By way of preamble, a recent Quinnipiac University poll has found that 54% of voters do not believe that the Obama Administration is competent:

American voters say 54 – 44 percent that the Obama Administration is not competent running the government. The president is paying attention to what his administration is doing, 47 percent say, while 48 percent say he does not pay enough attention.

David Dayen longs for an executive branch that is capable, competent, and engaged. After noting the harm that loss of credibility does to liberal government he writes:

There’s only one way to restore credibility: through efficient, quality government programs that establish high standards among the public. But one misstep can ruin years of diligent work. The FHFA might have a perfectly sound program that will really benefit homeowners. But until they stave off the lingering mistrust, they will simply serve as representatives of a Government Who Cried Wolf.

I’m afraid he will continue to wait.

My own view is that President Obama is tremendously competent at the things that engage his interest. He’s interested in getting elected. He’s interested in raising money. He’s interested in getting his way on policy. He’s not interested in the mechanics of government.

29 comments… add one
  • michael reynolds

    I think that’s right. Mr. Obama is not hands-on, to put it mildly. He’s an ivory tower personality, cool, emotionally distant, analytical rather than intuitive, a delegator. All of which would be fine if he had someone as Chief of Staff with compensating strengths. Obama is doing what presidents should do – looking at the big stuff, setting the overall course. But only if you have an ass-kicker, a Don Regan or James Baker to enforce your will down the chain of command. Someone has to be the asshole in an organization, someone has to threaten and mean it.

  • michael reynolds

    Actually, you know what Obama needs? A tougher wife. He needs a Nancy or a Barbara.

  • Guarneri

    You act, Michael, like having an “ass kicker” is some sort of optional feature, like lane change assist in a car, for an executive.

    If an executive cannot execute, then finding someone to install in your staff who can is mandatory. Else you are not en executive, you are an aimless college professor.

  • I think there’s a basic conflict, Michael. There are multiple reports, i.e. from Democrats as well as Republicans, that the president does not accept advice readily and relies on a close cadre of long-time friends.

    The fundamental alternatives are that you’ve either got to do things yourself or rely on someone else to do them. If you won’t do either, it doesn’t make for a smooth-running organization.

  • michael reynolds


    But a tight manager with no vision — like, say, Mitt Romney — is every bit as useless. And given the choice of a soulless automaton with ahead stuffed full of superstition and zero awareness of American life like Romney, and a chilly, arrogant academic with his heart in the right place and a good overall sense of direction, I’ll take the latter. You can outsource ass-kicking, you can’t outsource vision.

    No employee is ever perfect – that includes the employees known as POTUS. All tools are imperfect. Reagan had great ass-kickers and still ended up in Iran-Contra, an act for which he could legally have been impeached. Johnson was the greatest of all one-on-one ass-kickers and ended up in Vietnam.

    So it isn’t about just X or just Y. I don’t think we’ve had a two-fer in my lifetime, not since Eisenhower. A second category of presidents is X and compensates, or Y and compensates, but as mentioned, that too often fails.

    Probably we should re-design the office itself, spinning off the ceremonial, kingly stuff to a new office, and move to a parliamentary system which, when done right, involves a shadow government in the opposition of people well-qualified to take over a given office in the event of a change of government. More of a permanent government, either put in or tossed out en masse by the voters.

    I am increasingly dismayed by our system, with its bizarre insistence on elevating people with no direct experience of cabinet positions, randomly grabbing corporate weasels and political hacks and handing them what amount to billion dollar businesses to run. And we pick the leader of the free world via an absurd and degrading hazing ritual guaranteed to reward dishonesty.

    I suspect some of the small-bore blame in cabinet positions goes to our vetting process, which weeds out anyone who has ever had a life or expressed an opinion. Then there’s the rabid partisanship that ensures that no matter who you are taking over Housing or Treasury or State you’ll be instantly attacked and hated by half the country before you so much as hold your first meeting.

    Honestly, would you take a government job? I wouldn’t. Not even with a gun to my head.

  • michael reynolds


    I’m curious as to who you’d name as a competent POTUS in recent memory. Because I’m damned if I can.

  • steve

    We had a choice between Obama and people who wanted to continue, or enlarge, the Bush foreign policy mistakes. Not much of a choice.


  • I’m curious as to who you’d name as a competent POTUS in recent memory.

    The job is tough, no doubt, and getting more so. We need to separate the roles of head of state and head of government.

    Recent, of course, is a relative term. Keeping in mind that I never voted for the man, Reagan ran a good administration Clinton wasn’t bad but he was notorious for charging in and micromanaging. That was a problem for Carter, too, but his people weren’t good enough and he wasn’t as much of a policy wonk.

    Prior to Reagan I think you need to go back to Eisenhower. Eisenhower pioneered the Army-style staff management model that Reagan aped later. He hired solid managers, allowed them discretion, and disciplined if necessary

  • Remember that in this post I’m reacting to David Dayen’s complaint about competent management. If you don’t recall him, he’s a notable Left Blogosphere blogger who’s graduated to higher things.

    What I’m suggesting here is that if he needs good management to show the benefits of activist progressive government he might want to rethink activist progressive government. This is always a problem for technocrats. They can’t accept that things won’t go exactly right.

  • michael reynolds


    In fact a choice between a man, McCain, who has never seen a war he didn’t want to jump into, and his vice presidential candidate, the utterly ludicrous Ms. Palin. I don’t think it’s possible to suggest we made the wrong choice there and keep a straight face.

  • michael reynolds


    Yep, I’d agree on both. Ike was the last guy who both had his head screwed on right and was competent at management. I can’t put Reagan on the level of Eisenhower given the Beirut disaster, the ridiculous invasion of Granada, and the Iran-Contra criminal conspiracy, but Jim Baker and Nancy Reagan were formidable ass-kickers. Clinton’s WH was often a mess, but Bill was Bill, one of a kind, with a reptilian regenerative capacity.

    I fault Michelle a bit because in my view a spouse is supposed to have your back, to compensate for your weaknesses. I don’t think Michelle is doing that. Of course unlike Nancy she has children to raise, and I cannot argue with her priorities there.

  • This goes back to a point that I’ve made here before and can’t claim to understand. Democrats and Republicans have tended towards different presidential management styles. Democrats have preferred do-it-all, know-it-all, stand back and watch me work types. Obama. Carter. Johnson. Not so much Kennedy. Republicans haven’t.

  • ...

    And given the choice of a soulless automaton with ahead stuffed full of superstition and zero awareness of American life like Romney, and a chilly, arrogant academic with his heart in the right place and a good overall sense of direction, I’ll take the latter.

    Obama knows what’s going on in American life? Since when? Was it when he was raised in the Third World? Of all that time spent in the Ivy Leagues? Perhaps its from that time when he was a back-bencher in the Illinois legislature helping out his buddies the slum lords. Or maybe during his long run for the Presidency, when he complained that anyone that didn’t love him was a bitter clinger?

    What a fucking joke.

  • CStanley

    Apropos of the comments about First Ladies and Chiefs of Staff, I’ve read that the ass kicker role in this administration is being played by Valerie Jarrett. So what gives? Is she just not good at it?

  • ...

    So what gives? Is she just not good at it?

    Doesn’t matter if she is or isn’t good at it, she’s not in a role to actually _DO_ anything except feed the President’s ego. She has no real authority to do anything, unlike a Chief of Staff.

  • ...

    Effective action requires having (amongst other things) both responsibility and authority. When you’re given one or the other, you’re doomed to fail, eventually. As an advisor to the President, Jarrett’s got no real organizational responsibilities, and the only authority she can meaningfully muster is that she’ll tattle on people. The most Machiavellian operator would be destined to fail as an ass-kicker with that official role.

  • Effective action requires having (amongst other things) both responsibility and authority.

    That reminds me of something a boss of mine said many years ago. He said that all jobs could be place on a two-dimensional graph, the vertical axis representing impact or influence and the horizontal axis representing accountability. According to him, the best jobs were those in the quadrant representing very high influence and very low accountability.

  • CStanley

    Sure, but my impression has been that Jarrett has the First Lady role which is also without any formal authority.

  • Guarneri

    The vast majority of CEO s I’ve come into contact with want both the influence and accountability. They are attracted to it like moths to a light. It’s why they are CEO s.

  • jan

    Obama seems to me more of a figure head president with the ethnicity du jour, jocular, cool speaking skills, and a good ability to press the flesh and get lots of money from pricey fund raisers. He loves the importance of being POTUS, but seems to dislike the day to day boring and somewhat dreary oversight it takes, as well as making genuine overtures to those he doesn’t like — republicans. Consequently, he’s been more of a leader shunning bringing people together, relishing more campaign-like venues where he can stir factions up, fomenting hostilities between those having different political/religious philosophies, genders, races, and social classes.

    This president also seems petulant, thin-skinned, openly dishonest, doesn’t listen to experts in the field, turning instead to the people living in his WH bubble for advice. Valerie Jarrett’s name has appeared in many articles and notations describing some of the unsettling undercurrents in this administration. And, for an unelected staffer, she gets preferential treatment only 2nd to the president himself. It’s been a strange kind of relationship — almost like she is the puppet master behind the curtain.

  • ...

    Schuler, the worst jobs are definitely those with high accountability and low influence. I’ve had a couple of those. Invariably it is someone higher up the food chain looking either to guarantee failure for a subordinant, or looking to cover their own ass in case things go wrong.

  • TastyBits


    … want both the influence and accountability …

    Also with all leaders I have ever encountered, and they have been from very different backgrounds. These people lead, and they make people want to follow. A really good leader will be able to get his adversaries to grudgingly follow. People trust him.

    The people who do not want the accountability are bosses. These people give orders. A really good boss cannot get anybody to follow. Nobody trusts him.

    If the guy/gal in charge does not want to be held accountable, do not trust them. They are looking for somebody to take the fall.

  • jan

    “The people who do not want the accountability are bosses. These people give orders. A really good boss cannot get anybody to follow. Nobody trusts him.”

    I don’t see the logic in that assertion, Tasty, at all.

  • TastyBits


    A boss is not a leader. A boss is somebody who wants to be in charge but does not want to be held accountable. If you have never run into somebody who is a boss, you are lucky. You have to watch everything you do, or they will use it against you.

    President Obama is a boss.

  • michael reynolds


    Obama seems to me more of a figure head president

    Why, you’ve evolved, Jan. You used to think he was a Muslim-Communist-terrorist who wanted to destroy America.

    Now he’s a figurehead.

    I assume you’re preparing for the inevitable shift when Fox and Rush start to tell you that Obama was only the evil warm-up act for the far more evil Hillary Monster!

    Kind of a transition period at at the GOP asylum.

  • michael reynolds


    You have to watch everything you do, or they will use it against you.

    Which would be the accountability and responsibility you say Obama is lacking. You know, managing, firing the weaker performers, so on.

    Really, can you try harder for some kind of consistency?

  • Andy

    While I agree the President hasn’t been an effective manager, I think there is deeper, structural dysfunction in most federal agencies that can’t be fixed solely in the executive branch. Government is not business and a cabinet official cannot remake an agency – the Executive is restricted by 60 years of law governing what government can and cannot do, the structure of government, the civil service system, etc. At the VA, for example, I don’t think the main problem was Gen (ret) Shinseki who, by all accounts, knew how to manage large organizations. Rather, I think the main problem is with the VA system itself; a bureaucracy which is increasingly unaccountable to its political appointee leadership.

    Unfortunately, government dysfunction will not be fixed anytime soon.

  • There’s a lot of space between “solely in the executive” and executive irrelevance. The truth lies somewhere in between.

    I think that under the circumstances good presidential leadership inevitably leads to streamlining (if you can think of trimming an argentinosaurus down to a diplodocus as streamlining) while indifference leads to, well, what we have.

  • Andy


    I agree, just pointing out that a lot of non-trivial improvments will require legislative action, something which isn’t likely anytime soon.

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