Obama Never Checked In

Count me among the political scientists and historians who think that the most successful presidencies are the ones that have lots of internal division—infighting and disagreement—at the highest levels. Hence George Washington benefitted from the vigorous arguments between Hamilton and Jefferson (and Madison) about the bank and many other things; there’s Lincoln’s “team of rivals”; FDR’s “Brains Trust” was famously fractious, while LBJ insisted on uniformity of views and had no one, with the single exception of George Ball, who thought they were on the wrong course in Vietnam.

Then there’s this famous press conference exchange with President Reagan in 1981:

Question: Can I ask you one more question? There have been specific reports that your Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense are not getting along and that they argue in front of you. Can you comment on those reports?

President Reagan: The whole Cabinet argues in front of me. That was the system that I wanted installed.

In a 1983 interview with USA Today Reagan dilated the point:

“I understand that in the past, Cabinets, for example—each person had his own turf and no one else in the Cabinet would talk about a decision affecting the turf of that one Cabinet member. I don’t do business that way. Ours is more like a board of directors. I want all the input, because there are very few issues that don’t lap over into other areas. . . The only thing different from a board of directors is that I don’t take a vote. I know that I have to make the decision.”

Of course, our simpleminded media portrayed the divisions within the Reagan White House as merely representing a split between the “ideologues” and “pragmatists,” without ever stopping to ponder how this contradicted their other favorite dismissal of Reagan that he was chiefly a creature of his staff. (How could that be, if his staff was so bitterly divided?)

Which brings me to Ryan Lizza’s story two years ago in The New Yorker about Obama’s very hierarchical decision-making process. People have started saying the Obama has “checked out” of his own presidency. I’m not sure he ever really checked in to begin with. Looking back now at Lizza’s piece we could already see that Obama had become the president that Reagan’s critics wrongly said he was:

President Bush preferred oral briefings; Obama likes his advice in writing. He marks up the decision memos and briefing materials with notes and questions in his neat cursive handwriting. In the morning, each document is returned to his staff secretary. She dates and stamps it—“Back from the OVAL”—and often e-mails an index of the President’s handwritten notes to the relevant senior staff and their assistants. . .

If the document is a decision memo, its author usually includes options for Obama to check at the end. The formatting is simple, but the decisions are not. As Obama told the Times, early in his first term, Presidents are rarely called on to make the easy choices. “Somebody noted to me that by the time something reaches my desk, that means it’s really hard,” he said. “Because if it were easy, somebody else would have made the decision and somebody else would have solved it.”

So mark him down as the “check-box president.” Now that things are really going badly for Obama, even some of his friends and sympathizers are criticizing his isolation and reliance on just a handful of senior aides—one in particular. John Fund reports today:

Chris Matthews of MSNBC, the former White House speechwriter who once rapturously recounted that he “felt this thrill going up my leg” as Obama spoke, didn’t hold back on Wednesday’s Hardball. “Let’s get tough here,” Matthews began, as he lambasted Obama for being “intellectually lazy” and “listening to the same voices all the time.” He even named names, saying that Obama had become “atrophied into that little world of people like Valerie Jarrett and Mrs. Obama.” . . .

On Capitol Hill, members of both parties are more and more mystified at Obama’s apparent disengagement from parts of his job. Months before he dropped the ball on ISIS, he failed to keep himself properly apprised of the problems with Obamacare’s website. Jarrett appears to exercise such extraordinary influence that in some quarters on Capitol Hill she is known as “Rasputin,” a reference to the mystical monk who held sway over Russia’s Czar Nicholas as he increasingly lost touch with reality during World War I.

I’ll say here casually what I’ve been saying privately to people for a long time: the histories to come of the Obama presidency are likely to be brutal, and I suspect Jarrett is going to be the object of ire for many memoirs of other senior Obama appointees.  Is it November yet?  (I mean November 2016. . .)

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