Even before he arrived at the White House, much was made about President Obama’s readiness to seek out wide-ranging opinions and employ a “Team of Rivals” for his decision-making. But as my last two posts (here and here) argue, his reliance once in the Oval Office on an ever-tighter circle of advisers has actually stifled the flow of creative ideas and alternative perspectives that are vital to a well-functioning policy apparatus in the White House. Two recent news items further underscore this point.
The first is a cover story in The Atlantic’s January/February issue. It relates that in the spring of 2011 Mr. Obama asked Gary Hart, the former U.S. Senator and military reform expert, to bring together a small working group to generate proposals on reshaping the Pentagon in the event he won re-election. Among other experts whom Hart roped in was Norman R. Augustine, the widely-respected former chairman & CEO of Lockheed Martin who earlier in his career served as acting Secretary of the Army. The group produced its report and then never heard back from Obama.
This is a regular theme for Obama. Ahmed Rashid, a distinguished Pakistani journalist, recounts that Obama’s first presidential campaign recruited a strong expert team on AfPak issues (including Rashid) and then all but ignored it. He did even not bother to consult it prior to his July 2008 trip to Afghanistan during which he made the amateurish mistake of meeting first with one of Hamid Karzai’s political rivals, needlessly antagonizing the insecure Afghan leader and setting the tone for his administration’s deeply strained ties with its wartime partner in Kabul.
A few weeks following his November 2008 election, Obama announced the formation of a high-level panel of private citizens, chaired by former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, to advise him on economic policy. Explaining the group’s mission, the president-elect declared:
The reality is that sometimes policymaking in Washington can become too insular. The walls of the echo chamber can sometimes keep out fresh voices and new ways of thinking–and those who serve in Washington don’t always have a ground-level sense of which programs and policies are working for people, and which aren’t.
But once the board started work, Volcker became disillusioned with the White House’s propensity to use it as a public relations exercise rather than a mechanism for policy ideas. In early 2011, the board was reconfigured. Volcker was not consulted on this step and he was unceremoniously replaced as chairman by General Electric’s CEO, Jeffrey Immelt. The new group, however, was not especially active – a condition the White House press secretary said was due to the fact that Mr. Obama was too busy to meet with it. In the end, the administration decided not to renew its charter and its existence came to an unheralded end once the president was re-elected.
The second news item worthy of note is a post on The National Interest’s website by Lawrence J. Korb, who very early signed on to the first Obama presidential campaign and helped lead its military policy advisory team. He notes that the 300 national security experts who served on a volunteer basis with the campaign took a considerable career risk since the Hillary Clinton campaign threatened to marginalize them if she ended up in the Oval Office. Yet for all of their troubles, almost none of them were subsequently drafted into the Obama administration. Instead, the new president opted to fill the national security bureaucracy with Clinton supporters and Bush holdovers. A media account back then reported that Korb wrote the president to encourage him to look toward his own bench but never heard back.
Instead of tearing down the walls of the echo chamber, as Mr. Obama once pledged, his administration’s instinct has been to build them up higher. Domestic affairs and foreign policy have suffered alike as a result. Unfortunately, the problem is only becoming worse, since the president has now stopped interacting with all but his most loyal staffers.