Monday, November 14, 2011

Obama and Management

Today's topic seems to be whether Barack Obama fell short as a manager during his first two years. Matt Yglesias:
I have this sense that when history looks back on 2009-2010 in American political history, it’s going to come away with the conclusion that a larger-than-currently-understood share of the problems had to do with poor handling of routine managerial issues.
See also Ezra Klein. On the other hand, Kevin Drum:
Overall, my sense is that when it comes to routine management, the Obama White House is clearly better than either the Carter or Clinton administrations in their first couple of years, and probably better than the Bush Jr. administration too...FWIW, my guess is that when history looks back on 2009-10, it's going to come away with two quite different conclusions. First, that Obama was more productive than his contemporaries gave him credit for. Second, the global financial meltdown was way worse than initially thought, and the response of leaders throughout the world was woefully inadequate.
I think I want to split the difference. My feeling is that internal White House management was quite good, both for the transition and the first two years in office. "Quite good" is still going to leave plenty of counterexamples, and doesn't prevent poor policy choices, but it seems to me that the evidence we have is that the process was pretty good in most cases, and there were relatively few unforced errors from within the White House. But I do think that the emphasis from the beginning was on the White House and Congress, and that the executive branch agencies and departments too often took a back seat. That's most obvious in appointments, but I suspect we'll find down the road that there are all sorts of nooks and crannies where Obama allowed the status quo to continue without a fight. For the most part that's all about 2nd and 3rd (and 4th and 5th) tier issues, but those matter too. The idea of being a good manager is to increase the influence of the president across the board, and to the extent Obama didn't do that at various spots in the exec branch, that's a real failure.

All that said...I've increasingly come be believe that the big mistake they made was in failing to push Congress to an emergency schedule in spring 2009. I still don't really think they could have passed a larger immediate stimulus through the Benator and the others whose votes they needed at the time. But I suspect they could have done three other things. First, some sort of long-term neutral automatic stabilizer for state budgets. Second, Dodd-Frank: yes, major legislation usually takes time, but my impression is that the ingredients were all there, and putting it together quickly might have actually meant that it would have drawn (then-needed) GOP votes. And the third one is the one I and others have talked about forever, which is getting the exec branch fully staffed quickly. All of this would have required Congress to work a lot faster than normal in January through, say, May 2009, but as a short-term strategy I think that would have been feasible.

But failing to do that, especially the first two but also to some extent the nominations, wasn't as far as I can see a consequence of poor management. (Clarification: I think some of the problem with nominations was about the WH/Congress emphasis, but another part was probably deferring to Harry Ried's estimates of how much could be done and how fast it could be done).

With one big caveat, which is that I haven't even read all the stuff that's been published so far claiming to show what's happening behind the scenes, and we'll no doubt know a whole lot more at some point in the future. So all of this is very much provisional and based on my understanding, which could itself be wrong, of what we think we know at this point.


  1. Does this confuse 'management' and 'leadership?'

    I think Obama's shown himself to be a relatively good manager:

    There's little in the way of scandal. Try as you might, Solyndra and fouled-up sting involving guns don't rise to the levels of, for instance, torture, invading a country on falsehood, selling illegal arms to ward a terrorist group in another country, breaking and entering, or wiretapping citizens illegally. Two actions that might rise to this level are targeted execution of an American citizen and military actions in Libya; but both were made in public, and not hidden, so don't seem to rise to the scandal level so much as the wrong-doing level.

    Another indicator of management skill would be better regulatory enforcement; so avoiding the types of scandals that resulted in deep-water oil spills and failing to investigate characters like Madoff after being tipped off something was screwy. Again, I think the Obama administration has done a phenomenal job; perhaps even too good a job, particularly when it comes to state laws that conflict with federal law.

    Still another indicator of management skill might come from looking at military management; troop draw-downs, refocusing on Afghanistan, etc. And of couurse, defense contracting; which I have not heard much about, except from Michelle Bachmann at Saturday's debate.

    Management failures include failing to nominate people to positions, particularly to the bench and Treasury. But that leads to Congress. And so the next failure would be failing to pass a budget and raise the debt ceiling in the lame-duck session of 2010.

    Policies that involve accomplishing anything with Congressional approval I'd say go beyond Obama and Executive management and into leadership issues; and Obama's ability to lead against the grain of party obstruction.

  2. It is scarcely possible for any politician to escape a controversy over his own competence, when the opposing party is committed to hiding their own lack of serious proposals by a constant wailing that the executive from the other party is "incompetent." Given today's political-media environment, where that opposing party has a whole series of media and non-profit allies who will trumpet any ideological lie that momentarily serves their purposes -- take the example of the "Christmas tree tax" -- it is scarcely possible for a politician who cannot command such an instant, intense media following for his own efforts to be considered competent, by any observer.

    If the upper levels of the Democratic Party knew how to fight for their own interests, the glaring imcompetence of the field of Republican Presidential contenders would be the hot issue of the day.

  3. One of the remarkable things about Obama is how many folks have difficulty recognizing when the President is a lot smarter than they are. Any complaints about Obama's management style need to take into account the obvious fact that Obama has been, at least for the first 3 years of his Administration, truly committed to pushing Congress back into being a co-equal branch of government. At least on domestic issues, that is. For good or ill, Obama has accepted the Presidency grabbing all the foreign policy authority it can. But that long term goal of nudging Congress away from its decades-long trend of abdicating more and more of its role as policy maker is clearly the explanation for some of the so-called management failures people are complaining about.


  4. Anon/Mike's point is well-taken.
    Zic: I'm not sure how many of those are "scandals" and how many are just different policy positions.

    However, if Solyndra is the best that Issa can come up with, I would say that the Obama WH has avoided scandal pretty well.

    The problem with management is that it's so hard to see. There's the real possibility that we're not seeing good OR bad management going on. The scandals might not have been found yet...or there might not be any to find. However, the lack of stories showing agencies falling apart suggests that Obama's management has been fine.....absent the huge nominations gaping hole.

  5. p-ron,

    I really don't agree. Yes, Republicans are going to throw a whole lot of stuff at the wall, and the stuff they throw at FNC will stick there, and from there seep into the rest of it. Yes, the GOP field has a bunch of clowns.

    But none of that, IMO, has anything to do with whether Obama is doing a good job at the presidency, or particularly makes assessing that any more difficult. It is difficult, but not for those reasons.

  6. Pundits are dangerous when they start talking about things outside their core compentcy.

    Obama's managment has been disasterous. Focusing on the appointments issue is misleading; it isn't just the appointments, it is the knowledge on how to move the machine ahead a few steps.

    Appointments have been slow because they are being too carefully vetted -- and checked for personal loyalty. No more Van Jones! But it is also the people you've appointed. Two (formerly three) decent cabinet members. Remember the CTO? Jeff Zients? Who else has vanished

    A large part of this was picking Orzag, who couldn't do the M side of OMB. But it's reflective of a larger problem. JB casually dismissed second, third, and fouth tier issues But that is the heart of goverment. Whether it is mine reform, banking regulation, FICA reform, or another other fourth tier issue, there is a real lack of vision and planning.

    As I said, state and Transporation have been largely immune from that. But otherwise, there haven't been any marching orders.

    OMB is becoming a bad joke, really.

  7. Charlie,

    I don't think you're reading me correctly, which perhaps is my fault...I'm saying that Obama deserves good marks for internal WH management and Hill liaison, but has far too often neglected exec branch functions. Forgetting the M in OMB is very much consistent with that (although to be fair I can't remember an administration that wasn't accused of the same thing). Anyway, while I can't speak to the specifics you mention, I don't think we disagree by all that much. I don't know that I'd use the word "disastrous", but I don't know what I wouldn't, and I do think he's far too often neglected exec branch operation.

  8. Obama was inexperienced and unqualified for the position he holds, and the first place that would show up would be in the day to day management of affairs. Much of this void can be filled if detailed work is handled by others, as in any WH. But eventually, directional choices formed in a void of experience will set the table for policy and political failure, which is what we're seeing. These bloggers and that recent book writer note the lack of day to day management skill, yes, but that would go uncommented if the overall strategic direction was sound. It's not, and it's that that's leading to the failure of this administration.

  9. @Anon/Mike 9:14, I think it was a mistake for Obama to sit back and let the Congressional Democrats behave the way they did.

    The whole Democratic party was damaged by the writing and rewriting of the ACA. The messaging on ACA was terribly inadequate on the Democratic side. Obama should have been THE party leader, not just an observer of Pelosi and Senate Dems. Pushing the Congress to lead on domestic policy is a good idea only when the Congressional leaders are up to the task of leadership.


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