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How Not to Organize a Government

February 3rd, 2009 - 1:15 pm

The election of Barack Obama was an historic event in several ways, one of which was infrequently noted:  his purely legislative experience.  For the most part, we have elected presidents who had either been state governors or successful generals, and this reflected the common sense of the American electorate:  it’s not easy to run a large organization, and the United States is an enormous and very fractious one.

Prior to Inauguration Day, the only large organization Obama had run was his campaign staff, and most of his political life was spent giving speeches, not making decisions.  Yet a president must make decisions all the time, and very few of them are easy or pleasant.  These decisions are quite different from those laregely rhetorical ones made by a legislator or a candidate.  Senators and candidates have the luxury of tailoring their speeches and their decisions to the audience of the moment, and they can always adjust their rhetoric to changing circumstances.  But every presidential decision creates enemies, and is much more difficult to change or adjust if it turns out badly.

Paradoxically, the most important early presidential decisions have to do with personnel, not policy per se, and many presidents have learned–too late–that personnel IS policy.  Good managers know this;  poor ones figure it out later. Governing well requires internal coherence, and while it is fine and dandy to invoke Lincoln’s team as an example of successful management of internal conflict,  Lincoln paid an enormous political and emotional cost, and success came only when the president himself made the hard decisions and then imposed his will on his associates.  Few presidents suffered so much, and suffering is not something we wish our presidents to endure.

So far, Obama’s personnel decisions unfortunately seem to guarantee maximum internal conflict.  Internecine conflict between various agencies and personalities has raged for years, decades even, and it’s tough enough to manage them.  But Obama has gone a step further, by creating “special envoys” and “czars” who threaten the turf of the traditional bureaucracies.

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