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.
Take the Middle East, for example. Most every president since Truman has fought it out with the State Department’s Arabists (who didn’t want to recognize Israel in the first place) and their cohorts in CIA and elsewhere. They fight with all the usual weapons, from leaks to “go slow.” Bush’s efforts to spread democracy in the region foundered against these big rocks, as he and Condoleezza Rice were effectively neutralized. Now Obama has added Special Envoys Mitchell, Holbrooke, and, we are told, Ross still to come. Will Hillary sit still while these guys take policy into their own hands? I don’t think so.
This is a prescription for furious turf battles (who reports to whom? through what channels? where will the czars and special envoys sit? If they are physically close to the president, they automatically gain advantage over those in Foggy Bottom or Langley, as well as those over in the Pentagon. Unless Obama really can change human nature, he has guaranteed an even larger war of all against all than the usual near-chaos.
Many of these appointments are undoubtedly made in response to internal political pressures; he’s trying to satisfy myriad special American interests, along with the various foreign countries who are lobbying furiously on behalf of their friends. Obama’s trying to satisfy Saudis and Israelis, Palestinians and Turks, hawks and doves. But he will only make things worse by giving each of them a champion inside the White House, or State. That simply ensures the battles will spread over the entire government. If he comes to realize this, he should just give each czar and special envoy a medal, and govern the old fashioned way.
The same applies on the domestic side, where his czar has just resigned. He would be well advised to close down the slot altogether, make his desires clear to his Cabinet, and then crack the whip when they get out of line (and they will).
Finally, there’s the ostensibly simple matter of office space. I read here and there that the West Wing is overcrowded, with four people sharing space that used to be reserved for one. That, too, is a mistake. Work in the White House is tough, long, and not particularly highly paid. The least he can do for his people is give them creature comforts in the building. Otherwise he’s going to have whining, which is the worst thing that can happen to a leader.