On how President Obama makes decisions

Joel Achenbach
Washington Post staff writer
Wednesday, November 25, 2009; 11:00 AM

Washington Post staff writer Joel Achenbach discussed his story about how President Obama weighs his options before making decisions.


Joel Achenbach: Hi everyone! Thanks for joining me for a quick discussion of my story today about Obama and his decision making. I'm sure we'll all agree on all major points!


Saint Paul, Minn.: Joel -- Thanks for taking questions and happy Thanksgiving. I may be wrong about this, but it seems like a president who's thoughtful and deliberate gets as much criticism, if not more, than a president with a shoot from the hip, "I'm the decider" mentality. What do you think?

Joel Achenbach: Always nice when a Saint joins these chats.

I think success is what it's all about. Victory. Progress, at least. No one cares how a decision is made if the results are laudable. Right now, by McChrystal's assessment and everyone else's, Afghanistan is spiraling out of control (not that it was ever really in anyone's control) and the situation requires dramatic action immediately. If that situation looks better in 12 months, people will say Obama did the right thing. If not, not.


Washington, D.C.: Would you care to speculate on some of the decisions Obama might have made if he was more of a "gut" guy? No auto bailout? Attacking Iran?

Joel Achenbach: That's a good one to open up to whoever else might be joining us this morning. The one thing that pops to mind is that he might have been more populist in taking a whack at Wall Street. The gut says: These guys broke the economy, they should suffer. But the head might entertain different thoughts...and so we see Wall Street raking in profits again without anyone really paying the piper. (No idea why anyone pays a piper. Help me.)


San Francisco: Bush should have sent more troops years ago, but Obama is giving dithering a bad name. Obama should have okayed the 40,000 troops and then he could take his time deciding what to do in Afghanistan. If he sends less than 40,000 more and we lose, people will fairly say we could have won if he would have followed the advice of our military experts: Gen. McChrystal, Adm. Mullen & Gen. Petraeus.

Joel Achenbach: The reports are that he IS going to send in the neighborhood of 40K troops (see Scott Wilson's story today). If you're saying he should have just said OK to McChrystal back in early September, I don't know that history would applaud that as the way to lead. Historians say presidents should be willing to say no to their generals. Bush 41 and Scowcroft rejected all the generals's advice, I'm told, when they came up the first plans for the first Gulf War. Now, should this Afghanistan review have taken 3 months? Your call on that.


Pittsburgh: In light of tomorrow's holiday, I'd just be thankful if President Obama never consults Nancy Reagan's psychic, Dick Cheney or the religious loonies-of-the-right who guided W.

Joel Achenbach: We will need to check his horoscope for next Tuesday when he makes the big speech.


Thought processes: I work at a university research unit, and President Obama's cerebral style of decision making does not surprise or alarm me. You don't make pronouncements until you're sure you have all the data in hand and have carefully considered the possible outcomes. That said, there is a strong vein of anti-intellectualism in this country (shoot first, ask questions later) that deems President Obama's deliberations unacceptable. I know that I feel much more comfortable knowing that every option has been examined.

Joel Achenbach: Thanks for sharing that. The counter argument, though -- and my story didn't really get into this today in depth but it's implicit -- is that you signal a lack of want-to, a hesitancy, a weakness, if you contemplate an issue too long. This is war-fighting. Which is a contest of wills. (What would Clausewitz say?)


Philadelphia: I would hope that this is the beginning of an on-going analysis. After all, the contrast between Bush II and Obama is pretty easy. Looking more broadly at how leaders and individuals make decisions would be far more elucidating. Clinton was famously deliberative, but it seemed that he was in love with the argument itself. Nixon debated with the voices in his head. I wonder if Cheney, as CEO of Halliburton, shrugged off the importance of data and information? I think a CEO would be fired if they admitted as much...

Truth is, we aren't good decision makers on the whole. Most of us end up muddling through, some get lucky...most are very unlucky. I would tend to bet on a guy who vaulted himself from local community organizer to President in the course of a few years. He's either extraordinarily good at decision making or extraordinarily lucky.

PS -- Sean Willenz may want to add that even Lincoln wasn't LINCOLN a year into his presidency. We won't know if Obama is OBAMA for decades to come if we're lucky. And most of us aren't.

Joel Achenbach: Interesting point about Lincoln. Presidents do grow. Wilentz talked to me about Andrew Jackson, whose decision making style evolved (someone correct me if I'm wrong, but I think early on he ran a little too much of an open shop, with everyone and his brother giving him advice. Bush 43, I'm told, was more detail oriented in the second term after he saw the consequences of being less so in the first.


WWHD?: Don't you think President Harry S Truman would have fired a General McChrystal (as he did Douglas MacArthur)?

Joel Achenbach: For too much public lobbying? You tell me. I don't know enough about the protocol.


Calgary, Canada: It may be a little unseemly for an outsider to comment on American politics, but I think most Canadians approve heartily of Obama's consultative deliberations on Afghanistan, particularly as they affect so many other nations with troops on the ground. The White House has, further, been transparent about the process ever since its inception in late summer. How is it that your President's approach can be labelled dithering or indecisive, and why is that characterization so frequently publicized, when rationally it is anything but?

Joel Achenbach: Cheney called it dithering. So have a lot of people emailing me this morning. He had either 9 or 10 war councils (I didn't have time to nail down the number; ABC said 9, NPR said 10).


Anonymous: "If that situation looks better in 12 months, people will say Obama did the right thing. If not, not."

But that doesn't mean the decision was a success, or was decided the right way. The "surge" in Iraq was perceived to have worked. Any effort to escalate against a poorly armed, uncoordinated opponent (who has the option of receding into the shadows until you leave) will work. The question is, what does it look like five years from now. Was it worth the lives, the investment dollars, the losses in mental health of our young people, the long-term cost of veterans care, etc.

We ingloriously "lost" Vietnam. We sold out the Vietnamese who wanted us to stay. But 30 + years later can you argue that the Vietnamese people -- trading partners, emerging economy, etc -- would have been better off as a whole with a protracted war, long-term? For that matter, was the American Civil War worth the cost, knowing what we know today -- that millions of lives would have been lost, people of African descent would need to wait 100 years before full rights came to them, that the South had an unsustainable economic model anyway. You could easily conjecture that the United States would have ended up in the same place had the Union chosen to isolate and economically punish the South -- a cold war.

The point of looking at Obama's decision making is to go along with his own assumption that we don't care how the decision looks 12 months from now...more like 12 years from now...

Joel Achenbach: Very interesting points, thanks for writing. One of these days I want to write the "Compared To What" story that hovers over so many Washington policy decisions/outcomes. (Sorry if this reads like I'm writing notes to myself.)


Confessions of a PBS nerd: I watched Bill Moyers last Friday night, and he ran a special episode with audio files from Johnson's dithering, er, deliberations about what to do in Vietnam. Such eerie parallels. Do you think this historical context is brought up in these Situation Room meetings?

Joel Achenbach: Sure, including whether Afghanistan will break Obama's Great Society programs.


Reston, VA: Ironically, while we're watching the President deliberate over what to do in Afghanistan, Britain is conducting an official inquiry into the buildup to the invasion of Iraq, along with the invasion and occupation. So far, the inquiry has highlighted that the Bush administration was pushing for an invasion BEFORE 9/11 and that the military intelligence claiming Sadam had WMD's was "sporadic and patchy."

Yet, Bush and Co. dived in anyway, with no real plan for occupation.

So, why exactly are we criticizing Obama for deliberating?

Joel Achenbach: My impression is that the "vulcans" had Iraq in their sights prior to 9/11. Thanks for sharing this info.


Chaska Mn: Banking, the war, and Health care.

All of these issues are hurting the Democrats standing. Clearly the polls show the majority of AMERICANS support center left positions. By that I mean Universal health care, leaving Afganistan and real reform/regulation of banks. Yet the conservatists seem to continue to prevail in all of these areas. Why? How do they think they will get reelected let alone maintain majorities when they are adopting positions that knocked Republicans out of power?

Joel Achenbach: Which polls? Send some data. I doubt that Obama and the Dems run the risk of being run out of office for being too conservative. Your analysis strikes me as a bit skewed but if you have some numbers I'd like to see them.


This is war-fighting. Which is a contest of wills.: Sorry, I totally disagree with this claim and it's why we've gone so wrong in Iraq and Afghanistan, in my opinion. This is not a war and I say this with all due respect to the military forces over there. World War II shows us what war is: a full-fledged commitment of military forces to defeat another country's forces, no matter the costs.

We're nation building or nation propping up, in Afghanistan. The goals that have been stated regarding "victory" in Afghanistan focus on establishing a country with a different government and culture in it. That's why it's so debatable to believe more troops will solve the problem.

If this was a war, we should be activating the draft, rationing materials and giving a full commitment.

Joel Achenbach: Whatever you call it, surely there is an element to which it is a contest of wills. Or am I locked into some kind of 19th century Prussian mentality. (Don't answer that.) Thanks for the interesting comment!


Mannington, W.V.: Okay, so Obama is more like Spock and Bush is more like Captain Kirk. Who do you want commanding your starship? Both Obama and Bush came to the same conclusion - send more troops, it just took Obama 3 months and 10 meetings to do what Bush did so quickly and successfully.

Joel Achenbach: I am guessing the president wished the decision was simply one of yes-or-no on sending more troops. It appears to involve a broader strategic change. We'll see next week.


M&S on K St: Joel... John Oliver on the Daily Show described Afghanistan as "the gold standard for quagmires."

Since I clearly get my news and opinion from Comedy Central, do I really want a president who uses his head?

Joel Achenbach: Great line by Stewart, thanks for sharing.


Anonymous: The Bush Administration had a reputation for rushing into decisions in the area of foreign policy, but I would argue it took all the time it neded to not get the facts right. And then argued it didn't matter if the facts used in maing a decision were wrong, since they could have been right-- they just turned out not to be.

Joel Achenbach: I think I follow you.

FYI, what's clear is that Obama wants to do more than send more troops. He wants to have a sense that there's an end to this. It's the Petraeus question: "Tell me how this ends." From March 2003 in Iraq.


Boston: One point about the "dirthering" that the right or left never bring up is how much it is upsetting our international partners in Afghanistan, particular the Europeans. There is much great opposition of an Afghani mission there and yet the leaders can't clearly say their own position and sit on their hands until Team Obama makes a decision either way and from I read in the international press, the leaders of Europe are none too happy about it.

It's very telling to me that ex-VP Cheney never mentions that point because we all know about much the Bush 43 administration cared about USA image and reputation abroad.

Joel Achenbach: Yes there has been much champing at the bit in the UK and elsewhere at the glaciality of the strategic review. If you don't mind mixed metaphors.


Boodledelphia, PA: Joel, if war was simply a "battle of wills," German and Japan would have won WWII, the South would have won the Civil War, and Napoleon would have ruled all of Continetal Europe and most of Russia.

And if Afghanistan is reduced to a battle of wills, then we lost that one on Day One. For good or ill, wars are more often about resources and logistics, firepower, tactics and strategy, clearly defined and achievable objectives, etc. Sometimes there's even plain dumb blind luck.

Joel Achenbach: Some plain dumb luck would be nice, wouldn't it?

Thanks for the excellent historial perspective.


Helena MT: Okay, he who hesitates is lost you say. But who is to judge how long it should take to make a decision on Afghanistan? Remember, there were elections and allegations of fraud and runoff expected - how can a decision be made with so many unknown variables at issue? Also, Obama is searching for a strategy, not just tactics, so there are other issues at play - what to do with the new troops? What are metrics of success? What is exit strategy? How many troops are available? How many support staff needed? Where is the money coming from?

Joel Achenbach: Helena, interesting that you mentioned the last question -- the money. His OMB guy has been sitting in on these strategic sessions. FYI I am not saying he who hesitates is lost. I am reporting that this has been a criticism levied against the president.


Morganville, W.V.: RE: Mannington, W.V.

Bush 43 made the decision successfully? If Bush 43 was so successful, then Obama wouldn't even be needing to make this decision in the first place.

I'm sorry and with all due respect to Charles Krauthammer, I don't have Bush derangement syndrome. I have more then enough reason to dislike and be ashamed of the Bush administration beyond his birth certificate or him being a secret Muslim.

Joel Achenbach: I get nervous when the West Virginians start feuding.


Los Angeles: Very interesting and thank you for writing it.

Maybe it's the psych major in me, but I always find it interesting how decision-making is influenced by the environment you grow up and who raises you?

As somebody who spent part of my childhood in Honolulu and also South Side Chicago, whenever I hear about his "Chicago-style politics" I giggle a bit because to me, there is something so quintessential Hawaiian about Barack Obama's decision-making...

I was curious if you see any influence from his mother or his father or his step-father or his maternal grandparents?

Joel Achenbach: Great question but it did not cross my mind to get Freudian on this one (I am not mocking you, it's a good thought).


Boodledelphia, Pennsyltucky: Hey, Joel. Excellent piece, one of your best political reports.

You lead off quoting Bush bragging about his intestinaml decision-making. Couple that with all the nonsense we heard from the McCain camp and the rightwing during the 2008 campaign about a what a flamingly liberal wild man Obama was going to be if elected. Those few think pieces that said Obama was pretty much a professorial type, not given to impulsive behavior, were largely ignored. Yet now they have turned out to be both true and accurate. Do you see any chance that anyone from the other side might actually have the integrity to actually stand up and admit they were largely wrong about Obama (as a decision-maker, anyway), and perhaps even give him some credit for at least deciding this issue on a very thorough, sound- consultative, deliberative way?


Joel Achenbach: Mudge, I haven't seen that piece, but David Brooks did send a valentine to Geithner the other day saying that his middle-of-the-road approach to Wall Street (presumably back by Obama and maybe Larry Summers but I dunno) has turned out to be the right one. But of course, Brooks and Obama have that bromance going. I am pretty sure the Right finds much to dislike in the way Obama has handled the review.


Should have let them go when we had the chance: The War to Suppress the Late Rebellion (which is what it says on the monuments around here) is a good analogy. Whatever it cost the North to keep the South in blood and treasure wasn't worth it, and slavery would have ended of its uselessness in the face of increased mechanization. We are still supporting the South in spite of their utter contempt for us (i.e., we give more in taxes to the South than we get back.)If we stay in Afghanistan, same deal: they hate us, we support them.

I'm not offended that Obama takes his time with a deliberation. There are many lives and a lot of money at stake; it's good to make a considered decision. But it would be OK with me if he put 40,000 troops on the Mason-Dixon line instead. Then I'd never have to listen to another Southerner question my patriotism.

Joel Achenbach: Wow. Where do you your re-enacting? Don't the wool undergarments itch like crazy?


Arlington, VA: What chance do Democrats have of passing the war tax that has been in the news the past few days?

Joel Achenbach: That's a non-starter, ain't it? I'm trying to think of the constituency for that policy option.


Anonymous: I think the problem with Obama taking a long time to make decisions is that we don't get an indication as to why it needs to take so long.

I.e. Afghanistan. For months i've been hearing about how Obama is mulling things over. The WH kept announcing how it wouldn't make any announcements on the topic ... yet. But because we have no idea why it needs to take so long it comes across as dithering.

Joel Achenbach: Maybe he'll explain next Tuesday.


Bellingham, Wash.: Isn't Obama's patience, thoughtfulness, and consideration exactly what we voted for in 2008? Didn't the rash mavrick-y candidate get his hat handed to him in the election? Exactly how much deference should the arguments of Dick Cheney, William Kristol, Rush Limbaugh et al re: rushing in be given, seeing that they got us into this mess rushing in?

These aren't rhetorical questions. They get to the heart of how the media is framing the current debate.

Thanks and Happy Thanksgiving!

Joel Achenbach: I think those critical of Obama's pace on this include people beyond the conservative talk show hosts and the neo-cons. When writing a piece like this, it's always a judgment call as to how much ink to give critics, defenders, etc. I hope my piece today got it about right but of course people will have sharply different opinions.

OK, that's a wrap. THANKS for the great questions and comments.



Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company