Fedblog FedblogFedblog
Government Executive Editor in Chief Tom Shoop, along with other editors and staff correspondents, look at the federal bureaucracy from the outside in.

Can President Obama Manage Government?

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

According to a CNN poll released this week, only 40 percent of Americans say President Obama manages government effectively, down 12 points since June. That’s not exactly shocking, given the well-documented snafus in the rollout of Healthcare.gov. The problem is that these survey results are not a reflection of a general lack of confidence or frustration, but rather a specific issue that will continue to dog the president throughout his second term if he doesn’t become a more effective leader of the federal bureaucracy.

In the recent debut issue of Politico magazine, Clay Shirky, a professor of new media at New York University, writes: “The biggest problem with Healthcare.gov was not timeline or budget. The biggest problem was that the site did not work, and the administration decided to launch it anyway. This is not just a hiring problem or a procurement problem. This is a management problem and a cultural problem.”

Obama made it plain during his first presidential campaign that managing government wasn’t his primary concern. “Some [people] seem to think the job of president is to go in and run some bureaucracy,” he told a Nevada newspaper in 2008. “Well, that’s not my job. My job is to set a vision of ‘Here’s where the bureaucracy needs to go.’ ”

Obama was making an effort to address the specific charge that he lacked executive experience. And he certainly is not alone among presidents in regarding the machinery of government with a certain detachment, if not disdain. To a greater or lesser extent, virtually all presidents come into office focused on leaving a policy legacy that will stand for generations. But it often turns out that operations and management trip them up. Think Ronald Reagan and the Iran-Contra affair or George W. Bush and the Hurricane Katrina response. Conversely, effective management, such as President Clinton’s restoration of the Federal Emergency Management Agency after its reputation was tarnished during the George H.W. Bush administration, can have the effect of making a president look like a visionary leader.

Just once, it would be nice to see the country run by a chief executive who understands that in all likelihood, administration of policy and operation of the levers of government is what he or she will ultimately be judged on. It’s what happens after laws are enacted that really counts.

Obviously, President Obama isn’t personally responsible for all of the problems with the Healthcare.gov rollout. But he still has a tendency to characterize it as something that is happening to him, by the bureaucracy and its contractors, rather than something he is ultimately responsible for. On Nov. 14, Obama said, “I was not informed directly that the website would not be working the way it was supposed to. Had I been informed, I wouldn’t be going out saying, ‘Boy, this is going to be great.’ ”

Ultimately, though, Obama is responsible for setting up a management structure in which critical information -- such as the fact that the launch of the highest-profile initiative of his administration isn’t going to go well -- makes its way to the Oval Office. At this point, the president can’t really point fingers elsewhere for the shortcomings of the executive branch. Nearly five years into his tenure as president, he owns them. And he’ll be judged accordingly.

Tom Shoop is vice president and editor in chief at Government Executive Media Group, where he oversees both print and online editorial operations. He started as associate editor of Government Executive magazine in 1989; launched the company’s flagship website, GovExec.com, in 1996; and was named editor in chief in 2007.

Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

  • Federal IT Applications: Assessing Government's Core Drivers

    In order to better understand the current state of external and internal-facing agency workplace applications, Government Business Council (GBC) and Riverbed undertook an in-depth research study of federal employees. Overall, survey findings indicate that federal IT applications still face a gamut of challenges with regard to quality, reliability, and performance management.

  • PIV- I And Multifactor Authentication: The Best Defense for Federal Government Contractors

    This white paper explores NIST SP 800-171 and why compliance is critical to federal government contractors, especially those that work with the Department of Defense, as well as how leveraging PIV-I credentialing with multifactor authentication can be used as a defense against cyberattacks

  • Toward A More Innovative Government

    This research study aims to understand how state and local leaders regard their agency’s innovation efforts and what they are doing to overcome the challenges they face in successfully implementing these efforts.

  • From Volume to Value: UK’s NHS Digital Provides U.S. Healthcare Agencies A Roadmap For Value-Based Payment Models

    The U.S. healthcare industry is rapidly moving away from traditional fee-for-service models and towards value-based purchasing that reimburses physicians for quality of care in place of frequency of care.

  • GBC Flash Poll: Is Your Agency Safe?

    Federal leaders weigh in on the state of information security


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.