You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Obama As Micromanager? Huh?

I'm a big fan of Neil King and Jonathan Weisman, the two Wall Street Journal reporters who penned today's front-page story about Obama's hunger for details. And, in many respects, it's actually a very good story--you learn a fair amount about Obama's decision-making style. Unfortunately, what you learn has very little to do with the stated premise of the piece, which is that Obama is an incorrigible micromanager.

The big problem is that the piece conflates two very different things: One is micromanaging, which involves making decisions that are well below your pay-grade. The other is wanting detailed information on which to base decisions that are at precisely your pay grade. The Journal story presents lots of evidence for the latter; zero evidence for the former. And yet it sprinkles the micromanager charge liberally throughout--including the headline, "A President as Micromanager: How Much Detail Is Enough." (Incidentally, that's also the first place you see the conflation I'm talking about.)

A few examples from the piece:

1.) Critics had been raising questions about administration proposals to regulate certain derivatives, such as credit-default swaps, which many blame in part for the financial crisis. With advisers gathered round on the Oval Office's twin sofas, Mr. Obama said he was concerned that the administration hadn't struck the right balance.

Its proposal called for standard derivatives to be traded on an exchange, bringing them into the open. Critics were calling the proposal too timid because it also would allow "customized" derivatives to continue trading privately. "What is to assure that this won't drive all derivatives off the exchange?" the president asked, according to Mr. Emanuel.

2.) When weighing the economic-stimulus package early this year, he [Obama] presided over several debates about whether heavy tax cuts, which many Republicans favored, might represent a better approach than heavy spending.

3.) Another time, Mr. Obama asked Mr. Geithner to make a pitch for reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act, which split apart commercial banks and investment banks in 1933 and kept them separate until its repeal in 1999. Aides say Mr. Obama didn't support reinstatement but wanted to hear the merits of the idea.

4.) At a briefing in early May, advisers laid out a batch of recent reporting on executive pay, including bonuses for financial executives. Mr. Obama cautioned against taking sweeping steps to restrict executive pay, according to participants. The White House ultimately dropped its proposal on pay curbs and accepted a congressionally approved restriction that applied only to bonuses.

So, to summarize, we have Obama weighing in on derivatives regulation, the stimulus, the structure of the banking industry, and executive pay--arguably four of the five most important economic issues facing the administration (the fifth being what to do about failing banks). If you can't wade into these issues without being labeled a micromanager, I'm not sure what's left.

At various points, the charge is even rebutted by the Journal's own reporting. After the description of the stimulus debate, for example, the piece notes, "The White House primarily favored the spending route but left the details to Congress." Later on, there's this:

Whatever the merits or flaws of Mr. Obama's style, it sometimes has trouble translating with opponents, and the country at large. ... Mr. Obama's push to overhaul the health-care system has triggered a backlash, marked by yelling matches at town-hall meetings sponsored by lawmakers.

But doesn't health care contradict the thesis, too? As with the stimulus, the White House has scrupulously avoided dictating details to Congress. So much so that another Journal piece last week noted that, "What has fueled the lobbying surge is that President Barack Obama has left the details of the health overhaul to Congress. That means interest groups have plenty of decision-makers to badger." (To be clear, I don't think weighing in on key details for issues as big as health care and the stimulus would constitute micromanaging, but the charge doesn't even stick using the Journal's own criteria.)

The conclusion that pretty much every data point in the piece supports--and, again, there's a ton of good stuff here--is that Obama is adamant about staying well-informed, not about micromanaging. He criticizes aides for feeding him information he already knows ("Ms. Romer recalls using a slide on the economy twice. 'Yeah, I got it, get on with it,' she says the president told her) and constantly pumps them for information he doesn't ("Aides say Mr. Obama often questions the 'dominant proposal' under consideration and asks to be briefed on proposals that he and his team don't support"). Those sound like pretty solid managerial techniques to me.

On top of which, everything we know about Obama's managerial style prior to this piece suggests he's the opposite of a micromanager. There's a semi-famous story from the campaign about one of his top Iowa aides--I can't immediately find a link, but it was either Mitch Stewart or Steve Hildebrand--briefing him on the state of his ground organization there during an early trip, at which point Obama cut him off and said something like, "That's okay. I don't need to hear this stuff. I trust you." When I was working on this piece about Obama's law school experiences earlier this year, classmate after classmate recalled how his approach to running the Harvard Law Review was surprisingly hands off--particularly compared with the law nerds who tended to live (some literally) at the review's offices. Here's a typical recollection from one of them:  

A group of us who are actually still friends were doing one of these subcites, staying up all night. The piece in our view was not in good shape. He [Obama] came in after the all-nighter and said, "Folks, how are things going?" We all looked up to him. At the time he was a lot older--he was 29, we were 25. And um, I said, "I think it’s in bad shape. We should just tell professors they shouldn’t be able to submit things in this shape." He said, "Well, get used to that. That’s the way it goes." ... [After some pushback] he said, "Don’t worry, no one's going to read it anyhow."

This does not sound like a budding micromanager to me.

If I had to guess, I'd say what happened is that the Journal found itself with a nice story about the way Obama makes decisions, but that it seemed too positive. As the piece itself notes: "Unavoidably, the accounts all come from people who admire Mr. Obama, not from his critics, who aren't privy to such sessions." The "micromanager" frame was presumably added somewhere along the way to correct for this problem and make the piece seem more even-handed. 

For what it's worth, I can sympathize with the impulse--you do worry about being too puffy when writing about a president who has lots of admirable qualities. But, if that was your concern, maybe the solution was to avoid writing a piece about this particular admirable quality, not obscuring it with some rhetorical misdirection. The cure in this case seems a lot worse than the disease.

Update: Now that's micromanaging! (Via Jason.)