How Obama Makes Decisions
There is a cliché in Washington. There are two things you do not want to see made: sausage and laws. To those we may add a third: Barack Obama's decisions.
Americans were warned by his opponents that Barack Obama was unprepared to be president. He had very little record to run on, and his one experience at being an executive was a failure -- his hushed up history running and running through a hundred million dollars as the head of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge in Chicago. He had a record of avoiding tough decisions (the "voting present" issue); he was just a celebrity who was not ready for the 3 A.M. phone call. The presidency was not an "on the job" training program.
After three years we can judge those fears to be well-warranted.
There are many people who have problems with his policies. Barrels of ink and billions of pixels have been used to criticize his agenda. But surprisingly little analysis has gone into figuring out the mystery of how Obama actually goes about making decisions.
Fortunately, over the last few years journalists have been obsessing over Barack Obama almost as much as he has been obsessing over himself. They have provided various vignettes that give us a disturbing picture of a man floundering in his own careless if not willful ineptitude.
Americans should have been alert to the paucity of his own record of accomplishment. As a state senator he showed little interest in learning the intricacies of legislation. Instead, his political mentor, Illinois State Senate President Emil Jones, allowed him to "bill-jack" the legislative work of others and claim it as his own. This was a practice he continued as a U.S. senator. He was unprepared to do the homework and heavy lifting -- that was for others to toil over.
If there is one constant to Barack Obama's life, it is his lack of a work ethic. I never doubted that the Barack Obama had stellar grades in college and law school. He surfed the wave of grade inflation that has probably always been a factor in his success. This is pure speculation, but the reason why he never released his transcripts was probably because they would have revealed that he took easy left-wing courses that would have reflected poorly on his work ethic. The laziness has persisted.
A leader has to be well-informed, consult with good advisers and experts, read and research, and make a decision. He has to prepare himself to be a leader.
We saw signs during the campaign that he had little interest in the issues of the day. The late Dean Barnett wrote in the Weekly Standard in a column titled "How Smart is Obama":
And there's also what appears to be a lack of intellectual curiosity. Abe Greenwald of Commentary's blog calls our attention to this nugget from an enjoyable New York Times profile of Obama "body man" Reggie Love:
Along the way, some unofficial rules have emerged between the candidate and his aide. From Mr. Obama: "One cardinal rule of the road is, we don't watch CNN, the news or MSNBC. We don't watch any talking heads or any politics. We watch 'SportsCenter' and argue about that."
So how, pray tell, is Obama staying informed about what's going on in the world? When he's pressing the flesh at crummy rural diners and speaking before 75,000 adoring acolytes, he's talking, not listening. Don't you think a guy who might be president would be obsessed with world events? Don't you think that obsession would have driven him into the race? And don't you think as a potential wartime leader he might be using his downtime to study, just in case he wins?
Obama has made a habit of coming across like a man who doesn't know what he's talking about. That's bothersome enough, but what's more worrisome still is how comfortable he is with not knowing what he's talking about, and how convinced he seems that his rhetorical flourishes will obscure his ignorance. That strategy may work on the campaign trail, but it certainly won't help him govern.
Perhaps that was why he could so readily dismiss Iran as being a "tiny country" that posed no threat. And that was just one of many statements that had a Republican made them would have been broadcast far and wide.
If anything, his television-watching has gone downhill. Now he watches Spongebob Squarepants and Hannah Montana -- albeit with his daughters (a fact that calls into question his fathering ability but it is a step above having them hear Jeremiah Wright's racist and anti-American rants).
Alas, how true Barnett's prophecy regarding Obama's ignorance and inability to govern has been.
Ron Suskind's book Confidence Men portrays Barack Obama as being confounded by his duties as president. Some of the scenes depicted by Suskind would be comical if they were not so tragic for America.
For example, when Obama's experts assembled to discuss the scope and intricacies of the stimulus bill, Barack Obama was out of his depth. He was "surprisingly aloof in the conversation" and seemed "disconnected and less in control." His contributions were rare and consisted of blurting out such gems of wisdom as "There needs to be more inspiration here!" and "What about more smart grids" and -- one more that Newt Gingrich would appreciate -- "we need more moon shot" (pages 154-5).
Members of the team were perplexed...for the first time in the transition, people started to wonder just how prepared the man at the helm was.
He repeated a similar sorry performance when he had a conference call with Speaker Pelosi and her staff to discuss the details of the planned stimulus bill. He shouted into the speakerphone that "this stimulus needs more inspiration! Pelosi and her staff visibly rolled their eyes."
Presidential exhortations more befitting a summer camp counselor will evoke such reactions.
Perhaps if Obama had been a better leader he would have been able to assemble better advisers who could have prepped him for the rigors of the office. He was counseled by Washington veteran Erskine Bowles to "leave your friends at home. They just create problems when you get to Chicago." So what did Obama do? He ignored Bowles (presaging how he later ignored the Simpson-Bowles commission on fiscal responsibility).
As Timothy Noah wrote in the New Republic:
He brought Axelrod and Jarrett to the White House, made Emanuel chief of staff, and eventually replaced Emanuel with Daley. The rap against Obama's White House management style became that he was too dependent on old friends and fellow Chicagoans.
Almost all have left -- as have a number of others. But who stayed? Valerie Jarrett -- his own Svengali -- who plays a key role in Obama's decision-making process. Should President Obama rely upon her in making decisions? Her own record as a businesswoman is flecked with failure. Matthew Continetti recently characterized her, with good reason, as "The Worst White House Aide," who has a perfect record of giving bad advice.
Should we be surprised by Barack Obama's choice of his closest adviser? Lest we forget, he described Jeremiah Wright as his "moral compass" and "sounding board."
This reliance is a particular problem because Barack Obama runs the most insular White House in memory. He rarely reaches out to members of the other party for their advice and suggestions (despite the fact that they represent millions of voters), and when he does so, it is mostly for photo-ops. The sessions are not productive. For instance, in January 2009 he met with congressional leaders to discuss the stimulus package. Senator Kyl questioned the plan. Obama's response was "I won." A year later there was another bipartisan meeting to discuss health care reform where Obama gave the Republicans short shrift and unequal time because, he said, "I'm the president."
Republicans should not fret, though, since Democrats are also frozen out. Barack Obama does not reach out to them for their ideas or input. Liberal Washington Post columnists noted his refusal to touch base with fellow Democrats. In her column "The Where's Waldo Presidency," Ruth Marcus noted the "startling number of occasions in which the president has been missing in action -- unwilling, reluctant or late to weigh in on the issues of the moment." Memo to Marcus: check the links, the basketball court, or the East Room jazz club.
His having remained aloof from budget negotiations and his absence from supercommittee talks made for such an abdication of leadership that they earned a rebuke from Erskine Bowles. And so it goes -- the Invisible Man hiding in the Oval Office or reveling in adoration showered on him at expensive elite fundraisers.
Compare and contrast this behavior with President Bill Clinton, Lyndon Johnson, or John Kennedy. They were all policy wonks -- able and eager to reach out to experts and politicians from across the aisle, day or evening and, in the case of Lyndon Johnson, even when he was in the bathroom. Instead, Barack Obama seems to avoid interaction with those who could help him make wise decisions.
Indeed, he showed a similar aversion as a law lecturer at the University of Chicago.
There was a revealing New York Times report during the 2008 campaign that portrayed him as a faculty member at the University of Chicago Law School who refused to have intellectual repartee with other teachers. He would just walk right by other academics who were chatting about the law. There seems to be a pattern of someone who wants to avoid having his intellect scrutinized (tellingly, of course, he never completed a single work of legal scholarship). Is he fearful of revealing that he is not the grand intellect that besotted journalists have proclaimed him to be? Is this why he is tethered to the teleprompter? Do his handlers know something we do not?
Certainly when he goes off the prompter he says some truly ridiculous things (Hawaii is in Asia, there are 57 states in America, "spread the wealth").
Despite his early boast that "I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors," the reality is far different than the claim. That might explain why he just decided to stop receiving daily economic briefings early in his presidency, despite the pain and suffering that millions of Americans have experienced during his reign, and why he would just walk out on Stephen Chu, his energy secretary, after only a few slides had been shown (the rudeness punctuated with "Steve, I'm done") that explained the complexities of the BP oil spill? After all, when one "knows more about policy" than mere mortals, who needs to waste one's time with experts -- even Nobel Prize-winning scientists?
Why should taxpayers even fund experts when we have an omniscient president making up fact-free policy? Perhaps we should just lay off thousands of people who toil away in the federal government trying to find facts. American taxpayers can just rely on Barack Obama.
Indeed, a good rule of thumb to judge Obama is to take his boast, reverse it, and then apply it to Obama. He seems out of his depth when discussing policy, so he avoids press conferences and becomes irate during the rare times a non-fawning journalist poses a challenging question to him. Or he is just reduced to "gibberish," as Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson described his answer to ABC News's Jake Tapper over a question regarding his broken promise to reduce debt .
Or he relies on fluff as deep as "hope," "change," and "yes we can," as he did during the campaign. Now he depends on "fat cats" and "fairness." They are easy to remember and are not as challenging for him as being able to comprehend and explain actual policy.
His vanity leads to an aversion to showing how unprepared he is to be president.
The best ticket in town would be a debate between Congressman Paul Ryan and Barack Obama regarding the huge deficits and debt Obama has imposed on us and our children. Ryan has a fluency and knowledge of these vital issues that dwarf those of Obama. Instead of cooperating with Ryan, he ambushes and insults him in public and for good measure later insulted opponents of his job bill for being unable to understand the "whole thing at once" so "we're going to break it into bite-sized pieces."
Psychologists would call this "projection."
This refusal to do the homework necessary to make good decisions is worrisome on several levels. It led to not only legislation being outsourced to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, but also to foreign policy decisions that seem to come from either the Arab League or the United Nations, or from some sudden inspiration of his disconnect from reality. After all, the path of least resistance is just to do nothing, "lead from behind," or let others do the work. At times, he appears to have adopted a "hear no evil, see no evil" approach that may conflict with the facts and with statements made by his own officials but has the virtue of avoiding the mere prospect of having to make a decision.
Did he not do his research or ask experts when he violated, for example, agreements made with Israel regarding settlements? Or seek counsel when he broke agreements with East European allies to station missiles on their land as part of his feckless reset with Russia? Or violated the War Powers Act by waging war in Libya?
Perhaps ignorance is bliss -- as blissful as a sunny day on the fairway.
Now, of course, he has gone full-bore into campaign mode, and his decisions are geared to improving his own re-election prospects (the omnipresent David Plouffe, Obama's senior political adviser, has become a de facto decider-in-chief).
One can point to myriad examples that prompt inquiries along the lines of "how did he make that decision?"
Yet, Barack Obama claims that he has gotten better as president. One can certainly hope so. But recent evidence does not show so. Ryan Lizza recently wrote a New Yorker column that gave readers insight into how the president makes decisions, and it is as unappealing as watching sausage being made. Mickey Kaus at the Daily Caller distilled the essence of Obama's decision-making:
The President's decision-making method...seems to consist mainly of checking boxes on memos his aides have written for him. ... He's presented with a list of $60 billion in cuts to his core stimulus policies, and writes "OK." ... He "authorize[s] his staff" to plan a likely-to-be-useless "bipartisan 'fiscal summit,'" asks "what are the takeaways" is told he could "ask .. for continued dialogue," and doesn't write "this is all BS" and cancel the summit, which in fact proves useless. ... He's given a memo on cutting government waste and writes "This is good stuff-we need to constantly publicize our successful efforts here." Does he later notice that either the efforts or the attempt to publicize them were wildly ineffective? ... He's asked to check a box saying whether he wants to fund his "child nutrition agenda" out of the money for community colleges. ... He's asked about including medical malpractice reform in his health care bill, and writes ("in his characteristically cautious and reasonable style") that "we should explore it." ... He's presented a plan for a watered-down tax on multinationals or a very watered down tax. He writes "worth discussing."
Finally, he's presented with a classic three-box-con memo-two extreme boxes (big new jobs package, big new deficit package) and a safer middle box ("smaller, more symbolic" deficit efforts), a matrix clearly designed to get him to choose the middle option. He chooses the middle option.
His handlers have been reduced to managing the president in a way more appropriate for a child in grade school.
Kaus is incredulous that Obama can't just "be an executive who spend his days checking boxes, accepting the choices presented by his aides, never reaching outside them through unconventional channels or reaching unconventional thinkers, never throwing over the framework with which he is presented."
Can't the presidency be a multiple choice exam? Those are always the easiest tests especially for unprepared people in over their heads -- as President Obama has proven himself to be.
Ed Lasky is news editor of American Thinker.