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:

  • Going Agile:Revolutionizing Federal Digital Services Delivery

    Here’s one indication that times have changed: Harriet Tubman is going to be the next face of the twenty dollar bill. Another sign of change? The way in which the federal government arrived at that decision.

  • Cyber Risk Report: Cybercrime Trends from 2016

    In our first half 2016 cyber trends report, SurfWatch Labs threat intelligence analysts noted one key theme – the interconnected nature of cybercrime – and the second half of the year saw organizations continuing to struggle with that reality. The number of potential cyber threats, the pool of already compromised information, and the ease of finding increasingly sophisticated cybercriminal tools continued to snowball throughout the year.

  • Featured Content from RSA Conference: Dissed by NIST

    Learn more about the latest draft of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology guidance document on authentication and lifecycle management.

  • GBC Issue Brief: The Future of 9-1-1

    A Look Into the Next Generation of Emergency Services

  • GBC Survey Report: Securing the Perimeters

    A candid survey on cybersecurity in state and local governments

  • The New IP: Moving Government Agencies Toward the Network of The Future

    Federal IT managers are looking to modernize legacy network infrastructures that are taxed by growing demands from mobile devices, video, vast amounts of data, and more. This issue brief discusses the federal government network landscape, as well as market, financial force drivers for network modernization.

  • eBook: State & Local Cybersecurity

    CenturyLink is committed to helping state and local governments meet their cybersecurity challenges. Towards that end, CenturyLink commissioned a study from the Government Business Council that looked at the perceptions, attitudes and experiences of state and local leaders around the cybersecurity issue. The results were surprising in a number of ways. Learn more about their findings and the ways in which state and local governments can combat cybersecurity threats with this eBook.


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