Barack Obama, Ida Merriam, and the Power to Inspire

The thing that sets Barack Obama apart from Hilary Clinton is his ability to inspire with words. For many, Hilary Clinton inspires just by being; so too for other does Obama. (And then there's the people who are inspired by both…) But Sen. Obama gives a quantum better speech. I know that I've suggested before that speechifying isn't the first thing I look for in a candidate, but it does matter and not just in the obvious ways.

To explain what I mean, I need to tell you about Ida Merriam. Ida Merriam was one of the many idealistic young people who responded to FDR's call to come to Washington and help make the government better, joining the Social Security Administration (SSA) at its founding. Like many others drawn to DC by FDR, she stayed on, although both her tenure and her achievements at the SSA's Office of Research and Statistics were exceptional. She was still going strong when she retired in 1972.

Her semi-official biography notes some of Mrs. Merriam's major achievements; it paints a portrait of a statistician/demographer who understood that measuring the right things carefully and well can open policy possibilities,

Mrs. Merriam brought a clear vision of the importance of research to sound policy development. Cogent analysis, clear writing and impeccable accuracy are the hallmark of her own work and set the standard for others. Research on public programs, in her view, belongs in the public domain and the role of government research is to put it there in clear and understandable form. Under her direction ORS publications grew beyond the monthly Social Security Bulletin, to include special reports and brief R&S Notes that were issued quickly to respond to policymakers' questions.

The Social Security Bulletin brought a broad view of the role of social insurance in the nation's social and economic fabric. Mrs. Merriam personally established the social welfare expenditure series that tracks national spending for such purposes as education, health care, social and vocational services and income security through social insurance and social assistance. In that series, social insurance is not only Social Security, but other public programs —unemployment insurance, workers' compensation, and public employees retirement systems—as well as private group efforts to protect individuals against the economic vicissitudes of life—such as short-term sickness and disability benefits, private group life and disability insurance and private pensions. Trends in each of these systems were brought together in the social welfare expenditure series. The health care component of the series set the framework for the national health expenditure series that is now used to project future national health spending.

In the 1960s, under Mrs. Merriam's leadership, ORS catapulted into the forefront of social policy analysis. New concerns about the poor and civil rights for minorities, a building debate on health insurance for the elderly, extension of disability insurance to workers under age 50 and enactment of early retirement benefits for men all posed new research challenges.

Longstanding scholarly interest in defining and measuring “low-income” took a major step forward when ORS published what was to become the official poverty thresholds for comparing the economic status of families of different sizes. For the first time, statisticians could count the number of poor children, elderly and other adults.

Dorothy Rice, who directed and conducted many of the health insurance studies recalls, “Throughout her career as a public servant, Mrs. Merriam earned a well-deserved reputation as an administrator with scientific objectivity, outstanding social policy expertise, and unquestioned integrity. She was one of those public servants who viewed government service as a noble calling, a medium through which she could and did make a positive and lasting impact on the social well-being of the populace.

People like Mrs. Merriam not only made FDR's New Deal possible, they made it last.

JFK's call to public service (“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”) produced a similar, if maybe smaller, wave of people who staffed the bureaucracy and helped the lumbering beast be more responsible and responsive. It was notable that his next four successors were not as successful at attracting deep talent to staff their administrations; each had their stars and their workhorses, but not in the same quantity.

I suppose in some way one could say that Ronald Reagan also energized a generation of people to come to DC and take jobs in the bowels of the government, although in this case the idealistic charge was to destroy the beast from the inside, an inheritance that has been coming to its fruiting in the current, less inspiring and more nakedly corrupt, administration. It's notable that one quiet Republican achievement has been to work hard to undermine the legacy left by Ida Merriam and her equally unsung opposite numbers in other agencies by ruining the government's ability to collect (not to mention to share!) good data. Without decent time series data, future governments will find it that much hard to build a case for social policies.

Mrs. Merriam — as I always called her — lived in our neighborhood in Washington DC, and used to walk by our house from time to time. She's always symbolized to me how political inspiration could shape lives in ways lasting a generation or more. Thanks in no small part to her work, and that of others like her, the SSA was known as the most efficient and well-run federal government department. And she was a very nice lady, too.

The power to inspire is the power to mobilize not just masses to turn out for rallies, not just voters to turn out to polls, but also to get people to make (and re-make) institutions. And as Jean Monnet (a sexist but wise Frenchman) said, “Nothing is possible without men, nothing is lasting without institutions.”

The ability to give a great speech is a tool of statecraft. It can open doors, make possibilities. The power to inspire is the power to direct at a distance, to harness human energy while reducing the need for political command-and-control.

The ability to give a great speech also can be a tool of nation-(re)building. It depends, of course, on what you say.

But if you and your country are lucky, the next Ida Merriam is listening.

[Note: An earlier draft of this essay accidentally briefly appeared on the site.]

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2 Responses to Barack Obama, Ida Merriam, and the Power to Inspire

  1. If Mr. Obama’s “inexperience” with Washington insiders causes him to frequently ask advisors and officials, “What do you mean?” then I think this may be just what the US needs in a president: beyond judgment and discernment, a need to be inquisitive – to get to the bottom of things, and to decipher jargon. I refuse to vote for a Demopublican in the general elections, but my disappointment that 2000 didn’t see a race between Bill Bradley and John McCain compels me to vote for Mr. Obama in the primaries.

  2. Adam says:

    Great post. It always upsets me that I can not better explain that intelligence and character is more valuable than any single piece of policy, and these are the two qualities that make a really great speech.

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