President of The United States – A Job Description

How would the remaining candidates for President of The United States govern if elected? As I have emphasized in previous columns, this is the threshold and clearly the most important question we should answer before we decide who should be the next “Leader of The Free World.”
            Our first and in my view the paramount inquiry in answering that question is who would be in the room when important decisions were made particularly those related to foreign policy/national security, economic policy and judicial appointments (ok my personal interest and bias is showing). As National Reporter Joel Achenbach recently pointed out in his Blog and in the Outlook Section of the Washington Post, if you had to craft a Help Wanted ad for the position of President of The United States, you would write something like: “CEO needed to supervise 2.6 million employees.  Must be at least 35, native-born, and willing to work at home. Spectacular public failure likely.”
            Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937 wrote, “The President’s task has become impossible for me or any other man…a man in this position will not be able to survive White House Service unless it is simplified. I need executive assistants with a ‘passion for anonymity’ to be my legs.”
            In response to this presidential self-assessment, a Report by a Committee headed by Louis Brownlow, an expert in public administration, concluded that “a half-dozen senior advisors would make the White House a more effective operation.” Acting on that recommendation, Congress in 1939 created the Executive Office of The President (EOP). Today the “half-dozen senior advisors” has grown to about 3000 staffers. That does not include, Achenbach reports, the 15 departments run by Cabinet Secretaries or any of the other Agencies that are part of the Executive Branch. This documents the premise first articulated by Richard Neustadt in his seminal text, “Presidential Power and Modern Presidents,” that “No president can spread himself across the whole of the post-Roosevelt government.”
            The modern solution to this dilemma by Franklin D. Roosevelt and his successors has been to expand the number of the President’s “Executive Assistants” “to act as his legs” in almost centipede-like fashion throughout the bureaucracy.  This most dramatically includes the President’s personal and political staff and his staff’s assistants in the White House. This trend coupled with adapting and experimenting with various methods and models of executive decision-making has produced as many failures as successes.
            Joel Achenbach points out, as has this writer, that the literature in Presidential decision-making repeatedly returns to a central premise. “A president needs to be good at making decisions, lots of them on complicated matters.” I would add that he or she needs to be able to do that systematically and once done not agonize or temporize.  At the same time the President should being willing to reconsider a decision when subsequent experience makes it clear that it was a bad decision and needs to be corrected.
            That means that the President must talk to different people about different things. He or she must also talk to more than one set of advisors about the same thing. The structure of how the President receives this advice should be designed in a way that insures that even if the President is naturally conflict-averse as most successful politicians are that all ideas are timely considered fully and completely in a framework and atmosphere in which the leader is not unduly pressured in a particular direction based solely on who is in the room when the decision is reached. Furthermore the system should not depend on the President “begging for bad news,” which again considering the prevalent “conflict-averse” personality of the people who are elected political leaders as well as the desire by many of them to be liked or even loved is not likely to happen.
            Joel Achenbach notes that “The last century is littered with failed or mediocre presidencies. The job crushed men who once strode the landscape like titans. They self-destructed in some cases or had no business being in the job in the first place.” Achenbach makes these statements but doesn’t reference particular Presidents when doing so leaving his readers and mine to fill in the blanks. The only specific president he mentions is the incumbent who is referenced with the comment –“A number of historians have asserted that he is the worst President the Nation has ever had, which if nothing else, is the best news that fans of Warren G. Harding have had in years.”
            So who can we expect to be in the Oval Office advising a President Barrack Obama, a President Hillary Rodham Clinton, or a President John McCain and what is the universe of ideas they will bring to the hopefully large and diversely populated hyperbolic conference table next to The Oval Office. Equally important what method or model of decision-making would insure the highest quality of Presidential decision-making?
           Clearly we don’t know. As I have pointed out in previous columns, campaigns don’t inform voters on these subjects. As Robert Caro, two-time Pullitzer Prize winning biographer of Lyndon Johnson, has pointed out about presidential campaigns, “There’s endless months of debating about this job and almost no public discussion of what the job is.” Caro illustrates his point by citing examples. Lyndon Johnson wound up poring over bombing charts from Vietnam. Jimmy Carter was so detail-obsessed that reportedly approved requests to use the White House tennis court and actually according to Professor Roger Porter, who teaches about The American Presidency at Harvard, got enmeshed in “parking assignments at the Department of the Interior” as well as the “crucial issue” of “federal cotton-dust standards.”
            Who, among us, who have worked with CEO’s in all branches of government at every level and even with medium to large bureaucracies in both the public and private sectors have not observed if not directly experienced ourselves, leaders who preoccupy themselves with minutiae in lieu of making important policy and personal decisions as a means of avoiding the stress which accompanies making the more important decisions?
            What is clear then is that the job of President of the United States requires as Robert Caro says, “an enormously flexible mind.” I would add to that the essential discipline and ability to compartmentalize and in doing so to rationally prioritize decisions in very different areas and on very different issues on the basis of their importance and time sensitiveness as opposed to what issue was presented first and what would be the most fun. This is necessary while maintaining broad intellectual curiosity.
            There are more solid hints as to each of the remaining candidates’ decision-making styles, and discipline, as well as the identity of their circle of advisors and the extent of their intellectual curiosity and interest in the areas of foreign policy/national security, economic policy and judicial appointments respectively. They’ll be discussed in the next few columns.

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