The Obama administration is in a deep hole and the president and his staff are slowly beginning to get it. The team that arrived at the White House raring to go has developed a serious problem making decisions. Lest anyone assume that this is a phenomenon unique to this new administration, it happens to every new president and to every political leader. It will shortly face David Cameron in Great Britain as it faced Binyamin Netanyahu in Israel. Ultimately history — and the voters — will decide whether they conducted the affairs of state properly, but while voters will judge the outcomes, political scientists are equally interested in the process.
While certainly at this point it seems that a second Obama term seems to be a likely expectation, stranger things have happened in American politics. Given the fact that there does not appear to a reasonable, electable Republican challenger even on the horizon at this time, Obama should not face a major problem in 2012. If he does not succeed in winning a second term, however, it may occur because he failed to adequately comprehend the art of presidential decision-making.
If one were to consider very briefly the health-care legislation and the financial reform package; the Afghanistan troop build-up; the U.S.-Israel settlement confrontation; the Iranian sanctions resolution; and the BP tragedy, there is much to be learned, and very quickly.
There are at least six factors involved in decision-making. On some of these factors the Obama gets very high grades, but on others he is struggling to keep his head above sea — “C” — level.
• Understanding the issues: No one doubts Obama’s intelligence or his ability to comprehend difficult and complex problems. He has a very quick and sophisticated mind. Grade: A
• Having all the necessary information: Presidents are only as good as the information they are given and the questions that they ask. If General Petraus did not tell the President about the Taliban’s realistic potential and the likelihood that President Karzi might not stay loyal to NATO allies, then the President got sideswiped by his own staff and it now appears might have made the wrong decision. Grade: C+
• The ability to form a consensus: Presidents need to present a united front. Obama is extremely concerned with building that consensus. As a result, the battle for the health-care package as well as the extended period of time it took to make the decisions to intensify the effort in Afghanistan, to move ahead on Iran sanctions, and to ratchet up the pressure on BP were probably largely held up by the president’s effort to negotiate an internal consensus. Grade: C.
• The ability to execute the decisions: The president never doubts he can carry out decisions and has confidence in his ability to get things done. He respects those who work in his administration and does not question their work ethic or loyalty. Grade: A-
• Timing: A president needs to know when to push the button and for how long to keep his finger down before he changes his mind, direction, or policy. Obama’s decision to pressure Israel to discontinue the building of housing in east Jerusalem was less the decision itself, than when to take your foot off the pedal. On the other hand, had the BP spill been a minor irritant, there was no real loss to him had he immediately proceeded to personally inspect the spill and to show the public he was engaged and would promise no more Katrinas. Grade: D
• Decision making: Based on his first 17 months in office, this appears to be the president’s biggest problem. Obama wants to get it right and avoid mistakes. While he studied all the issues cited — and many more — very thoroughly, he repeatedly took too long to make decisions. Presidents need to force the issues out in a timely manner and then to move on. After a certain time, cogitating and spinning options becomes a decision “blown.” Grade: D
The real issue developing in the Obama White House, therefore, appears to be one of management. No more time is being spent here than in previous administrations weighing the political variable. Karl Rove was no less influential in the Bush White House’s decisions than is Rahm Emanuel. Because Obama has developed a problem with timing and deciding, this White House is spending too much time on damage control because of bad decisions or decisions delayed.
It is not entirely clear why this is the case. Years from now scholars will understand better what went wrong, but it is fair to speculate that it is a function either of excessive groupthink on the part of those surrounding the president or just naivete. Either they spend too much time to make a decision as in the Afghanistan surge or health care or Iran sanctions; they react in pique as in the Israel screaming match; or they are sloppy as in the case of BP.
One thing is certain. If the situation is not fixed very soon and the Obama administration does not stop having to put out fires that should never have been kindled because of faulty decision-making, then heads will start to roll in January, if not November.