I have this sense that when history looks back on 2009-2010 in American political history, it’s going to come away with the conclusion that a larger-than-currently-understood share of the problems had to do with poor handling of routine managerial issues. You had a new president who didn’t have a strong management background. You had a new chief of staff who, likewise, had a lot of DC experience but not a ton of management experience. [Etc. etc.]
OK, but what routine management problems are we talking about? I’ve read plenty of stories about arguments among Obama’s top staffers (Geithner vs. Romer, Summers vs. everybody), but that all sounds pretty normal for a presidential administration and Obama seems to have had a pretty good reputation for listening to the arguments and resolving them fairly crisply. I’ve heard lots of criticism of the decisions Obama has made (public option, lack of housing policy), but that’s also par for the course. I’ve read about occasional specific screwups (poor handling of cap-and-trade, slow response to the Deep Horizon blowout), but not lots of them. And I’ve read some criticisms of his strategic direction (focusing on deficit reduction too soon, retaining Bush national security policies). But these are all different from day-to-day management issues.
In any case, none of this strikes me as anything more than extremely normal. Overall, my sense is that when it comes to routine management, the Obama White House is clearly better than either the Carter or Clinton administrations in their first couple of years, and probably better than the Bush Jr. administration too. I guess Ron Suskind disagrees, but is it a widespread belief among DC insiders that the Obama White House has been an especially chaotic scene? That doesn’t really gibe with my sense.
FWIW, my guess is that when history looks back on 2009-10, it’s going to come away with two quite different conclusions. First, that Obama was more productive than his contemporaries gave him credit for. Second, the global financial meltdown was way worse than initially thought, and the response of leaders throughout the world was woefully inadequate. I’m willing to be persuaded otherwise, but I suspect that Oval Office managerial prowess won’t even be a footnote.