I recommend John Harwood’s tough look at Barack Obama’s record as a manager, and what it suggests about the remainder of his presidency – which, after all, still has close to three years to go.
In the article, Obama received a harsh evaluation from presidency scholar Charles O. Jones of the University of Virginia and only an "average" grade from former Democratic Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts. I take those comments seriously.
Nevertheless, there are two whopping big caveats to keep in mind. First, assessments of executive branch management are likely to be revised once we learn more about those aspects of a presidency that are shielded from the public. (National security, for example, a subject of enormous interest, also has a high barrier to contemporary public knowledge). Second, presidential influence is surprisingly limited in executive branch departments and agencies, and what influence presidents have is mostly hard-earned.
It's easy to imagine, for example, historians reaching two very different consensus positions on Obama's national security record in coming decades. Perhaps they’ll wind up concluding that Obama wisely picked his fights and successfully reoriented intelligence agencies and the national security establishment away from Bush-era excesses. Or perhaps they’ll conclude that Obama was repeatedly rolled by these same agencies, and applied intermittent and ineffective attention to their dysfunction. Historians could just as easily come down somewhere between those two points or simply fail to reach a consensus at all. The point is, anyone who claims now to be absolutely certain of his record is probably trying to sell something.
Or consider the fiasco of the October Healthcare.gov roll-out, which features prominently in many critiques of Obama’s management. Is it properly viewed as a sign of presidential failure? Or is it more accurate to conclude that no president can prevent all bureaucratic snafus, and that the real test is how a president mobilizes the bureaucracy to tackle the problem? By the first standard Obama fails; by the second, he does very well. There seems to be evidence to support both.
One management area in which Obama appears almost certain to fare poorly is the slow pace of his executive branch nominations. That's a real blemish on his record. The big question is whether his inability to staff key positions will turn out to be a sign of pervasive inattention and incompetence, or a more limited problem.
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Jonathan Bernstein at firstname.lastname@example.org
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