Learning to Lead

A president’s time is his “most precious resource,” in the words of Austan Goolsbee, who spent two years on the Council of Economic Advisers in the Obama White House. “The structure of how the government operates is not conducive to micromanaging by the president,” he says. President Obama’s “focus is where it ought to be—at high levels where there’s disagreement at agencies or among advisers—so he can move it toward a decision.”

No one argues a president should dive into the weeds of agency upkeep—Jimmy Carter was famously needled for tracking who used the White House tennis courts—but three and a half years of Obama’s leadership have prompted some critics to lament a management style they say lacks the decisiveness that comes from experience atop an enterprise.

Journalist Ron Suskind, in his recent book, Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President (HarperCollins, 2011), wrote that Obama led without sufficient “tough love” during the financial crisis.

“Disputes among his top advisers have become so acute, so fierce, that the president has had to step in and mediate many of them himself,” Suskind wrote. “He’s not getting what he needs to manage this daunting job, and some advisers have become convinced that his lack of experience, especially managerial experience, may be his undoing; that, at a time of peril, the president may simply not be up to the demands of this moment.” 

As the nation watched, Obama improvised amid clashing views on deficit reduction from then-National Economic Council Director Larry Summers and Peter Orszag, his first budget director. He sided with an informal adviser, former Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., on making health care reform a priority at a time of persistent joblessness, overruling his first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel.

Others contend Obama has a professorial tendency to talk issues to death. As National Journal chief correspondent Michael Hirsh wrote in his book Capital Offense: How Washington’s Wise Men Turned America’s Future Over to Wall Street (John Wiley & Sons, 2010), “Obama was nothing if not acutely sensitive to criticism that he didn’t welcome dissent. If there was one thing the brilliant, dynamic new president took pride in—that his advisers never ceased marveling over—it was Obama’s relentless insistence on thrashing every issue out thoroughly, even if it took months.”

In the community of federal workers, some say the president should do more to cultivate agency executives and boost morale at a time when civil servants are under political attack. 

“I don’t think any president in modern times has truly been a good manager of government as an organization,” says Max Stier, president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Though he hasn’t worked with Obama firsthand, Stier cites anecdotal evidence that Obama is “intellectually curious and smart and wants to be thoughtful, but is not so involved in every decision that he doesn’t delegate.” 

An administration wants both to attract talent and to manage the talent, Stier adds. “All of Obama’s questions seem to address that second piece, but he’s not putting in time as president to focusing on how the government writ large would work better.”

Yet Obama’s stewardship of federal resources is an unsung accomplishment, according to Gary Bass, longtime head of the nonprofit OMB Watch and now executive director of the Bauman Foundation. He cites the president’s hiring of former corporate management consultant Jeffrey Zients as his chief performance officer, who launched a series of directives to bring federal management “into the 21st century.”

President George W. Bush “gets credit for moving in that direction, but Obama, without a lot of fanfare, brought a certain amount of careful regimen to the way management should be approached,” Bass says. “During the campaign, he talked about going through the budget line by line, and he never really did, but he has tried to move government more in that direction.”

During the transition, Obama displayed organizational skills, according to Martha Joynt Kumar, a professor of political science at Towson University and author of books on the media and the presidency. He chose the White House staff first, “something we’ve learned over the years they should do,” and put the decision-making process in place, she says, noting President Clinton waited on many hires until the week before his inauguration.  

The incoming Obama people “had a chance to talk to their counterparts” in the Bush administration, in addition to reading the thorough written materials the Bush team made a special effort to prepare, Kumar says.

The Obama appointments process did not go quite as smoothly, Kumar adds, because it lacked a central planner and clear rules. “One problem he ran up against was a campaign promise on ethics that proved difficult to implement,” she says. The new White House ban on hiring former lobbyists was intended to minimize corporate influence, but it also hampered hiring of former lobbyists who were then working at nonprofits.

Obama’s record suggests some difficulty facing up to firings—recall the awkward departure of his first White House counsel, Greg Craig, whose efforts to keep a campaign promise to shut down the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay were blocked by Congress.  

The president was unable to head off the departure of his first chief of the Council of Economic Advisers, Christina
Romer, an academic who had sought a higher stimulus package than proved politically feasible and who reportedly chafed at a perceived “old boys” network.

He’s on his third chief of staff. Emanuel, now mayor of Chicago, was replaced by centrist businessman William Daley who, after a struggling year, gave way to budget mechanic Jack Lew, former chief of the Office of Management and Budget. 

But the president has demonstrated the shrewdness of a manager who thinks three steps ahead. Naming Hillary Clinton as secretary of State made for a more unified message from the Democratic White House. He gave Vice President Joe Biden substantive roles in budget talks with Republicans and in championing the Campaign to Cut Waste. And Obama installed consumer activist and law professor Elizabeth Warren to set up the fledgling Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, even though he reportedly knew that opposition from Republicans and the banking industry would deny her a permanent appointment.

Only 44 men in U.S. history have experienced the ride-the-tiger feeling of assuming the presidency. That is why some have cut the young Obama, who took the oath of office at age 47, some management slack that perhaps they wouldn’t allow for a corporate chieftain who rose through the ranks.

During the 2008 campaign, Goolsbee recalls, “it seemed we had a more leisurely time frame, more time for chewing on things, even though it seemed impossibly hectic.” But in the first year and a half in office, he adds, “we were in the middle of a crisis, we had no time. We had to decide.” 

The Obama Style 

The way to conserve President Obama’s time is to avoid too many meetings by putting things in a memo.

That strategy was revealed through leaked emails in a January article by Washington correspondent Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker. Each night Obama is given a binder of documents to read before he retires, he wrote. Some are background papers, while others are “decision memos,” with check-the-box options offered: Agree, Disagree or Let’s Discuss. The president marks the papers with notes and questions before returning them in a Back From the Oval folder that is then indexed and sent to relevant staff.

Obama’s top aides control the number of options he sees. For the 2009 economic stimulus package, for example, he was given a chart of six possible policies, but only four choices of dollar amounts, none as large as the figures many in-dependent economists recommended,Lizza reported. When presented with a plan to improve government performance and reduce waste, Obama wrote back, “This is good stuff—we need to constantly publicize our successful efforts here.” 

Face-to-face meetings with the president range from the formality of a Cabinet meeting (often devoted to a theme, such as small business or the killing of Osama bin Laden), to an intelligence or economic briefing, to a “decision meeting” limited to core stakeholders.

According to Goolsbee, White House staffers compose a meeting agenda and decision memo, which are circulated in advance to relevant players from agencies, often including OMB. The subject—and few are inconsequential—might be fuel economy standards for the automobile industry, or determining the administration’s position on the expiring tax cuts for high-income Americans. The memo “might lay out six different decisions, such as whether to raise revenue or cut spending on A, B or C,” he says.

The president has complained if the memo “makes it look like we’re all on the same page,” Goolsbee says. Obama likes decision memos to contain “some idea that there was opposition,” he adds, which means including some things that otherwise might have been “left off in the second-to-last draft.”

Unlike some of his predecessors Obama actively runs meetings. “Usually the person who organized the meeting wants to go through the memo, but more often the president has already read it and wants to jump ahead to deciding or asking questions,” Goolsbee says. “You can tell a new adviser when he has to learn that the president’s style is that he’s not learning things for the first time.”

Despite Obama’s easygoing, professorial demeanor, anecdotes abound showing a sterner side that emerges during meetings involving monumental decisions. As recounted in Noam Scheiber’s book The Escape Artists: How Obama’s Team Fumbled the Recovery (Simon & Schuster, 2011), when debating a new bailout of financial institutions with Summers and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Obama said, “Look, I’m going to get a haircut and have dinner with my family. You’ve heard me. When I come back I want this issue resolved.”  

Obama is surprisingly conversant with details, Goolsbee adds. In contrast with President Reagan—who reportedly at a reception failed to recognize his own Housing and Urban Development secretary—Obama “is familiar with all the deputies as well as the principals.”

During discussions of the financial crisis “we would bring in lots of smart people in an area, and 100 percent of them would come out and say, ‘Wow, he really knows about this,’ ” Goolsbee says. “I attribute it to his Socratic background as a lawyer.”

Management Tools

In May 2009, the Obama team had settled in sufficiently to introduce budget documents outlining what would become its Accountable Government Initiative. Plans included hiring several hundred thousand employees and replacing the George W. Bush administration’s Program Assessment Rating Tool.

During the next three years OMB rolled out a continuous set of management initiatives via executive order, presidential memoranda and directives to agency heads from the budget director, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy and the administrator of the Office of Information and
Regulatory Affairs.

Their goals, along with data on their results, have been regularly highlighted in White House blog posts. The agenda comprised tracking stimulus spending on Recovery.gov; exploiting information technology; evaluating federal programs using data analytics; putting agency performance data online for public review; reducing improper payments to contractors and grantees; reducing reliance on contractors; making buildings more energy efficient; cutting government waste by trimming spending on printing, travel, conferences and swag; selling off unneeded federal properties; reviewing existing and pending regulations to roll back those deemed too costly or obsolete; modernizing agency record-keeping practices; seeking congressional authority to reorganize agencies; improving agency customer service; and setting cross-agency priority goals.

To OMB-watcher Bass, the private sector-type management improvements that Zients pursued have been a “breath of fresh air.” From streamlining the hiring process to better use of IT to launching the SAVE award to get employees to submit cost-savings proposals, Bass says, “Zients is very skilled at what he’s doing.”

Obama came late to backing the 2010 Government Performance and Results Modernization Act, designed to hold agencies accountable for efficiency goals. But the president “jumped in and eventually helped shape it dramatically and gave agencies a fair amount of discretion while adhering to certain principles,” Bass says.

Similarly, Obama as a senator worked with Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., to improve USAspending.com, which was launched under Bush, he says. The governmentwide results reporting site Performance.gov “has been criticized for not being as robust and as public as it should be,” Bass says, “but it’s a step in the right direction” toward linking performance to budget planning.

But to Robert J. Shea, an associate director at OMB during the George W. Bush years, Obama’s management agenda lacks an orderly structure.

Bush’s agenda was “designed around five pillars: human capital, performance, finance, IT and procurement,” Shea says. Led by Clay Johnson, an experienced manager who had known the president well since college, Bush’s staff developed “a simple device to track implementation of the reforms,” Shea adds. “The management agenda score card allowed you to see who’s up and who’s down and inevitably focused attention on who was behind.” He cites Bush’s faith-based social services initiative, the flaws of which were addressed after reviews showed poor implementation across the board.

Shea, now a principal at Grant Thornton LLP, sees no similar organizing principle from Obama, noting that Zients did not assemble components of the Accountable Government Initiative in a memo until May 2012.

Protecting the Workforce

On Feb. 11, 2010, a year into the Obama administration, presidential counselor Pete Rouse wrote a memo about improving the “efficacy of the collective operation” at the White House by implementing greater discipline on who has access to the president’s time. 

Those changes would give way after Republicans won the House and Washington split further into battle stations over debt and taxes and a renewed focus on managing while seeking reelection. As Obama advisers like David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs left Washington for campaign headquarters in Chicago, control of the West Wing’s message passed to political strategist David Plouffe.

But for a federal workforce whose pay and benefits are under steady attack, the president’s message has not always been reassuring. True, the White House marked Public Service Recognition Week in May with a proclamation signed by 15 Cabinet members, and in 2011, first lady Michelle Obama made a video in support of public servants. 

Zients in September 2010 sent a letter to 7,000 Senior Executive Service members calling them critical to the administration’s efforts. “We need these senior managers to continue to work with front-line workers to drive our performance improvement initiatives,” he wrote.

But by the end of 2010, Obama had announced a two-year pay freeze. “This decision was not made lightly,” wrote then-budget director Jack Lew as he recalled extraordinarily talented public servants who sacrifice every day to serve fellow Americans. “This pay freeze is not a reflection on their fine work. It is a reflection of the fiscal reality that we face.”

U.S. Controller Danny Werfel, asked by lawmakers in May 2012 about the “unrelenting verbal assault” on federal
workers by some in Congress, said, “The president wants an approach that’s balanced, not one riding on the backs of one segment, and it’s imperative that we recruit effectively and attract talent. It’s important that we recognize their accomplishments.” 

But the Partnership’s Stier says more could be done. This president is “missing an opportunity to focus on the positive,” he says. “You can’t always play defense. The government does do good things, and he should promote its successes. I don’t get a sense he’s asking about morale.” 

Obama should follow the lead of both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, Stier adds, and convene the entire cohort of senior executives at Constitution Hall in Washington to recognize their critical role in making policies work. “If he really understood the full operational reach of the organization he runs, he would see the SES as a corporate asset and treat it as such,” he says. “Once he’s gone, they’re the ones who will still be here to lead government.”

To Bass, Obama is still learning the use of power. “Maybe a pay freeze is necessary as a symbolic gesture in that we all need to tighten our belts,” he says. “He’s trying to strike a balance in the political equation, and he’s learning that the hyper-partisan tone in this town is not about striking a balance and sitting around the table to work it out.”

Obama himself has a different diagnosis, according to Suskind’s book. “The area in my presidency where I think my management and understanding of the presidency evolved most, and where I think we made the most mistakes,” the president said, “was less on the policy front and more on the communications front.”

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