I am neither politically inclined, politically partisan (much), politically knowledgeable, nor politically skilled. But I do follow national politics reasonably well, read a lot of governmental history and opinion, occasionally write elected officials, and get emotionally carried along on the political elation/despair roller coaster (well, not so much the elation part).
I voted for President Obama twice. I would not change those votes even if I could. He had some of the John Kennedy appeal—that may seem shallow, but a “spiritual uplift” has its importance. He offered a chance to prove the highest officer in the land does not have to be Caucasian. He spoke well and was smarter than his predecessor. His heart seemed to be, in my opinion, in the right place. And Republicans both times were running candidates who were, frankly, frightening.
But I did not vote for him out of confidence that he could competently manage so large, complex, and unyielding a machinery as the federal government. Much of the federal establishment runs itself—that is both the beauty and the bane of bureaucratic organization. To a large degree, the federal government will run if the president takes a four year nap. Changing it or adding to it presents the difficulty, sometimes a monstrous one.
Sparring with partisan politics distracts the chief executive from managing the monster. The cards are stacked against a smoothly functioning, constantly improving federal establishment; entropy is the order of the day. The president is both chief executive of the total executive branch and, further, commander-in-chief of the military part. But in the face of all that responsibility, with scant exceptions our chief executives have been devoid of chief executive officer (CEO) understandings and skills.
It would be an incompetent board of directors, indeed, that would hire as CEO for a large company a person as lacking in executive skills as, oh, say, Barack Obama or John McCain. (Their running mates were not any better.) Community organizers and senators have similarly small staffs. Even running a small company or a whole state doesn’t assure management expertise needed for a massive company and certainly not for a behemoth government.
But the answer is simple—right?—a president has access to all the help he or she needs. Not right. To say that presidents can hire assistants with the needed executive skills to cover their personal deficiencies makes no more sense than if it were said about large company CEOs. Assistants with sufficient managerial experience would be powerful in their own rights, more capable of managing the president than he or she in managing them. (George Bush didn’t do so well with Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.) Jimmy Carter thought mistakenly that mastery of details was the way to go. FDR, like Hitler, maintained power by, in part, setting delegatees against each other. How to control without “meddling” is a precarious balance for which mere intelligence and goodwill cannot substitute.
So (even without the debacle of the Obamacare roll-out) am I saying that President Obama was managerial unprepared for his job . . . and still is? Yes, without any doubt. But no more so than most presidents in history and no more so than all the competitors he had, with the possible exception of Mitt Romney. I say “possible” exception because quick corporate downsizing for sale is not the same as ongoing CEO experience. Even gubernatorial experience—fraught so thoroughly with politics rather than strictly management—counts little in my calculus. Even so, Romney was the top contender on this particular scale in at least a decade.
No, I’ll go further on that limb: There has been no president with advanced managerial skills—those even approaching a match for the complexity and size of the United States executive branch—since Eisenhower.
Fact is, neither political parties nor the average American voter even thinks of the overwhelming management job that awaits a new president. The relationship between a president and Congress is unlike the familiar board/CEO relationship of business and NGO organizations; so some managerial principles forged in business must be adapted. It is hard to adapt what you don’t know. Moreover, the Congress repeatedly plunges into executive branch components in a way that duplicates the worst practices of some corporate and NGO boards. It is hard to discern whether the president or the Congress consistently even wants the executive branch to be successful (as success is defined by law), for there are times when causing failure is to someone’s political advantage (Obamacare and undermanned federal courts are but two current examples).
Perhaps the upshot of all that is that the design of the presidency coupled with the dizzying cross-current of partisan concerns and the crushingly large size of the United States make the job impossible no matter how competent the president is nor, in a curiously fortuitous way, how incompetent.
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