The approach has its benefits. But it also means that Obama has at times appeared caught unaware as controversies envelop his administration.
In the past week, he or his aides have said that Obama had no knowledge of two major issues now threatening his agenda: the problems crippling the Web site of his signature health-care program, and the existence of a decade-long spying program targeting the personal phones of friendly world leaders.
In the aftermath, Obama’s broad-stroke view of government and the insular West Wing he runs seem more like liabilities than benefits, raising questions about how much information Obama wants and how he receives it.
“Compared to the president I served, this president doesn’t seem to be as relentlessly curious about the processes of government — whether the legislative process or the implementation process or the administrative and bureaucratic process,” said William A. Galston, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, who was a domestic policy adviser to Bill Clinton.
Although Obama never seems to get “stuck” in policy details that can stall out a presidency, Galston said, the “problems start when things go wrong and the president gives every appearance of being blindsided by the flow of events.”
“Then people start wondering if he’s in charge, if he’s a strong leader,” he said.
In May, Obama said he was unaware of the scope of the Justice Department’s investigation into national security leaks. White House officials said privately at the time that the investigation reached too far in targeting news organizations.
That same month, Obama also said he was he was not informed about an inspector general’s report that accused the Internal Revenue Service of singling out conservative political organizations for extra scrutiny. Republicans had for months said the IRS was doing so.
In each case, White House officials said Obama should not have been informed in advance because, as president, even knowing such details could have been perceived as interference in independent investigations. Obama only wants advance warning of a potential problem, his advisers said, if he has the ability to head it off.
“He’s always seeking information, and always tasking us for more in the margins of the reports he receives,” said one senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe an internal White House process.
But, the official said, given the size of the federal bureaucracy, sometimes “you don’t even know what question to ask.”