Monday, September 24, 2012

President Obama's Decision Making

The Romney campaign has claimed that President Obama has been skipping intelligence briefings. The Washington Post Fact Checker gives this claim three Pinocchios.
"Obama reads his PDB every day, but he does not always require an in-person briefing every day. The White House argument is that this is how Obama structured his White House operation, so it is specious to say he has “skipped” a meeting that was not actually scheduled........

"Our colleague Walter Pincus earlier this year examined how Obama has handled his morning foreign-policy discussions:
Obama reads the PDB ahead of time and comes to the morning meeting with questions. Intelligence briefers are there to answer those questions, expand on a point or raise a new issue. [National Intelligence Director James] Clapper may be present once or twice a week, but most often one of his deputies is in attendance in case an intelligence community issue arises.
"When Pincus refers to the 'morning meeting,' he is describing a regular national security meeting that is held every day at 9:30 a.m. with the president’s top advisers.........

"Clearly, different presidents have structured their daily briefing from the CIA to fit their unique personal styles. Many did not have an oral briefing, while three – two of whom are named Bush – preferred to deal directly with a CIA official. Obama appears to have opted for a melding of the two approaches, in which he receives oral briefings, but not as frequently as his predecessor."

Obama Decision Making

John Dean published a discussion of President Obama's decision making several years ago in FindLaw. I quote extensively:
Jonathan Alter's Study of Obama as Decisionmaker: A Deductive Thinker with a Vertical Mind ......
Jonathan Alter has written the first important examination of the Obama presidency -- The Promise: President Obama, Year One -- and in chronicling Obama's first year in office, Alter looked closely at the new president's decision-making style.

Alter, a Newsweek editor and author, has covered Washington and the presidency for years. As a U.S. Senator, Obama had read and admired Alter's last work, The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope (2007), and President Obama granted Alter full access to his White House, an opportunity which Alter did not waste. This bestseller takes readers inside the Obama White House for a look at the players and how they work.......

Given the attention that Obama's decision-making received during the campaign, it is not surprising to find that, as president, he is making decisions in a very similar fashion. While Obama has had no serious executive experience, he is something of a natural, with his decision process following a pattern that he first developed as a law student when he headed the Harvard Law Review. The approaches to decision-making that Alter found in the White House are not very different from the approaches Obama developed during the campaign, and which were reported by PBS.

For purposes of comparison, however, Alter looks at the style of other presidents as well. Alter finds that Obama's decision-making style falls "somewhere between [President Bill] Clinton's deep if gauzy discussions and Bush's snap judgments based on instinct." "Clinton was volcanic and discursive; Obama [is] cool and focused," Alter reports. 
Alter continues, "Clinton was an inductive thinker with a horizontal mind. He talked to people in wide-ranging college bull sessions (or late at night on the phone) to establish a broad array of policy and political options, then looked at them in context and fashioned a synthetic and often brilliant political approach out of the tangled strands of analysis." By comparison, Alter concludes, "Obama [is] a deductive thinker with a vertical mind." Obama thinks "deeply about a subject, [and] organiz[es] it lucidly into point-by-point arguments." Obama favors "decision memos that include options but contain clear policy recommendations." Obama places "more faith in logic than imagination," and insists "on a process that [is] tidy without being inflexible." Clinton constantly second-guessed his decisions; Obama makes a decision and moves on, unless new and compelling evidence arises.
Alter describes, and gives context and perspective to, President Obama's remarkable "cool" -- his self-confident demeanor, his striking calmness during crisis and troubles, and his highly-focused mind. With Obama, there are no Clinton "purple fits" or tantrums; and no Bush emotional "go with the gut" reactions, says Alter.

Yet Obama understands, apparently, that being too cool is not good. Nonetheless, Obama has often been compared to the overly-composed, emotionless and highly rational Mr. Spock from the Star Trek series, because of the way he too relies on reason rather than emotion, and uses logic to enter the minds of other people. Alter reports that the president has a good sense of humor about all this, and indeed, when a new Star Trek movie was released in early 2009, the president had it screened at the White House. For several days thereafter, President Obama "got a kick out of flashing the Vulcan salute" to his staff. The conclusion that Alter draws from Obama's unflappable nature and "no-drama" White House is that it is an "asset in decision-making.".......
This much is clear: While Vulcans may make great decisions without emotions, humans do not do so very well. The key is striking the right balance, and if Jonathan Alter has it right, and Obama's style is somewhere between that of Bill Clinton and George Bush, we may have one of the better decision-makers currently residing in the White House.

Others have noted that Obama holds discussions with his staff including some second tier staffers. He will take different sides in a discussion himself, thereby disguising his personal preference (if he has one), in order to get all opinions on the table. He will sometimes specifically ask lower ranking people at the table for their opinions, occasionally thus eliciting views different from their bosses'.

It has been suggested that in the early days of dealing with the financial crisis, when he put together a team of all star economists to advise him, he spent too much time listening to clashing opinions and got too many views, but that he has now learned the lesson of that experience.

More on Obama's Decision Making

Felix Salmon notes in an opinion piece on Reuters that:

"Michael Lewis has a big profile of Barack Obama in the latest Vanity Fair, and Obama tells Lewis something very interesting:
Nothing comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable,” Obama tells Lewis. “Otherwise, someone else would have solved it. So you wind up dealing with probabilities. Any given decision you make you’ll wind up with a 30 to 40 percent chance that it isn’t going to work. You have to own that and feel comfortable with the way you made the decision. You can’t be paralyzed by the fact that it might not work out.”
Salmon interprets this as a misuse of ideas from probability in Obama's decision making. I take the quotation at face value -- that the president of the United States heading a huge administrative bureaucracy, is asked to make only those decisions that ought not be delegated to others. A president should be surrounded by senior staff who understand his policies and philosophy so well that many decisions for the administration can be delegated to them. Decisions percolate up to the president if and only if there is no clear solution to the posed problem . A decision memorandum will define several alternatives and the arguments in favor of and opposed to each. If the staff work has been done well, each of the alternatives will be real, and the potential benefits and risks of each will balance. A recommendation will be made, but in full understanding that the president may justly choose another alternative, or indeed ask for more staff work.

Moreover, it will not be clear what will happen if the president chooses any of the alternatives. Congress may not legislate the means to implement the decision, or not in the form that had been contemplated. The economy may not evolve in the way that economists have predicted, and fewer or more resources may be available to implement the policy that had been assumed. Opponents may define counter actions to respond to the decision in unforeseen ways. Acts of God may intervene. I read President Obama as saying in the quote above not only that he knows that his decisions may not work out has he had thought likely, but that there is a pretty good chance of surprises along the way.

I leave it to historians to decide whether Obama's decision making was good, bad or indifferent. I personally like the process as described.

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