Obama's strong-willed team will test his management skills

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 5, 2008 

WASHINGTON — Franklin D. Roosevelt loved to have his aides argue in front of him, the better to see all sides before picking one himself.

Richard Nixon tried the same approach, didn't like it, and stopped it. Bill Clinton, too, wanted to hear a lot of voices, but sometimes "drowned" in the cacophony, in the words of one analyst.

Now Barack Obama is poised to try it himself. He's named a strong-willed team to top Cabinet and White House staff positions, some of whom disagree with him on key issues. Obama said he wants to avoid "groupthink" and signaled that he wants to hear a range of opinions before deciding on the best course.

If he can manage them, it's likely the best way to govern, analysts say. If not, he could be stuck mediating a bunch of feuding egotists unable to coalesce even once he's made a final decision.

"It tells us how he wants to govern, with the best and brightest, with strong, often different and conflicting views helping to hammer out the best option," said Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist and scholar of the presidency at the University of Texas at Austin. "We have to watch to see if he can make it work. We don't yet have much inside information about his campaign and how it worked, or how much dissent they had inside to know for sure."

In the month since he was elected, Obama has rolled out a team that includes such political and policy heavyweights as Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., to be secretary of state, former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers to be chairman of the National Economic Council, current Defense Secretary Robert Gates to retain his post, former Marine Corps Gen. James Jones to be his National Security Adviser, and veteran Sen. Joe Biden to be his vice president.

All are richly experienced in the ways of Washington power, all are forceful advocates for their own positions, and most have disagreed with Obama.

Clinton, for example, criticized Obama's commitment to meet without precondition any foreign leader, including unsavory dictators. Gates disagreed with Obama's campaign call for a timetable to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq within 16 months. Both disputes involve central policy decisions for the new administration.

That's just fine with Obama. He wants them to disagree — with each other, and with him.

"I'm a strong believer in strong personalities and strong opinions," he said recently. "I think that's how the best decisions are made. One of the dangers in the White House, based on my reading of history, is that you get wrapped up in 'groupthink' and everybody agrees with everything and there's no discussion and there are no dissenting views."

Analysts agree.

"The biggest mistakes in modern history have come through a very narrow, highly controlled decision process, where they (presidents) see only what the chief of staff and a small group of aides wants them to see," said Paul Light, a professor of political science at New York University and an expert on presidential transitions.

"That happened with Bush in Iraq, probably with Clinton and health-care reform, maybe with George H.W. Bush going into Somalia. . . . It varies. George W. Bush really did not seek a great deal of dissent. Bill Clinton liked dissent but sometimes drowned in it."

While Obama has no executive experience beyond managing his successful campaign, the model of watching ideas debated and argued in front of him isn't new. It resembles the way he had students argue points when he taught constitutional law.

"That's part of the academic part of his personality. He's comfortable with an intellectual give and take," said Michael Franc, vice president for government affairs at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy organization in Washington.

Managing it in the White House, however, will be more challenging — with more issues coming at him far faster, and more forcefully, than they do in a law school class.

Key to success will include the role the incoming White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, plays in making sure that various views get to the president, ensuring that they aren't clouded by turf battles, then making sure the president's final choices are carried out.

The chief of staff is critical to this style of governing, analysts said.

One who controls the flow of dissenting opinions in order to marshal power for himself — think of John Sununu in the first Bush White House or Donald Regan in the second Reagan term — can shut out important voices the president should hear.

Yet a chief cannot let the president keep debating something over and over and over too much — think of Thomas "Mack" McLarty, who was unable to manage Bill Clinton and his late-night strategy sessions early in his first term.

"The White House doesn't give a president as much time as he will need to collect every scintilla of information, weigh it and decide," Light said. "He's going to need some help winnowing the opinion."

If Obama's advisers bring a range of different views on top issues, they don't necessarily bring a wide range of ideology. They're generally seen as pragmatic and centrist.

"They range from center-left to further left. He hasn't brought in robust free-market acolytes or strong defense hawks. To the extent they are hawks, they're very moderate," Franc said.

"But no alarm bells have gone off in conservative circles indicating he's picking a bunch of left-wing lunatics. These people are respected on both sides of the aisle. It looks like he's heading toward a centrist position on both foreign policy and the economic front."

ON THE WEB

From The Christian Science Monitor: Obama's team of stars: Can he manage it?

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