What does he do all day? Are you impressed with the image of Obama-at-work left by Ryan Lizza’s “Obama Memos” piece in the New Yorker? The President’s decision-making method–at least as described in the piece–seems to consist mainly of checking boxes on memos his aides have written for him. … They offer him four stimulus packages, none bigger than $890 billion. He does not ask for more but does push for an “inspiring ‘moon shot’” initiative. At first it’s a “national ‘smart grid’”–hard not to get inspired just hearing those words! When aides explain that this isn’t stimulating enough, he settles for “high-speed trains.” … He’s presented with a list of $60 billion in cuts to his core stimulus policies, and writes “OK.” … He “authorize[s] his staff” to plan a likely-to-be-useless “bipartisan ‘fiscal summit,’” asks “what are the takeaways”” is told he could “ask .. for continued dialogue,” and doesn’t write “this is all BS” and cancel the summit, which in fact proves useless. … He’s offered a box to extend a one year non-defense spending freeze into a three year freeze. He doesn’t ask for a bigger, smaller, longer or broader freeze. He draws “a check mark.” … Finally, he’s presented with a classic three-box-con memo–two extreme boxes (big new jobs package, big new deficit package) and a safer middle box (“smaller, more symbolic” deficit efforts), a matrix clearly designed to get him to choose the middle option. He chooses the middle option.
I’m sure Obama is smarter than this. He can’t be an executive who spends his days checking boxes, accepting the choices presented by his aides, never reaching outside them through unconventional channels or reaching unconventional thinkers, never throwing over the framework with which he is presented.
I’m sure of it, but I can’t find much evidence for it in Lizza’s piece. The aides who leaked him the memos didn’t do Obama any favors.
If you are trying to do Obama a favor, why leak it to Lizza? My impression since 2008 is that Lizza is a closet cynic about Obama. Lizza put into print some of the more revealing stuff about Obama, such as this classic Obama quote: "I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director." Granted, most New Yorker readers were so invested in Obama that they never noticed anything subversive in Lizza's articles (who knows, Lizza may not have, himself).
Here's a key portion:
Each night, an Obama aide hands the President a binder of documents to review. After his wife goes to bed, at around ten, Obama works in his study, the Treaty Room, on the second floor of the White House residence. President Bush preferred oral briefings; Obama likes his advice in writing. He marks up the decision memos and briefing materials with notes and questions in his neat cursive handwriting. In the morning, each document is returned to his staff secretary. She dates and stamps it—“Back from the OVAL”—and often e-mails an index of the President’s handwritten notes to the relevant senior staff and their assistants.
This sounds like how I would be President (except that my wife wouldn't insist I waste a big chunk of the evening on her the way Michelle requires Barack to spend 6:30 pm to 10:00 pm with her at least five nights per week, most of them without any company other than the Nesbitts or Whitakers, the two rich black couples from Chicago who frequently fly to D.C. so that Barack has some friends). But the staying up late reading by myself part: yeah, I would totally do that. Also, in Jodi Kantor's The Obamas, one of Obama's best friends talks about how he thinks that when he's no longer President that he can just go back to walking down the street to the book store, which is also my favorite thing in the whole world to do: walk to the Barnes & Noble that about 25 minutes away.
So, Obama and I share a lot of traits. And, no surprise, I would be terrible at being President.
Most executives are morning people, not night people. Being a night person is fine if you are, say, a blogger. I look at the articles that come out in the Big East Coast newspapers at midnight EST and sometimes I'll have a cogent response posted by the time Easterners are getting to work. But that's no way to run a railroad.
As an executive, you can get a lot done as a night person if you are a jerk and insist that lots of people stay up with you.
Churchill, Stalin, and Hitler were all night people and they all got lots done, but they weren't polite loner dweebs like Obama is. For example, Churchill was just awful to his secretaries and other servants. When one of his staff of 22 that he maintained as a private citizen backbencher during the mid-30s objected to his lack of consideration, Churchill responded, "But, I am a great man." He just wore out his secretaries with late night dictation. He generally had one taking dictation and the other typing up what he had just dictated. In contrast, it appears from this that and from Jodi Kantor's book The Obamas that Obama stays up alone without even a secretary. Michelle would probably object, but Barack needs his alone time anyway.
Obama has the ego, but he lacks the force of will required to impose his personality upon others. Stalin and Hitler found late night meetings terrific for terrifying others into doing their will, but Obama is way too polite and too much of a loner to insist upon meetings in the wee hours. To make big decisions, you have to confront people face to face ask them tough questions. But during office hours, Obama usually comes in late and is tired from staying up reading his memos and checking his boxes.
He's just not a big man. Big ego, big ambition, but as his track record of once helping get some asbestos partially removed suggests, not much psychic energy.