In Obama's decision-making, a wide range of influences

By Anne E. Kornblut and Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 25, 2010; A01

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."

As for what Obama reads online, his advisers said he looks for offbeat blogs and news stories, tracking down firsthand reporting and seeking out writers with opinions about his policies. Obama was particularly interested in Atlantic Online's Andrew Sullivan's tweeting of the Iranian elections last year, said an aide, who requested anonymity to discuss what influences the president.

When they spoke for attribution, administration officials played down the notion of a Googling commander in chief.

"I don't think time permits him to be surfing all the time," Axelrod said, adding that the president reads "magazines like crazy," including the New Yorker, the Economist, Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone. "There are some commentators whose views he's interested in, and he'll read blog items."

"Periodically, I mention to him articles that I have found particularly interesting, and that he might find interesting, and a very high fraction of the time he has already read them and has some kind of reaction," economic adviser Lawrence H. Summers said.

Across the administration, people who work closely with the president said he remains fond of his BlackBerry and communicates directly, rather than running everything through his chief of staff. He sometimes sends e-mails late at night, an updated version of the late-night phone calls to the brain trust that President Bill Clinton used to place.

Obama watches plenty of television, too. He flips through cable channels, sometimes lingering on the "cable chatter" he has disdained in public, aides said. And he keeps an eye on his staff, including press secretary Robert Gibbs, whose daily briefings are broadcast live on C-Span. "Certainly he will catch Robert's briefings," former communications director Anita Dunn said. "He'll say, 'Robert, I just saw you getting asked X.' "

But Valerie Jarrett, the adviser who is personally closest with Obama, cautioned against over-interpreting his channel surfing. "Most of his television revolves around [ESPN's] 'SportsCenter.' I don't think there are a lot of television shows he gets inspiration from other than sports," she said, laughing.

His critics

In early December, Obama invited a group of business people to the White House for a jobs summit, and Paul Krugman made the list. The Nobel Prize-winning New York Times columnist at times has been one of Obama's toughest critics on the left.

Whereas most journalists are brought in to see the president in order to try to shape a news story, the private meeting between Krugman and Obama was something of a policy debate on the economy and health care, although aides would not disclose details. Obama, said one aide, was grateful to have the "intellectual challenge" of an adversary who would help refine his own thinking.

"He likes the rigor of having a conversation with someone who's going to push him," Jarrett said. "There's really no point in him wasting time with people who simply agree with him all the time, because it's not going to refine his position. It's not going to enlighten his position." She added: "Also, then Paul gets to hear an opinion different than his own, too."

It remains to be seen whether the president's opinions have swayed the columnist. In a recent blog posting, Krugman said he is "pretty close to giving up on Mr. Obama, who seems determined to confirm every doubt I and others ever had about whether he was ready to fight for what his supporters believed in."

Obama also seeks out rival views among his staff to whatever idea is on the table. During one economic session, his advisers were all on the same page; that annoyed Obama, and he sent them out of the room with a request to return with a dissenting view, a participant said. What ensued resembled a debate club meeting.

"He wants advisers who have different perspectives to share those differing perspectives," Summers said. "And he is very careful to ask people who haven't spoken up whether they have a perspective they want to share."

Colin Powell (and other eminences grises)

Obama met quietly several times during the campaign with retired Gen. Colin Powell, who ultimately crossed party lines to endorse him. Since the election, Powell has seen Obama at the White House about four times, aides said, sometimes slipping in for meetings without the knowledge of top National Security Council staff members.

What do the men discuss? Powell declined to say. But he described Obama's demeanor in examining problems as thorough and precise.

"He's a lawyer, and he thinks like a lawyer, makes decisions like a lawyer," Powell said in an interview. "He likes to pick apart an argument, and I appreciate that."

Obama values Powell's status as an elder statesman who is unfazed by stepping into the Oval Office, senior aides said. Powell played an important role last fall in helping the president not be bowed by his critics, such as former vice president Richard B. Cheney, who accused Obama of "dithering" on his Afghan policy.

"There are people who are very wise, very experienced and very sensible, and I think for the president, General Powell fits that category," Axelrod said. "I don't think he's in constant contact with him, but at pivotal moments, he's reached out to him as a sounding board, as he's had to make some difficult decisions."

Other prominent figures who White House aides said also fit that category: the financier Warren Buffett, a member of the Washington Post Board of Directors, and Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick. The Catholic former archbishop of Washington has had several private and sometimes unreported meetings, talking with the president about the Middle East and health care.

Regular people

The president has retold their stories so often they are now familiar figures around the White House: the Green Bay, Wis., woman with breast cancer who is worried that her health insurance's lifetime cap will kick in soon. The small-business owner who could not get a bank loan, despite having a solid business plan. The family facing foreclosure because the bank would not modify a mortgage loan. Aides say time and time again, at meetings, Obama brings up these stories, which sometimes affect policy.

"I don't think you can overstate -- or should not underestimate -- the degree to which his interactions with people, letters, interchanges, motivate him in all of this," Axelrod said.

After Obama met Laura Klitzka in Green Bay, he returned to the White House and recounted her struggles, as a way to motivate aides who had grown pessimistic about the prospects for health-care changes. Another time, Obama carried onboard Air Force One the letter from the small-business owner frustrated by his inability to get a loan. The tale was woven into the fabric of Obama's small-business policies, Jarrett said, leading to changes in the administration's lending initiatives.

"It wasn't some economic scholar who was presenting the idea. The problem was identified by an everyday American," Jarrett said.

At times, he has turned the Treasury Department into a Better Business Bureau, demanding that Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner respond to -- and help fix -- problems reported by his citizen letter-writers.

"The president will turn to Geithner at the beginning of a meeting and say, 'Did you check into those?' " Dunn said. When it came to loan modifications, Obama would cite everyday anecdotes to counter advisers' assertions that the problems had been fixed. When it came to letters about foreclosures, Dunn said, Obama said more than once: "I get too many of these."

The focus on Obama's dispassionate demeanor is one that frustrates his advisers, who are privy to his more emotional side.

"Part of what's painful to me is to see people describe him as cool and aloof, when he's not at all," Jarrett said. "It's just simply that he has the strength and courage to not let those emotions throw him off course."

After a middle-of-the-night trip to Dover Air Force Base to receive the bodies of fallen soldiers, Obama was both moved and disturbed, said advisers who talked with him about it. The speech he delivered a short time later at West Point announcing a 30,000-troop increase in Afghanistan was also "very emotional," Jarrett said.

"He talked to us all about the trip to Dover and coming back at 4 in the morning, and just how hard that was," she said. "But he couldn't let that interfere with making a decision that he thought was best for the American people. And I think that's a quality you want in a president. You don't want a president who's going to be so shaken by the magnitude of the decision that they can't make the right decision."

Or, as Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) put it: "When people talk about him being cerebral, my point is, what's wrong with that?"

Staff writer Scott Wilson contributed to this report.

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