The presidency of the United Statesis 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.
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.
Though 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.”
Then there’s the political risk associated with strong internal competition. In an arena as high-profile as the White House, any sign of dissent tends to be portrayed in the press as a symptom of dysfunction, rather than managed competition. And discipline does matter: Advisers operating in a snake pit are more likely to be disloyal to one another and leak unflattering details that could ultimately harm the administration’s agenda.
What emerges from these constraints is not a Solomon-like figure presiding over a well oiled advisory system, but an overworked delegator who must place a tremendous amount of trust in a handful of colleagues. Obama, as he prepares to reshuffle his inner circle for his second term, is being carefully watched as he decides which new faces to bring into the fold. The attention isn’t misdirected: Given the way the presidency now works, these individuals matter a lot. He is choosing, first and foremost, a set of new filters—and what they let through, for better or worse, will be largely outside of his control.Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.