Gary Weaver is a co-author
Much has been made in the media about President-elect Barack Obama’s cabinet nominees as a “team of rivals,” echoing Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent study of how Abraham Lincoln co-opted his opponents for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination.
A facile characterization, it allows sharp comparisons with the major Bush appointments, which reflected above all a premium on shared viewpoints and personal loyalty.
But it is far too limited an interpretation of the key nominations and White House staff appointments announced so far.
Much more interesting is what Obama’s choices tell us about his approach to governing and to presidential decision-making.
The most effective American cabinets and presidential staffs function like large orchestras with a great maestro, delivering complex symphonies with style and verve. Others are more like collections of strong soloists with no over-all coordination, resulting in cacophonies. The least effective drown out even the few outstanding soloists they may have with their general mediocrity – arguably the fate of Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Presidential decision-making scholars Alexander and Juliette George, while at Stanford University, developed a model of “multiple advocacy” which appears to fit the emerging Obama Administration. In it, a president encourages active policy debate and vigorous advocacy of alternative views within both the cabinet and the White House staff before major domestic or foreign-policy decisions are made. The cabinet is not marginalized and superseded by the White House staff, but is an active participant in defining issues and shaping policy.
The president, in this model, seeks perspectives from multiple sources, provides appropriate forums for discussion and debate, and ultimately decides or creates a synthesis from among the competing views. According to his students, when Obama was a law professor at the University of Chicago, they often left class without a clue about his view on a controversial issue or case. He apparently had a knack for eliciting various viewpoints without revealing his own position.
Broadly speaking, this is the kind of process Obama used during his nearly two-year-long campaign for the nomination. He cast a very wide net, sought out a broad range of opinion from large groups of experts, fostered debate, and decided on his positions. The foreign-policy group, for example, is reported to have included several hundred experts, coordinated by a handful of close aides, with active participation by Obama himself. This is also clearly the Obama approach to the current financial and economic crisis.
Many will recognize this as the decision-making style of President Kennedy, who famously told Clark Clifford, the head of his transition team, about a potential White House advisor who was a Republican: “I don’t care if (he) is a Democrat or on Igorot, I just want the best … I can get for the job.” Kennedy wanted to be surrounded by bright, capable folks who enjoyed the thrust-and-parry of vigorous policy discussions. In this he was following the pattern of Franklin Roosevelt.
When Kennedy met with his newly formed cabinet in early 1961 to consider the Bay of Pigs invasion planned by Eisenhower’s CIA, no one spoke up to say it was a bad idea. Later, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and others claimed they thought it would be a disaster, but they didn’t want to break the cohesiveness of the team.
Psychologist Irving Janis famously labeled this “groupthink,” a very common tendency among groups with a charismatic leader. It is the incredible urge to conform to the perceptions of others even when their views are obviously wrong. But, the key to this phenomenon is unanimity of opinion. If only one person disagrees with the consensus, others who might disagree will usually speak up.
The Kennedy Administration learned a very important lesson from the Bay of Pigs debacle.
In the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy relied on his brother Robert to orchestrate the policy debate and ensure broad (people today would say “out-of-the-box”) thinking. JFK wanted to avoid the crisis-management group posturing and prematurely seeking his approval. Robert Kennedy’s role was to play the “devil’s advocate,” presenting and exploring alternative views to elicit other opinions and ideas. One result was the naval “quarantine” of Cuba, so-positioned because a naval “blockade” would have been interpreted as an act of war. Another was effective use of back-channel communication between the Soviet embassy and ABC newsman John Scali.
An advantage to the multiple advocacy model is breadth of perspective and quality of debate, as expertise and experience is mobilized to explore alternative courses of action. The US military has long used this technique, as has the intelligence community from time to time with its “Red Teams” to challenge conventional wisdom.
Heterogeneous groups are least likely to suffer from groupthink and most likely to be creative and synergistic. So far, Obama’s appointments are characterized by broad experience and perspective and strength of convictions. Experienced people are less likely to be conformists, they will speak up, and the diversity of opinion will foster creative problem-solving. Combined with Obama’s own group leadership style, this suggests that there will be significant depth and breadth of opinion presented at White House meetings.
A potential downside is unacceptably delaying a decision or action – especially important in times of crisis. Though the experience of the Cuban missile crisis clearly shows that a well-orchestrated broad debate can still produce timely actions.
Another potential problem is implementation: Diverse groups are usually very good at brain-storming and creative problem-solving, but can have trouble with implementation.
The biggest potential drawback of vigorous multiple advocacy is the potential for the president to become paralyzed and unable, Hamlet-like, to synthesize or choose among the alternatives. For it to work effectively, the process must be orchestrated as Robert Kennedy did with the Cuban crisis. Expertise must be sought and used, regardless of where the expertise may be found. Adequate access and attention must be assured for the key alternatives before the president.
And above all, the president must be self-aware and self-confident enough to make the final choices.