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Obama’s leadership style is hurting him

By Dale R. Herspring

One thing I learned from writing a book on modern presidents and the Pentagon is that the critical variable in their relationship is the president’s leadership style.

Some presidents, like Jimmy Carter, were micro-managers.  Others, like Bill Clinton and John Kennedy, held seminars that often left military leaders uncertain about what had been decided. Ronald Reagan stayed above the fray, providing general guidance while leaving policy formulation and implementation to subordinates.

Presidential styles have a major impact on policy-making.  The micro-manager is constantly interfering in the process. As a result, subordinates are often afraid to make decisions, lest the boss disagree. People are afraid to show initiative even when circumstances demand it.  Regardless of how good the president’s deputies are, they will have wait to hear what the boss decides. This approach also discourages new ideas or approaches for dealing with problems. It has one advantage; all policy initiatives have the president’s personal stamp on them.

The executive approach has the advantage that the president is not trying to get his fingers into every major policy process.  However, to be effective, several things must be in place. First, this model requires good deputies.  One of the major downfalls of the George W. Bush presidency was that he delegated authority to a secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, who ran the Department of Defense with little respect for the views of senior military officers. In many instances, Bush was a victim of his willingness to delegate authority. With regard to the military, a number of bad decisions occurred because Bush relied too heavily on Rumsfeld.

In both styles, presidents, either directly or indirectly, provide what might be called the atmospherics of policy preferences. A president selects people for senior positions who agree with his policy orientation. These individuals pay careful attention to what the president says and does and strive to imitate him in making political decisions. 

In other instances, a president makes no effort to dictate specific decisions.  Rather, he offers general statements and leaves it to subordinates to interpret them.

A significant consideration, regardless of the model followed, the character of key subordinates. The more ideological the clearing process is, the more likely the country’s senior policy makers are to see problems and their solutions through an ideological lens.  This was true in the Bush administration as well as the Carter administration. I have seen instances in both Republican and Democratic ad-ministrations in which the first question asked about an individual was, “Is he one of us?”

So where does the Obama administration fit into this? Obama seems to favor the executive model. He focuses on the big questions while leaving the implementation of policy to subordinates. It is important to emphasize that between him and civil service or foreign service employees is a layer of political appointees.

These can be very good. Yet some are in their government jobs because they knew someone. There are those who have worked their way into the Democratic or Republican “mafia.” They work in senior positions when their party is in power, but in places like friendly think tanks when the other party is in power.

Why has Obama been tainted by so many recent scandals — the Benghazi consulate aftermath, IRS scrutiny of tea party groups and phone taps of journalists?

From what I have seen, Obama knew nothing about what the IRS was doing or the phone taps.  However, he is culpable in the Benghazi case because either he told someone else to deal with it (which would have been very unpresidential) or he is hiding something with regard to the decision-making pertaining to the attack on the consulate.  Arguing that it was impossible to get military force to Benghazi is a non-starter.  No attempt was made to rescue our consulate personnel, so we don’t know if it would have worked or not. 

What President Obama should have done was make very clear that he didn’t care how dedicated his subordinates were, they absolutely needed be on top of things. It is critical that the president knows what is going on in developing events so he can get ahead of them. The problem is seldom the issue itself. The cover-up, which is what we are seeing now, is often far worse than the original mistake.

By remaining aloof when he should have been more in-volved, Obama may have forfeited many of the policy options he wanted to pursue during his second term. That would be sweet music to Republican ears.

Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.

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