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The presidency of the United States is not so much a job as it is an unspeakably daunting combination of roles: diplomat, lawyer, motivational speaker, military commander, and at times everything in between. But at its core, the presidency is about managing information—facing the endless data stream that is the United States government, and translating it into one high-stakes decision after another.
As Barack Obama prepares to do that work for four more years, he can take comfort in being able to tap some of the smartest people in the world to tell him what he needs to know. Figuring out how to actually distill and digest that information, however, is a different matter entirely, and one that everyone who has held the White House in modern times has struggled to deal with.
Obama, one of the most overtly cerebral presidents in recent history, came into office in 2008 with a clear idea about how he wanted the process to work. Taking his cue from a book by Doris Kearns Goodwin about the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, he declared his intention to surround himself with a “team of rivals”: a group of people who, by design, would bring conflicting ideas—and conflicting information—to every problem.
Among those who study the nuts and bolts of the presidency, the “team of rivals” model has strong support: As they see it, a network of competing advisers ensures that the president knows all of his options, and that dissenting views and inconvenient facts aren’t systematically buried.
For Obama, building a team of rivals meant bringing former political opponents Joe Biden and Hillary Rodham Clinton into his inner circle and keeping Republican appointee Robert Gates as defense secretary. But four years into his administration, it seems the vision of deliberative governance the president carried with him into the White House has not been so easy to implement. What began as a plan to foster debate and intellectual competition, a strategy associated as much with the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as with Lincoln, seems to have given way to a more standard approach—one centered around a group of like-minded colleagues who specialize in different kinds of policy.
According to experts who have spent their careers studying the role of information in the mechanisms of government, what has happened during his administration says less about Obama than it does about the presidency itself. “We live in a world now where [the president’s] time and energy are at a premium, and I think a president who comes in and tries to implement FDR’s model will find himself overwhelmed very quickly,” said Daniel Ponder, a political scientist at Drury University in Missouri and author of the book “Good Advice: Information & Policy Making in the White House.”
It has become a common refrain among scholars and critics that the American presidency has grown too powerful, and that the office has expanded to something it was never intended to be. Usually these arguments are made out of a concern for democracy, and the fear that an “imperial presidency” will turn America into a dictatorship. But perhaps the real reason to worry is that a president with too much power simply needs more information than it’s possible for his advisers to deliver to him—that in making Obama responsible for too much, we have guaranteed that he will never know enough.
Spread out across the executive branch are thousands of people whose job, on some level, is to generate information for the president. But while the amount of material they produce every day is enormous, only a fraction of it ever reaches the Oval Office. The question is: What should make the cut? And how do you make sure that, as information makes its way through the bureaucracy of the executive branch, important facts aren’t left behind before reaching the president’s desk?
Different presidents have approached the task of information-gathering in starkly different ways. Richard Nixon famously hated meetings, and insisted that his staff provide him with written memos so he could consider their recommendations in solitude. Bill Clinton, on the other hand, hosted long, drawn-out bull sessions during which large groups of advisers would eat pizza and have wide-ranging discussions about the details of policy.
These personal idiosyncrasies mask a complicated puzzle that’s important in all top management jobs, but is especially acute in the presidency. John Patty, a political scientist at Washington University in Saint Louis, has dedicated the past decade to researching exactly how presidents and their teams solve this problem, and has found they can be divided into two broad categories.Continued...