentameter!” In other words, learn the basics before you get all high-falutin’ in here.

In America, we’ve lost sight of the basics. This is the biggest unspoken challenge facing our new President — a government that by many measures, just doesn’t work anymore. If Joe Biden accomplishes one thing over the next four years, it should be to fix America’s potholes: get the basics right and restore the faith of the American people in competent government.

Evidence of government incompetence is everywhere:

• The Texas power grid suffered a catastrophic failure, the result of a perfect storm of bad weather, government regulation and operating error.

• The IRS is suffering a breakdown even as tax law metastasizes in complexity. The agency’s phones are ringing off the hook right now, but only one-in-11 calls is being answered.

• Our government agencies and even our elections are being hacked on a regular basis.

• The rollout of covid vaccines (the development of which by the private sector was a small miracle) is chaotic and unpredictable.

• Federal and local law enforcement stands by while a mob storms the U.S. Capitol.

God, I hate to be so dour, but these things are happening. And they do not inspire confidence in our ability as a people to come together and form a government to provide a range of basic human services. The more this happens, the more cynical we become about government, which leads to a further degradation in services. It’s a bad spiral.

The Fifth Risk: Is our government undoing itself?

Michael Lewis wrote a book in 2018 that didn’t get the attention it deserved, unlike some of his earlier books like “Moneyball” or “The Big Short.” He called it “The Fifth Risk” and it explored, in Lewis’s trademark easy-reading style, the workings of government bureaucracy. The title came from one of the main characters, John MacWilliams, an investment banker who went to work for the Department of Energy during the Obama administration. McWilliams is a risk manager and when he’s asked by Lewis to name the top risks facing America he peels off the predicable ones: cyberattacks on the grid, Iran, North Korea, dirty bombs. Then he names a fifth risk — “program management,” or the failure of essential government bureaucracies to fulfill their mission and the cascading effects of that failure.

In some ways, it feels like we are at the beginning of that spiral now.

Granted, there are many things we do well in America right now — business development, capital allocation, science and innovation, and technology, to name some. And our ability to do even normal things well is being tested by systemic pressures such as the novel coronavirus and climate change. I get that. Still, we need to do better. We need to reach deep down into the pragmatic roots of the American character, our fundamental ability to solve problems, and get things back on the right track.

When I was at Chevron and we had team meetings to create an initiative or solve a problem, we’d always say “leave your bias outside the room” — the intent being to explore every possible idea or alternative before arriving at a conclusion. Today, it’s shocking to see the crises surrounding the Texas power grid’s failure or the chaotic vaccine rollout devolve into a political blame game. These are problems of logistics and engineering to be solved — potholes on a grand scale — so let’s leave politics outside the room.

We know President Biden has a lot on his plate, including the lofty aspirations of the woke left to create a more inclusive and equitable culture. I’m not going to argue against that. But before we get to the free-form poetry of woke culture and wind-powered cars we better master the iambic pentameter of basic government.

Mr. President, let’s focus on the potholes. Let’s get the basics right. Let’s renew Americans’ faith in government, because if we do that, we essentially renew our faith in each other, and our confidence that we can overcome anything that comes our way. And if we get back to that place, we’ll be the America we always knew we were.

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