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Friday, October 3, 2014

Presidential Decision-Making

At PowerLine, Steve Hayward writes that President Reagan actively encouraged disagreement among aides and officials as a way of fostering deliberation.
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.”