Commentary Magazine


The Perils of Executive Inexperience

Al Hunt writes a column that reveals the typical finger-pointing and backbiting that ensues when things are not going all that well in an administration. First, he relates this episode:

On Dec. 2, as Obama prepared to give a major economic speech at the Brookings Institution on Dec. 8 (and a day after his Afghanistan speech at West Point) he met with policy makers. He heard a familiar reprise of the previous several meetings with budget director Peter Orszag arguing for more emphasis on reducing the deficit and Council of Economic Advisers chief Christina Romer leading the contingent espousing a greater short-term stress on jobs. The president, by his standards, exploded. Why are we having this meeting again, the same discussion, participants quoted him as saying.

But really, who comes off looking bad in this one? It’s Obama. He is the one who apparently allows the same discussion to churn endlessly. He is the one who hasn’t set the direction of his economic policy. (And that aides would not just finger-point at each other but also suggest that the president is lacking in executive mojo tells us that both focus and loyalty are in short supply in this White House.) Hunt continues with this:

The other problem, an inability to effectively communicate an economic policy, was typified in a Dec. 4 interview with Geithner, who was asked what is the clear, coherent economic message of the administration. He proceeded to talk about high-class education for children, affordable health care, better incentives for energy and infrastructure, public-private arrangements and the like. There are 15.4 million unemployed Americans and another 11.5 million underemployed, either having given up looking and thus not counted in the jobless numbers or involuntarily relegated to part-time work. A laundry list of the Democrats agenda is unlikely to prove comforting.

But is this really the fault of the hapless Geithner or is this rather a problem characteristic of the president’s own lack of focus? Obama spent a year hawking a health-care plan no one can defend on the merits, while pushing a series of small-beans job proposals and signing on to a stimulus plan widely regarded as a failure. For months we saw a new dog-and-pony show every week, each on a different topic. Obama’s spinners incessantly told us the problem wasn’t that he was trying to do too many things at once. But now it seems that it was and that his key advisers don’t understand the administration’s top priority.

The administration seems to have reached the stage of leaving the advisers and the “message” to be blamed. But it is the president who appointed and directs the advisers. And the president — celebrated for his eloquence — is supposed to be the chief communicator. All of this reveals that the president frankly lacks some basic leadership skills and executive know-how. Obama didn’t come to the White House with any executive experience beyond sitting atop a campaign operation that was fortunate to have on off-message primary opponent followed by a non-message general-election opponent. He never ran a company, directed an agency, led a military organization, or served in any executive office. So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the White House doesn’t have its act together. The only mild surprise is that now the mainstream media is willing to tell us about it.