15 September 2012

Obama’s Way


Michael Lewis’s piece in Vanity Fair, based on spending time with President Obama last year, is absolutely essential reading.

I've seen some comments on twitter to the effect that the piece is basically out to make Obama seem like a nice guy. Well, that’s Michael Lewis’s schtick; he blends the big story with a feel for the personalities of the subjects. He does it very well; I got held up writing this, because it reminded me I never got around to reading The Blind Side, and that caused me to waste a day.

Obama probably is a nice guy, but that's not the big story, and it isn’t all that important either way.

There are two stories in the article; first the atmosphere of the presidency, and second the decision to overthrow Gadaffi.

The atmosphere is familiar, particularly reminding me of Nick Clegg saying he feels “lobotomised” by working in government, with the “frenetic” pace of politics leaving him with no time to think. Lewis says Obama “has the oddest relationship to the news of any human being on the planet. Wherever it starts out, it quickly finds him and forces him to make some decision about it: whether to respond to it, and shape it, or to leave it be. As the news speeds up, so must our president’s response to it”.

An incidental point is Lewis’s judgement that “He badly underestimated, for instance, how little it would cost Republicans politically to oppose ideas they had once advocated, merely because Obama supported them.” To me that is just a sign of someone who doesn’t understand politics very well. (Some have suggested that Obama is some kind of cynical political operator, based on his participation in the famously grubby Chicago political machine. But that may overestimate his role there — he may well have been a piece on the board there, rather than a chessplayer).

Lewis represents as exceptional and courageous Obama’s refusal to make a snap decision on whether to support a no-fly zone over Libya in March 2011. Rather than deciding in one meeting, he demanded a second meeting with alternative actions suggested that, unlike a no-fly zone, would actually work.

And so to the second big story. If Lewis’s account is to be believed, the decision to take out the Libyan army on the road to Benghazi, thereby destroying the Libyan state and producing a revolutionary government, was made entirely on the basis of the humanitarian issue caused by the steps Gadaffi would be likely to take to regain control of Benghazi. The arguments made against decisively taking the rebel side in the civil war were purely based on the cost and the risk of tying up further US military resources. The question of who would take over Libya and what they would do afterwards doesn’t seem to have arisen; rather, “The ghosts of 800,000 Tutsis were in that room.” The mind boggles.

But, from Obama’s position, the decision was made in a few hours here and there. I have put more time into deciding whether to buy a DVD.

The overwhelming fact is the constraint of available time. Any person, of whatever ability and whatever theoretical power, can be made impotent just by keeping them busy. And if the only decisions which are referred to the top level are the ones which are so well-balanced as to be 50-50, the leader might just as well toss a coin.

Therefore, the only real way to gain power is as a group: one leader and a few loyal sidekicks. The sidekicks have the real power, because they have time to think. The leader is effectively their frontman.

Alternatively, the leader can take one issue, allowing a sidekick to handle everything else. That’s the setup described in Heinlein’s The Man Who Sold The Moon, and referred to by Fred Brooks in The Missing Man-Month.

4 comments:

Aretae said...

Doesn't this at least make your monarchy line fishy?

Dave said...

On the contrary, this piece reinforces the diagnosis of bureaucratic sclerosis.

Obama could merely choose to do whatever the civil servants think is best (choose 'default' in all cases), and the resulting government would be almost exactly the same. The fact that he was able to have the DoD reconsider action in Libya does not strike me as a particularly grand example of personal authority.

Obama has almost no real authority. He does all sorts of things that make him appear to be in charge, but he has much less power over government than a CEO has over his company.

As the piece points out, Libya is a rare case because no one in the USA cares about Libya, so the President was relatively free to act. Even then, he wasn't really free to commit ground troops without buy-in from Congress.

Furthermore, Presidents in general have only their 4 or 8 years in office, and that's it. There's no motivation to solve problems for the long term. I doubt a King would have signed up to intervention in Libya when he knew that 20 years down the road it could mean troublesome entanglement with Arab politics.



Anomaly UK said...

The busyness is partly the inevitable result of bringing an outsider in to manage, and partly a deliberate technique to insulate the government from damage from politicians. (In Yes, Minister, the civil servants advocate keeping the politicians busy as a way of denying them power).

The most important solution is to have the leader know the organisations he will be managing, and know the senior people on a personal level, long before he actually has to take over himself. His whole life should be spent, not attempting to become the leader, but preparing himself to be the leader. That way, when the time comes, he will have an understanding with his senior aides, and, if he feels that some cannot be trusted, he will know other people in the organisations who he can deal with instead.

Democracy can achieve this, provided you have very strong parties which are central to people's lives, and which control government at all levels. To some extent, this was the 19th century system.

Having a barrier between the "political" and the "non-political" breaks it. Having said that, there have been periods in the last 50 years in Britain when the senior politicians had spent many years at various levels of government, getting to know the institutions and the people. That has not been the case since 1997, however.

Monarchy works, too.

candide3 said...

The most important solution is to have the leader know the organisations he will be managing, and know the senior people on a personal level, long before he actually has to take over himself. His whole life should be spent, not attempting to become the leader, but preparing himself to be the leader.
This feels like Roman cursus honorum, or at least what its idea was. Worked well for a while.
Democracy can achieve this, provided you have very strong parties which are central to people's lives, and which control government at all levels.
But it also achieved the spoils system, which is not an unmixed blessing. The civil service was originally set up to deal with it. I think it would be worthwhile to look at the Prussian system of the Second Reich, and also at the Japanese system post-Meiji.