Obama, McCain: The same coin?

Wild card: Libertarian Bob Barr

In past elections, some third-party and independent candidates have played a role in shaping the national agenda. H. Ross Perot, who ran in 1992 and 1996, kept the national debt and the North American Free Trade Agreement at center stage in the campaigns in those years.

This year, former Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) is running as a Libertarian and making a much smaller splash than Perot did.

“Barr is an interesting one,” said Richard Colven, vice president of industry analysis at the research firm Input. “He’ll be more of a shaper of the Republican side more than the Democratic side in terms of pushing them more toward smaller government, traditional conservative values.”

Barr is “savvier, more so than McCain, on how technology can be used,” Colven added.
— Michael Hardy

The two men running for president for the major parties could not be more different, in many ways.
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is in his 40s, renowned for his eloquent oratory style, and the first non-Caucasian to ever become the standard-bearer for a major party. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), silver-haired and plainspoken, is of the old guard.

But the two men also share some policy priorities. Although the election presents a real choice, both candidates are likely to approach some information technology and procurement issues in similar ways. And there are some issues that either will have no choice but to deal with.

According to the research firm Input, in a view shared by many other analysts, the necessities of war will dictate a significant percentage of the next president’s spending choices. Either one will also face a federal budget where mandatory spending is rapidly crowding out discretionary spending, according to Input.

“I think we’re going to be testing the limits of: how high can the federal budget go?” said Richard Colven, vice president of industry analysis at Input. “How much defense spending will people put up with?”

“Whoever walks in is going to face an enormous fiscal challenge,” said Stan Soloway, president and chief executive officer of the Professional Services Council. “A lot of that is driven by fixed costs that [the Defense Department] faces, a lot of it tied to the war, but not all of it.”

Non-war DOD costs include base realignment and closure, health care and developing major new weapons systems.
“That, of course, sets the table for the rest of the government,” he said. “Absent some major offsets or major tax increases,” the funds left over for discretionary spending are diminishing.
“There are some intractable issues that whoever comes into government is going to have to grapple with,” Soloway said.
The next president will also make homeland security a priority, again based on necessity, Colven said. “Nobody wants to be the president who reduces our security. I don’t largely see a difference in the candidates on that.”

Green IT is another area where public interest is likely to compel the next president to lead, he said. Either McCain or Obama could issue executive orders on power consumption or recycling IT hardware, or other environmental concerns.

“The agencies are as concerned with saving the green in their budget as with the green in the trees,” Colven said, noting that green initiatives are often cost savers in the long run.

“Health care is a place where the Democrats are more aggressive and the Republicans are favoring more market-based reforms,” he said. “All of [the issues] have a big role for technology as an enabler.”

According to Deniece Peterson, an Input senior analyst who wrote a recent report on the candidates, both of them recognize the importance of information sharing, health IT, green IT and unified communications.
In general, Colven said, Obama seems to have a better understanding of the potential for technology. “I don’t think Sen. McCain has thought as deeply about the use of technology. He’s more policy-focused,” Colven said.

Some issues, including energy costs and health care, are of strong interest to the public and the next president will feel pressure to emphasize them, Soloway said.

Both candidates are likely to continue elements of the Bush administration’s President’s Management Agenda, according to analysts. The set of initiatives aimed at making agencies more effective and efficient has shown success and neither candidate has expressed any interest in discontinuing the initiatives, Colven said.

“The Bush management agenda, despite some elements that have been controversial, was an outgrowth of the Clinton administration,” Soloway said. “We’ve now had 16 consecutive years of having some sort of management agenda.”

The next president may add to the PMA, or change its current form, but it won’t disappear. “It’s going to be a core element of any new administration,” Soloway said. “It has to be. Any administration that comes in will have to have a fairly substantial management agenda.”

Obama and McCain are both interested in increasing the transparency of government contracting, so much so that they co-sponsored a bill to mandate new measures making information more readily available.

However, some observers are wary about the matter. Soloway, whose group has long been cautious about the potential for overly aggressive oversight, said the candidates need to have “an awareness that the current environment of so-called investigative hearings and bayoneting the wounded is not going to help improve the process in the long run.”

In a comparison of Obama’s and McCain’s positions on a wide range of technology and acquisition policy issues, the Information Technology Association of America criticized both men for co-sponsoring transparency legislation, S.3077, introduced in the current Congress in June.

ITAA opposes the bill because it goes too far, said Phil Bond, the trade group’s president and CEO. The measure would require that agencies enter details about their contracts, including the actual pages from the contracts, purchase orders, task orders and other contracting documents, into a public database.
“We are completely supportive of transparency,” he said. “Taxpayers want and deserve transparency. We don’t think they want a train wreck.”

The legislation would require contractors to reveal proprietary information, according to ITAA’s reading of the bill, Bond said. “It was well intended, but poorly crafted,” he added.

The legislation could also potentially compromise national security, added Trey Hodgkins, vice president of federal government programs in ITAA’s public-sector group. If agencies are required to publish the full content of every contract, without regard for the sensitivity of the information, they could be making public information about the details of weapons, or the locations of facilities or other information valuable to the enemies of the United States, he said.

Obama’s stance on the acquisition workforce, another area ITAA believes to be critically important, is unclear, Hodgkins said. While McCain has supported efforts to strengthen the workforce, Obama has little record to assess.

“If we rebuild the acquisition workforce, we think many issues being raised today concerning waste, fraud and abuse, those go away or are mitigated significantly because you’ve got the proper attention on those issues,” he said.

ITAA also evaluated the candidates’ use of technology in their campaigns, seeing that as an indicator of how aware they are of the potential uses for it in government. In general, Obama is using the Internet and Web 2.0 social networking tools more effectively than McCain, ITAA found.

“People entering public service today are using these capabilities in high school and college,” Hodgkins said. “They come into public service and they recognize immediately that government, first, isn’t using them, and second, doesn’t have a plan to develop use of these technologies.”

Obama speaks about his vision for technology on his campaign Web site.

Obama’s site states that the candidate “sees that technology offers the tools to create real change in America. Obama’s forward-thinking 21st century technology and innovation policy starts by recognizing that we need to connect all citizens with each other to engage them more fully and directly in solving the problems that face us.”
“In tandem with that goal, Barack Obama understands that we must use all available technologies and methods to open up the federal government, creating a new level of transparency to change the way business is conducted in Washington and giving Americans the chance to participate in government deliberations and decision-making in ways that were not possible only a few years ago,” the Web site states. n

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