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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Not Getting the Word


During the height of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 – October 27 to be precise – President John Kennedy, the crisis manager-in-chief, was informed that Soviet MiG fighter aircraft had been scrambled to intercept a U.S. spy plane that had wandered into Soviet airspace. Kennedy had been working for days to keep the crisis from escalating into a nuclear exchange and now one U.S. aircraft might well upset the balance of peace, particularly if the Soviets concluded that the U2 spy flight was a preliminary step to a U.S. missile strike.

The president was making his way to the Oval Office after his daily swim that Saturday when he was told by an aide of the unwelcome news of the spy flight. Kennedy reacted with one of his classic one-liners: “There’s always some son of a bitch who doesn’t get the word.”

Apparently the Obama Administration has turned Kennedy’s one-liner on its head: the SOB who doesn’t get the word in the current White House is the occupant of the Oval Office. As Barack Obama lurches from one crisis to the next he looks more and more like an observer of his own administration. In both of the major political and policy events of the last two weeks – the bungled roll out of the Affordable Care Act website and the revelations about NSA spying on European allies – Obama seems to have been among the last to know of any trouble within his own administration.

First, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius tells CNN that her boss, the president, didn’t know “of problems with the Affordable Care Act’s website — despite insurance companies’ complaints and the site’s crashing during a test run — until after its now well-documented abysmal launch.”

Then over the weekend NSA sources disputed German media reports that Obama knew about the program to listen in to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone calls. “Gen. [Keith] Alexander [the NSA director] did not discuss with President Obama in 2010 an alleged foreign intelligence operation involving German Chancellor Merkel, nor has he ever discussed alleged operations involving Chancellor Merkel. News reports claiming otherwise are not true.” NSA spokeswoman Vanee’ Vines said in a statement.

Let’s admit the obvious. In an operation as large, complex and secretive as the U.S. government it is humanly impossible for the president of the United States to know everything that he should know. There are not enough hours in the day for that. Any president has to create priorities and allocate precious time to be informed. No president can be “hands on” on everything. But, and it’s a big qualifier, being a successful manager and leader, whether in politics or baseball, requires creating a system to get to the boss the critical and essential information needed to manage and lead. Some things are so critical that the president has to run the meeting.

Three things, at least, seem to be wrong in the second term Obama White House. First is the hands on problem. If there was any initiative during Obama’s tenure that he needed to roll out smartly and without a couple of months worth of glitches it was the launch of “Obamacare.” Yet, to believe Secretary Sebelius, the president was never informed that major problems were likely. Either he wasn’t asking questions or delegated completely the implementation of his signature initiative. Either way he’s been badly served by his staff and his hands off approach to this kind of issue gives him no margin for error when things do go wrong.

Second is the failure of key people in the administration to share vital information with the Commander-in-Chief. I once worked for an elected official who had few rules, but paramount among them was – no surprises. A leader can deal with almost anything they know about. Silence from underlings that allows a problem to grow and fester is deadly. It is managerial malpractice that Obama was not informed weeks ago of the computer meltdown. If he didn’t know that his own national security agency was aggressively spying on foreign leaders then he deserves, at minimum, to be dressed down by Chancellor Merkel. Wouldn’t you have liked to listen into that phone call?

The third White House management problem is accountability. If the president doesn’t insist on accountability it won’t happen, and now we see the silly Washington game of members of Congress calling for this head or that, while the White House is left to condones sloppy and silly work on the part of the very people who created the problems in the first place.

One of the great problems of the modern presidency is the so called “bubble effect.” The president and many of his advisers literally live in a bubble with every moment of every day planned and controlled with information and access rationed by jealous gatekeepers who too often act on their own agendas. Briefings from agencies, as we know from pre-September 11 accounts during the Bush Administration, often become a bureaucratic litany of detail that tend to fog any call to action. Perhaps the complexity of the modern American presidency means there can be no other model. If that is the case then it is all the more important that a president insist on candid and timely information from his staff. If he doesn’t get it and subordinates fail in their jobs the answer is accountability.

You don’t fire the president between terms. He, on the other hand, can fire his advisers and he should with some frequency.

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