John W. Dean

How Our Decider-in-Chief Decides: Decisionmaking and the Obama Presidency

By JOHN W. DEAN
Friday, August 6, 2010

Nothing is more important in the American presidency than decision-making. It is, in fact, the very essence of the job. Presidential decisions can and do shape our history, for better or worse. Rarely, though, does the decision-making style of presidential candidates receive much attention during a campaign. One exception was the 2008 presidential race, where it was very much an issue. Now that President Obama has been in office for some eighteen months, it is appropriate to take a look at his decision-making skills.

Over time, a president's supporters and detractors will inevitably have reason to disagree with some of the decisions he makes. But I believe that it is the way a president makes major decisions that is of importance. Not even a president's top staff will agree with all his actions. But a president's ability to engage in intelligent decision-making to deal with the countless matters that arrive on his desk is vital to the well-being of the nation.

President Bush's Dreadful Decisions Made Decision-Making An Issue in 2008

Bad decisions by a president have serious consequences. We are still dealing with the fallout from the horrific decisions of the last president -- unilateral preemptive attacks on perceived enemies who were incorrectly suspected of harboring weapons of mass destruction; ever-escalating costs for two unbudgeted wars; shaming the nation with torture techniques; wrecking a strong and flourishing economy inherited from his predecessor, etc., etc. Most decisions that were made by George W. Bush employed no real process or considered thought whatsoever.

President Bush was well-known for his messianic and intuitive decision making. He bragged and boasted about it. He told Bob Woodward, during an extensive interview for Bush at War, that he was not "a textbook player," but rather a "gut player," repeatedly explaining that he relied on his "instincts" in following "God's master plan." And when his Defense Secretary was under attack for his part in the dire mess in Iraq, with calls for his resignation, Bush went to his defense, giving a further, distinctive marker to his decision-making: " I'm the decider," Bush petulantly declared, "and I decide what is best. And what's best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain as the secretary of defense." Rumsfeld was gone some six months later.

Bush's disastrous decisions regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- not to overlook his devastating decisions that all but destroyed the American economy -- resulted in serious attention being focused on the decision-making styles of the 2008 nominees during the last presidential campaign. The mainstream news media carefully examined how Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama might each make decisions as president. For example, here are a few representative looks: Some six weeks before the election PBS ran "John McCain's Decision Making" and "Confidence, Openness Mark Obama's Decision Making Style"; a month before the election the Boston Globe published "The Next Decider: The election isn't just a referendum on ideology. It's a contest between two modes of thinking"; and shortly before the voters went to the polls the Wall Street Journal rhetorically stated, "Lawyer or Jet Pilot: It's the Decision," when raising decision-making as an issue.

The fact that McCain was a Bush-style intuitive, from-the-gut decision-maker probably cost him the election. Not only did voters not want more of a Bush-style president, but McCain's impulsive campaign decisions -- selecting his un-vetted vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, and then precipitously closing down his campaign in its final days to deal with the financial crisis but offering no solutions -- proved deadly. These were seen as previews of the very same peremptory decision-making style Americans had experienced for almost eight years, and the election showed that Americans did not want more of the same.

Jonathan Alter's Study of Obama as Decisionmaker: A Deductive Thinker with a Vertical Mind

With Obama now having been in the White House for a year-and-a-half, we have an early record of what kind of decision-maker he has become as president. Jonathan Alter has written the first important examination of the Obama presidency -- The Promise: President Obama, Year One -- and in chronicling Obama's first year in office, Alter looked closely at the new president's decision-making style

Alter, a Newsweek editor and author, has covered Washington and the presidency for years. As a U.S. Senator, Obama had read and admired Alter's last work, The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope (2007), and President Obama granted Alter full access to his White House, an opportunity which Alter did not waste. This bestseller takes readers inside the Obama White House for a look at the players and how they work. It is a great read. But here, I am only exploring Alter's reporting with respect to Obama's decision-making, in particular.

Given the attention that Obama's decision-making received during the campaign, it is not surprising to find that, as president, he is making decisions in a very similar fashion. While Obama has had no serious executive experience, he is something of a natural, with his decision process following a pattern that he first developed as a law student when he headed the Harvard Law Review. The approaches to decision-making that Alter found in the White House are not very different from the approaches Obama developed during the campaign, and which were reported by PBS.

For purposes of comparison, however, Alter looks at the style of other presidents as well. Alter finds that Obama's decision-making style falls "somewhere between [President Bill] Clinton's deep if gauzy discussions and Bush's snap judgments based on instinct." "Clinton was volcanic and discursive; Obama [is] cool and focused," Alter reports.

Alter continues, "Clinton was an inductive thinker with a horizontal mind. He talked to people in wide-ranging college bull sessions (or late at night on the phone) to establish a broad array of policy and political options, then looked at them in context and fashioned a synthetic and often brilliant political approach out of the tangled strands of analysis." By comparison, Alter concludes, "Obama [is] a deductive thinker with a vertical mind." Obama thinks "deeply about a subject, [and] organiz[es] it lucidly into point-by-point arguments." Obama favors "decision memos that include options but contain clear policy recommendations." Obama places "more faith in logic than imagination," and insists "on a process that [is] tidy without being inflexible." Clinton constantly second-guessed his decisions; Obama makes a decision and moves on, unless new and compelling evidence arises.

Why the Charge that Obama Dithers Is Completely Off the Mark

Contrary to Dick Cheney's claim that Obama is a ditherer, Alter found that he is anything but. Unlike the Bush/Cheney White House, Obama wants all the available information, so he probes his staff (and their staff) and the departments and agencies heads (and their staff); he encourages dissent rather than yes-people; and he listens carefully when his aides and advisors speak, although he wants them to get to the point and make it. Obama instructs his White House to keep the big picture in mind, not play "small-ball" or get "down in the weeds."

If Obama does not understand, he does not pretend otherwise; rather, he will ask questions. Obama often changes his approaches on issues during meetings, so that his staff is not sure where he stands, and thus, his aides and advisors are prevented from simply telling him what they think he wants to hear. As meetings come to a close, it is Obama who typically summarizes the various positions and points-of-view under consideration -- usually more succinctly and eloquently than they have been presented by their own advocates -- before making his decision, which is a clear "takeaway" from the session and is well-understood by all. When an issue has been fully flushed out and examined, Obama does not want matters "re-litigated."

Jon Alter is too good a journalist, and spoke with too many people, to have been "spun" about Obama's decision process, which by previous White House standards is quite remarkable. If this approach is consistently employed for major and important decisions, it is an exemplar of how most serious students of the presidency would want presidential decision-making to be done. Few presidents have employed such a thorough process, or been so apparently conscious of the need to adopt a specific approach to decision-making. President John Kennedy learned the hard way, after his failed decision-making in authorizing and then abandoning the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, but then got it right during the Cuban Missile Crisis, establishing a procedure that he might then have followed consistently, had his presidency not been cut short.

President Obama, it would appear, is writing the textbook for presidential decision-making. From Jon Alter's reporting, and from observing the Obama White House from a distance, I would only raise one question.

Is Obama's Decision-Making Too Devoid Of Emotion?

Alter describes, and gives context and perspective to, President Obama's remarkable "cool" -- his self-confident demeanor, his striking calmness during crisis and troubles, and his highly-focused mind. With Obama, there are no Clinton "purple fits" or tantrums; and no Bush emotional "go with the gut" reactions, says Alter.

Yet Obama understands, apparently, that being too cool is not good. Nonetheless, Obama has often been compared to the overly-composed, emotionless and highly rational Mr. Spock from the Star Trek series, because of the way he too relies on reason rather than emotion, and uses logic to enter the minds of other people. Alter reports that the president has a good sense of humor about all this, and indeed, when a new Star Trek movie was released in early 2009, the president had it screened at the White House. For several days thereafter, President Obama "got a kick out of flashing the Vulcan salute" to his staff. The conclusion that Alter draws from Obama's unflappable nature and "no-drama" White House is that it is an "asset in decision-making."

During the past few decades, an evolving and growing cognitive science of decision-making has emerged. It is the work in part of political and social scientists, economists, and psychologists, who are empirically testing and studying decision making styles. Their endeavors are complemented by those of neurologists and neuroscientists who have literally looked inside our brains to observe them in real-time during decision- making, through the use of increasingly sophisticated magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) tools; this research is giving them hard facts about how our mental equipment functions. (See the Boston Globe story I cited earlier for a broad overview of these developments.)

I have been exploring this science for another project, and while my study is early and the field is vast, it seems clear that emotions are very much a part of good decision-making. This much is clear: While Vulcans may make great decisions without emotions, humans do not do so very well. The key is striking the right balance, and if Jonathan Alter has it right, and Obama's style is somewhere between that of Bill Clinton and George Bush, we may have one of the better decision-makers currently residing in the White House.

Let us hope that is the case, for as the decider, Obama will have any number of very difficult decisions to make that will affect us all; indeed, he has already had momentous decisions before him, early in his presidency. Because I am not sure, I am going to make certain that the cognitive scientists whose work I am studying (and with whom, in several cases, I have spoken) are aware of Alter's reporting, for they will know well how to evaluate our President's decision-making skills. I will keep you posted.


John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the president.

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