Making Hard Budget Choices: Time To Finish Head Start

There may be no federal program that was begun with better intentions than Head Start.  It was a key part of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society initiatives and had an ambitious social engineering goal:  to help impoverished kids better prepare themselves for school and a useful life by providing them with preschool.

It is now 45 years later, and the Department of Health and Human Services has released its Head Start Impact Study.  The Study results are clear — Head Start does not work.  The Study found that the positive effects of the Head Start program are minimal and vanish entirely after children reach first grade.  Graduates of Head Start perform about the same as students of the same income and social status who did not participate in Head Start.  In short, we pay $7 billion a year for a program that doesn’t do what it is supposed to do.

In any rational world, the next step would be obvious.  We would end the program and save the $7 billion.  This is modern America, however, so of course that hasn’t happened.  Instead, the defenders of Head Start argue that even if it doesn’t work, it provides money and employment in depressed areas and should be maintained as a jobs program.  The Obama Administration says it is going to funnel the money to more effective programs rather than ending it outright.

Our budget problems are enormous and can only be addressed if every program, tax break, subsidy, and government job is potentially on the chopping block.  If a government program isn’t working, it should be ended, period.  We shouldn’t hesitate to cut defense weapons systems that aren’t performing as designed, or to end subsidies that no longer make rational economic or policy sense.

If we really were serious about tackling our budget problems, Congress would already have digested the Head Start Impact Study and decided to end the program.  Usually there is at least grounds for disagreement about the effectiveness of a federal program, but in this case a government-commissioned study is conclusive about the program’s failure.  What are we waiting for?

Making Hard Budget Choices:  A No Doubt Boring Look At NHTSA

Obama: Be More Like LBJ

Yesterday’s New York Times featured an interesting piece comparing President Obama to Lyndon Johnson (“Could Afghanistan Become Obama’s Vietnam?”). The article speculated that Obama’s ambitious domestic programs could end up being derailed by an unwinnable war in Afghanistan, just as LBJ’s Great Society was by the Vietnam War. According to the article, President Obama himself has compared his situation to LBJ’s.

LBJ

LBJ

I doubt Afghanistan will ever become as big a pain in the ass for Obama as Vietnam was for LBJ, but the article made me think. I just read an excellent presidential biography of Lyndon Johnson by Doris Kearns Goodwin that led me to reconsider the former president. Despite his horrible handling of Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson was a brilliant, good-hearted man whom Obama could take a few lessons from.

Everyone’s talking about how Obama’s poll numbers are slipping as a result of the current Healthcare debate. What’s really hurting him, however, isn’t the debate itself but his mismanagement of it. President Obama has lost control over the national dialogue over healthcare reforms, despite calling numerous town halls and press conferences to dispel rumors and clarify his goals. He seems to have even less control over Congress, as Republicans, Blue Dog Democrats, and left-wing Democrats seek out their own policy goals, showing little willingness to compromise.

President Obama should consult the playbook of LBJ, perhaps the most skillful manipulator of Congress in American history. In her biography of LBJ, Goodwin notes that, contrary to popular belief,  his handling of Congress consisted of more than strong-arming. LBJ had a genius for reading people, discovering in the course of a conversation their fears and desires, and responding to them. To reward members of Congress for “good behavior” he promised them positions of importance, mustered up the support they felt they needed to vote a certain way (from newspaper editors, organizations, other members of Congress, etc.), or allowed them access to his personal popularity as president (which was, like Obama’s, originally quite considerable). To punish them, LBJ would withdraw his affection to make them feel isolated from his circle of power. Of course, strong-arming could be a component of LBJ’s “treatment”, but only when it was the most effective way, which LBJ somehow knew instinctively.

Instead of giving control of healthcare reform to Congress, I wish Obama would put himself in a position like LBJ. While LBJ’s legislation responded to the needs of Congress, it was always under his ultimate control. Like LBJ, Obama should also set clear objectives for his domestic programs, instead of adding or removing vital parts of legislation when passage appears uncertain, such as in the case of the public policy option in the current healthcare bill. Most of all, Obama should use his personal popularity to manipulate congressmen, while it still lasts.

Also like LBJ, President Obama should never forget the human element of his programs. While in action on the floor of Congress, LBJ might have seemed like a political machine, but behind all his machinations was a desire to spread the American dream to as many as possible. I’m sure Obama has the same desire, but he hasn’t been talking much about it lately. Obama needs to remind the American people that healthcare reform isn’t about politics or socialism or health insurance companies – it’s about spreading happiness, health and opportunity to as many Americans as possible.