One approach is to make decisions primarily on the basis of advice from a small group of trusted confidantes—call it the George W. Bush strategy. In this scenario, the president’s advisers work out their differences before presenting him with his options, and present their recommendations to him once they’ve settled on the right course of action. “You yourself are not hearing a lot of the arguments,” with this approach, said Patty, who coauthored a forthcoming book with Berkeley political scientist Sean Gailmard called “Learning While Governing,” on information flow in the executive branch. “You have decided you don’t want seven voices at once.”
A more deliberative approach involves the president thinking through problems alongside his advisers, marshaling every possible piece of relevant information right up until the point when he decides what to do. Jimmy Carter tried this during the first two years of his term; according to one famous anecdote, possibly apocryphal, Carter was so insistent on micromanaging every decision that he wanted to be kept abreast of who had signed up to use the White House tennis courts.
Both strategies carry risks: The former can lead to groupthink, insulating the president from options that he might need, while the latter can bog the chief executive down in trivia and distract him from more pressing concerns. The overarching ambition of political scientists specializing in the movement of information within the presidency has been to figure out a third way—to devise a system that institutionalizes dissent and systematically exposes the president to opposing viewpoints without spreading him too thin.
In a 2009 paper entitled “Therefore, Get Wisdom: What Should the President Know, and How Can He Know It?”, Bowdoin College professor Andrew Rudalevige lays out one vision for how to achieve this. In the paper, Rudalevige argues that instead of having separate advisory councils for economics, national security, and domestic policy, the president should surround himself with a small White House staff composed of generalists, rather than experts in one domain or another. This, Rudalevige says, would make for a true team of rivals.
The last time this “competitive model” was fully embraced, Rudalevige says, was during Ronald Reagan’s first term, when three top advisers—Ed Meese, Michael Deaver, and James Baker—formed a “troika” that succeeded through discord. “The beautiful part of it was they didn’t really trust each other,” said Rudalevige. “So they were all sort of eager to make sure the president knew stuff about what the other people were doing. And out of that, you actually wound up with some creative juices.”
Before Reagan’s troika, the team of rivals idea was most enthusiastically embraced by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose White House was staffed by a small group of advisers whom the president would sometimes assign to the same problem and wait for each one to return with different material. “In creating this competitive process, he would get the quote-unquote best information,” Ponder said.
Though he might not like to hear it, the structure of Obama’s White House has more in common with that of Nixon than FDR. It was Nixon who introduced what political scientists Karen Hult and Charles Walcott have termed “the standard model” of information-gathering in the Oval Office, in which a designated “honest broker”—usually the chief of staff—takes it upon himself to make sure the president has heard all the relevant information before he makes a decision, while sets of experts generate advice in specific areas. This “standard model,” in which the president receives information that has been prescreened and whittled down by other people before it gets to his desk, is a far cry from the intramural churn Obama seemed to envision when he began his first term.
T hough experts in presidential decision-making tend to coalesce around the idea that an FDR-style competitive model works best in theory, there is also an irony that prevents modern presidents from embracing it: The more powerful the office grows, the more the president must depend on his advisers to narrow down his options, not to open up new ones. At a time when the president is responsible for everything from sending troops into a war zone to picking federal judges to shepherding legislation through a balky Congress, the options associated with just one decision, never mind a dozen a day, become overwhelming. “What’s happened since the 1930s is...we’ve started asking the president and the executive branch to administer programs in lots of different areas,” Patty said. He added, “It’s harder now for the president to actually commit to taking in a broad spectrum of opinions....He doesn’t have enough time, because there are just more decisions to make.”Continued...