The Obama way: Assessing the president's management approach

Pete Souza/White House

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.”

In the July issue of Government Executive, senior correspondent Charles S. Clark looks at President Obama's evolving leadership style. Click
here to read the full story and here for a special report on the administration's management initiatives.

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