Recent scandals show Obama’s inattention to detail may cripple his presidential legacy

The White House said President Obama didn't know about NSA spying on world leaders. Washington Post chief White House correspondent Scott Wilson weighs in on the strategy of keeping the president out of the loop. (The Washington Post)

Nearly a year into his second term, President Obama has yet to master the management of information within his administration. That failure has left him knowing too little at times about the issues that matter the most to his legacy.

Obama, who like many presidents had no executive experience before taking office, has never pretended to care much about the details of governing. He prefers the big speech to congressional arm-twisting, the big reform to incremental change and the big foreign policy ambition to cultivating head-of-state relationships.

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.”

Administration officials say Obama did know what to ask about preparations for the health-care law’s rollout, specifically how HealthCare.gov, the federal Web site designed to help people buy insurance, would function.

For two years, the senior administration official said, Obama pressed for “granular” details about the policy design and the Web site’s construction in regular meetings. The process gave him enough confidence to contend on the eve of the rollout that buying insurance though the Web site would be as easy as buying a television on Amazon or plane tickets on Kayak.

The Web site has been plagued by technical problems from the start, something that could have been anticipated by failed tests that occurred in the month before the launch. White House officials say Obama does not discourage bad news, but it was never delivered to him in this case.

Most recently, administration officials say Obama was surprised to learn that his largest spy agency, the National Security Agency, was eavesdropping on the private cellphone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the leader whom the president has talked to perhaps more than any other.

Although he knew about “head of state collection” against the leaders of countries considered adversarial, Obama did not know Merkel and other U.S. allies were targets until late this summer, senior White House officials said.

Former officials in the Obama and George W. Bush administrations say it is hard to believe Obama was never told — and never asked — about the source of the intelligence against Merkel. Before every phone call and meeting with her, intelligence officials brief the president on what the German leader is thinking about Iran, economic policy and other issues of interest to the United States.

Those assessments would be included in the Presidential Daily Briefing, or PDB. The intelligence would also be conveyed to Obama, officials said, in additional sessions around important meetings or phone calls with Merkel.

A former senior Bush administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the briefing process, said “intelligence officials love to be able to brag to their chief customers, and the president is their chief consumer, ‘Look at this intercept we have.’ ”

“He styles himself as the guy who asks the hard questions and casts himself as more skeptical about intelligence than the Bush people were,” the former official said. “He’s just got different priorities as president. Maybe he just didn’t get that interactive during the PDB briefings. Maybe he’s just not an avid consumer of the product. And if I’m a White House staffer, I want to protect my boss from accusations that he is not really paying attention to the details.”

Former Obama administration officials said the president’s inattention to detail has been a frequent source of frustration, leading in some cases to reversals of diplomatic initiatives and other efforts that had been underway for months.

The administration’s handling of the revelations of spying on foreign leaders “is typical White House,” said a former senior member of the administration. “It doesn’t become a problem until it becomes a political problem, and then you change your fundamental idea about it.”

Greg Miller contributed to this report.

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