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Can President Obama Manage Government?

If he wants to leave a lasting legacy, he needs to become a more effective leader of the federal bureaucracy.

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 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 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 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.