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Obama: King of the Task Force

Today President Obama announced an interagency task force, led by Vice President Joe Biden, to guide his administration’s response to the shooting in Sandy Hook Elementary School. Politico reports “it will follow a call on Friday for ‘meaningful action’ and his Sunday pledge to use the White House to ‘engage’ Americans to prevent mass shootings. According to a White House official, the president likely won’t make significant policy announcements but will instead explain how his administration will determine what to do next.”

The president is well-known for asking groups of people to gather to discuss problems of national importance, including task forces on: working familiesthe middle class; Guantanamo Bay, commercial advocacy, Hurricane Sandy rebuilding, interagency ocean policy, childhood obesity, Puerto Rico’s status, federal contracting opportunities for small businesses, climate change adaption, financial fraud enforcement, and many, many others. A search on the White House website for the words “task force” yields 86,000 results. What exactly have these task forces accomplished? What legislation has been put forth? What executive orders have been put into effect? What do they do besides issue reports? 

Two of the most famous initiatives the White House has began, the Middle Class Task Force and the Jobs Council, can give you some idea. Over the summer the Daily reported on the now-defunct MCTF:

In its first years, Vice President Joe Biden, who leads the initiative, toured the country promoting the administration’s economic policies as the group pumped out a flurry of reports on the state of the middle class, pushed for clean energy manufacturing tax credits and Pell grants, and helped make the case for the president’s health care overhaul.

The group includes about a dozen other members, including eight Cabinet secretaries and a handful of top appointees on economic policy.

More than three years after its launch, however, the task force seems to have lost its steam. 

The task force’s website has become a virtual graveyard for aging updates about the middle class like “Why Middle Class Americans Need Health Reform,” published in 2009. The last annual report available on its site dates to 2010. 

The task force blog has over the past few years been transformed from a showcase of the group’s policy proposals to a repository of press releases from the vice president’s speeches. 

With the election just months away, some Democrats fear the fate of the task force is emblematic of an administration that has struggled mightily to sell — and even explain — landmark achievements like health care reform to the middle-class voters it must win over in November.

“What happened to the task force? That’s a good question,” Democratic strategist Peter Fenn said in a phone interview.

“One of the things people have been concerned about is that with a lot of these victories for the middle class, that the president has not been beating his chest enough about it,” said Fenn. “He has not gone out and really said, ‘Hey look, here’s what we’ve been doing.’ ”

While the MCTF discussed the importance of health-care reform and green jobs, it doesn’t appear that any meaningful legislation or ideas stemmed from these task forces that largely served as a vehicle to cheerlead for administration pet projects already in the works. The final “report” on healthcare reform in 2009 was just three pages long and provided a laundry list of problems without recommendations for solutions or next steps. 

The president’s “Jobs Council” was a frequently mentioned failure during the Romney campaign. During the campaign over the summer, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney had to answer questions about why the council hadn’t met in more than six months, and predictably, he had no good answers. There were other embarrassing moments for the council, like the council’s chairman saying this about China’s authoritarian government: “state run communism may not be your cup of tea, but their government works.” One member of the jobs council, Intel CEO Paul Otellili, endorsed Romney and toured with the campaign. The council hasn’t met since February of last year and is now totally defunct. 

Last week President Obama promised “meaningful action” in the wake of the massacre in Newtown that resulted in the deaths of 20 children and six adults. In the president’s world that means it will be talked about and eventually statements will be issued, with no tangible “meaningful action” taken or even suggested. President Obama is the leader of the free world. If he wanted to lead on gun violence his first step would be to actually lead, instead of asking other people to sit around a table and talk. It appears that this issue will disappear down the rabbit hole along with the rest of the task forces the president has convened over the last several years, only to reemerge the next time a fatal shooting makes the front pages. 



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