Obama and Management

Today’s topic seems to be whether Barack Obama fell short as a manager during his first two years. Matt Yglesias:

I have this sense that when history looks back on 2009-2010 in American political history, it’s going to come away with the conclusion that a larger-than-currently-understood share of the problems had to do with poor handling of routine managerial issues.

See also Ezra Klein. On the other hand, Kevin Drum:

Overall, my sense is that when it comes to routine management, the Obama White House is clearly better than either the Carter or Clinton administrations in their first couple of years, and probably better than the Bush Jr. administration too…FWIW, my guess is that when history looks back on 2009-10, it’s going to come away with two quite different conclusions. First, that Obama was more productive than his contemporaries gave him credit for. Second, the global financial meltdown was way worse than initially thought, and the response of leaders throughout the world was woefully inadequate.

I think I want to split the difference. My feeling is that internal White House management was quite good, both for the transition and the first two years in office. “Quite good” is still going to leave plenty of counterexamples, and doesn’t prevent poor policy choices, but it seems to me that the evidence we have is that the process was pretty good in most cases, and there were relatively few unforced errors from within the White House. But I do think that the emphasis from the beginning was on the White House and Congress, and that the executive branch agencies and departments too often took a back seat. That’s most obvious in appointments, but I suspect we’ll find down the road that there are all sorts of nooks and crannies where Obama allowed the status quo to continue without a fight. For the most part that’s all about 2nd and 3rd (and 4th and 5th) tier issues, but those matter too. The idea of being a good manager is to increase the influence of the president across the board, and to the extent Obama didn’t do that at various spots in the exec branch, that’s a real failure.

All that said…I’ve increasingly come be believe that the big mistake they made was in failing to push Congress to an emergency schedule in spring 2009. I still don’t really think they could have passed a larger immediate stimulus through the Benator and the others whose votes they needed at the time. But I suspect they could have done three other things. First, some sort of long-term neutral automatic stabilizer for state budgets. Second, Dodd-Frank: yes, major legislation usually takes time, but my impression is that the ingredients were all there, and putting it together quickly might have actually meant that it would have drawn (then-needed) GOP votes. And the third one is the one I and others have talked about forever, which is getting the exec branch fully staffed quickly. All of this would have required Congress to work a lot faster than normal in January through, say, May 2009, but as a short-term strategy I think that would have been feasible.

But failing to do that, especially the first two but also to some extent the nominations, wasn’t as far as I can see a consequence of poor management. (Clarification: I think some of the problem with nominations was about the WH/Congress emphasis, but another part was probably deferring to Harry Ried’s estimates of how much could be done and how fast it could be done).

With one big caveat, which is that I haven’t even read all the stuff that’s been published so far claiming to show what’s happening behind the scenes, and we’ll no doubt know a whole lot more at some point in the future. So all of this is very much provisional and based on my understanding, which could itself be wrong, of what we think we know at this point.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.