ONE YEAR LATER: A PRESIDENT'S INFLUENCES
In Obama's decision-making, a wide range of influences
Monday, January 25, 2010
During one of his Afghan review meetings last year, President Obama surprised senior advisers by jumping into a discussion between two military officials about a new study of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The flow of information to the president is usually carefully managed, and no one in the room had briefed Obama on the data. "It's not like we'd sent him the study, but he'd clearly seen it," one adviser said. "It was telling."
What it told of was a president who persists in seeking his own information, beyond what is offered to him. His lawyerly and orderly reliance on facts and data often has created an impression that Obama is cool and detached.
It is an image his advisers and friends reject. Instead, they paint a more nuanced and at times blurred portrait of a president who is deeply moved by the struggles of average citizens who stand up at town hall meetings or write thousands of letters to the White House -- 10 of which he reads each day.
When he turns to solving problems through policy, he reveres facts, calling for data and then more data. He looks for historical analogues and reads voraciously.
"This is someone who in law school worked with [Harvard professor] Larry Tribe on a paper on the legal implications of Einstein's theory of relativity," said senior adviser David M. Axelrod. "He does have an incisive mind; that mind is always put to use in pursuit of tangible things that are going to improve people's lives."
What influences this president, as he starts a second year in office and addresses the state of the union to an increasingly anxious public and restive Congress? What does he read? To whom does he turn for advice? For solace? For unfiltered information?
He has a wife who speaks her mind, and Michelle Obama has far more interaction with everyday Americans, especially military families. The first lady, a senior adviser said, is "his sounding board, his critic, his talk-things-through person, but it's a very private thing."
Obama leans on the trusted Chicago hands he has known for years -- Axelrod, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett in particular. His political strategists conduct polling constantly, but it has little discernible impact.
"If he was poll-driven, we'd be doing better," one senior adviser said ruefully, adding, "but the country would be in a depression."
The president is affected above all by the calendar, which limits what he can accomplish before the White House must shift into reelection mode. That political reality has lent his first year in office a sense of urgency.
The Internet (and mainstream media, too)
Obama is the first truly wired president, the first to have Internet access at his desk and to converse regularly via e-mail. This fingertip access sends him "constantly" online, said one senior adviser, and the information he finds there influences his thinking and some of his deliberations. He also "uses the Internet like a normal adult," said another aide, "reading news articles, checking sports scores."