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In his slow decision-making, Obama goes with head, not gut

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 25, 2009

President George W. Bush once boasted, "I'm not a textbook player, I'm a gut player." The new tenant of the Oval Office takes a strikingly different approach. President Obama is almost defiantly deliberative, methodical and measured, even when critics accuse him of dithering. When describing his executive style, he goes into Spock mode, saying, "You've got to make decisions based on information and not emotions."

Obama's handling of the Afghanistan conundrum has been a spectacle of deliberation unlike anything seen in the White House in recent memory. The strategic review began in September. Again and again, the war council convened in the Situation Room. The president mulled an array of unappealing options. Next week, finally, he will tell the American public the outcome of all this strategizing.

"He's establishing his decision-making process as being almost diametrically the opposite of the previous administration," says Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired Army colonel who served as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's chief of staff. Wilkerson, who teaches national security decision-making at George Washington University, says the Bush-Cheney style was "cowboy-like, typical Texas, typical Wyoming, and extremely secretive."

Stephen Wayne, who teaches about the presidency at Georgetown, said: "He's not an instinctive decision-maker as Bush was. He doesn't go with his gut, he thinks with his head, which I think is desirable." Referring to the Afghanistan decision, Wayne said, "I don't think he is an indecisive person, I just think this is a tough one."

But to his critics, Obama's prolonged Afghanistan review suggests weakness rather than wisdom. Former vice president Richard B. Cheney lobbed the "dithering" accusation last month. Then last week, former senator Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) said on his radio show that Obama has waited so long to decide on an Afghanistan strategy that the war is now lost. "The president does not have the will and determination to do what's necessary to win it. His heart's not in it, and never has been," Thompson said.

Obama's style has been attacked from his left flank as well. Liberals have zinged him as being too cautious, too much of a compromiser. Some of his supporters would like to see him show more fire in the belly and recapture the energy that propelled him to victory last year.

"I think the Obama we've seen as president is a very different Obama than we saw during the campaign. He doesn't seem to be connected, he doesn't seem to have the passion, he doesn't seem to be conveying the grand and inspiring vision," says the progressive historian Allan Lichtman of American University. "If you want to be a transformational president, you've got to take the risks."

Sean Wilentz, a history professor at Princeton, says Obama has suffered from unrealistic expectations among those who put him in office. "They kind of were sold Utopia, and they bought it, and it didn't happen," he says. "People were comparing the candidate to Abraham Lincoln before he served a day of his presidency. Nobody can live up to that."

Many jobs, many crises

As commander in chief, economist in chief, diplomat in chief and figurehead in chief, the president has a job description nearly as long as the tax code. He is in the Situation Room one night, holding a state dinner in a South Lawn tent the next -- and pardoning a turkey in the Rose Garden the following morning. His portfolio of responsibilities covers much of the planet; no president has seen so many countries so fast. But critics are not satisfied. The reaction to his recent trip to Asia was, in effect, that he went all the way to China and came back with only a lousy T-shirt.

With multiple crises on his docket, the president has much to contemplate as he enters the holiday season. The economy has shown signs of growth and the stock market is up, but it's a jobless recovery, unemployment is at the highest rate since he was in college, and there are fears of a double-dip recession. The dollar is down. The national debt is oceanic. Obama's health-care plan is imperiled by the whims of a handful of lawmakers. His approval rating has dipped below 50 percent. Even once-Obama-friendly "Saturday Night Live" has taken to mocking him as a do-nothing president. This follows historical patterns: New presidents always experience a drop in popularity as the romance of the campaign trail gives way to the mundane bill-paying and grocery shopping of governance.

The public debate over Afghanistan has focused on whether Obama should authorize more troops. The actual decision is vastly more complicated. Whatever the president chooses to do, he must bring on board as many allies as possible, which means getting a buy-in from Congress, his Cabinet, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the bean counters who budget military action, NATO, various dyspeptic European leaders, the generals in the theater, the troops on the ground, the sketchy Afghan leadership, the Pakistanis and so on. He must also sell his plan to the American people, convincing the right that he's tough enough to fight and the left that he knows where the exit is.

Obama told Chip Reid of CBS News, "I think the American people understand that my job here is to get it right, and I'm less concerned about perceptions, about process, than I am at making sure that once a decision is made everybody understands it, everybody is on the same page, and we're able to move forward with the support of the American people."

'A lot of different layers'

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was asked Monday if the president had anguished over the Afghanistan decision.

"I don't know if he's anguished through this process," Gibbs said. "I just think the president understands that there are a lot of different layers to our involvement in Afghanistan, how it relates to the region, what its impact is on our forces, what its impact is on our fiscal situation."

Obama discussed his professorial leadership style in a recent interview with U.S. News & World Report. He said he is not afraid of doubt and is comfortable with uncertainty: "Because these are tough questions, you are always dealing to some degree with probabilities. You're never 100 percent certain that the course of action you're choosing is going to work. What you can have confidence in is that the probability of it working is higher than the other options available to you. But that still leaves some uncertainty, which I think can be stressful, and that's part of the reason why it's so important to be willing to constantly reevaluate decisions based on new information."

This past spring, Obama was asked by "60 Minutes" to describe the toughest decision in his first few months of office. He quickly said that it was the decision to deploy 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan. The increase had been requested by military commanders during the previous administration. Obama signed off on it.

He noted the grave responsibility of sending young men and women into harm's way. But he also expressed discomfort with the process.

"I think it's the right thing to do," he said. "But it's a weighty decision, because we actually had to make the decision prior to the completion of a strategic review that we were conducting."

No one can accuse him of rushing the decision this time around.

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