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A Bravura Opening

By David S. Broder
Thursday, April 23, 2009

As we approach the 100-day mark for the Obama administration, you will hear and see a wide variety of grades for the new president's performance.

Remember this: What has happened so far is no more than the overture to the first act of this opera. The big stuff is still to come. The soprano has not opened her mouth for her signature aria. That will be health-care reform. The devilish baritone is still offstage. Wait for the first international crisis.

Barack Obama has launched a lot of initiatives but has fulfilled few of them. What he has shown -- and it is an important accomplishment in itself -- is a mastery of the art of managing the presidency.

It is important because it is the first and most basic test of his ultimate ability to be a successful president. And it is surprising, because there was no reason to assume that he had the skills to direct such a large enterprise.

Never before in Obama's 47 years had the lawyer-writer-politician had to recruit, assign and motivate a professional staff of this size and skill and organize it to meet his needs and carry out his purposes. His staffs in the Illinois legislature and the U.S. Senate were minuscule. The campaign itself was by far his largest organizational challenge, and he passed with flying colors. But the presidency poses far tougher tests than a need to amass 270 electoral votes.

Obama had a few stumbles in assembling his Cabinet and, as a result, lost the services of one potential major asset, Tom Daschle, his original choice to manage his health-care initiative. Many of the Cabinet members are still learning their jobs, but the White House staff has supported what so far has been a bravura performance on Obama's part.

Particularly striking has been the staff's ability to move at a rapid pace to tackle inherited challenges and launch ambitious efforts without creating a sense of confusion about the priorities of the president.

Hardly a day has gone by in the first three months that Americans have not seen Obama on their TV screens in a variety of roles -- chiefly as economic salvage director for seriously shattered housing, credit and employment systems. But they've also seen him as commander in chief of armed forces fighting two wars, diplomatic traveler engaged with world leaders, and agenda-setter for Congress -- to say nothing of first father, first fan, first consort of Michelle and first master of Bo.

Making this kaleidoscope look coherent -- and not confusing -- requires enormous discipline, and nowhere more than in the management of the White House schedule. The task and the tools were sketched for me last week by chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who had a close-up look at the near-fatal costs of losing control as a White House staff member in the chaotic first two years of the Clinton administration.

As Bradley Patterson, the preeminent scholar of White House staff work, remarked last week, Clinton's schedule was "set and reset and reset again," in impromptu meetings that often ended without a decision. That led to his major initiatives -- health care, NAFTA, the budget, "reinventing government" -- bumping each other out of the way.

Obama inherited a much-improved scheduling system from the first MBA president, George W. Bush, with an electronic calendar, stretching from the next day to the next month to the next year, available to senior staffers. Obama has continued Bush's pattern of weekly Saturday scheduling sessions, run by Emanuel; Alyssa Mastromonaco, the director of scheduling and advance; and Danielle Crutchfield, the president's own scheduler, and attended by other senior staffers. A daily early-morning scheduling huddle allows for fine-tuning.

The challenge will become greater as Obama's initiatives move to Capitol Hill, where a single senator can throw up a roadblock, and when the inevitable foreign crisis explodes. But the overture has gone well, and so far, the cast seems to know its parts.

davidbroder@washpost.com

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