The Obama Management Style

A very interesting snippet from a much longer interview with Lawrence Summers that rings true to me:

MR. ISAACSON: Last question before I get a few from the audience. What’s the difference between working for Barack Obama and Bill Clinton?

DR. SUMMERS: Okay. So you’re working for Bill Clinton. Well, let’s do it differently. Let’s do it the other way. You’re working for Barack Obama. If you have a meeting scheduled at ten o’clock, there’s a 25 percent chance that the meeting will begin before ten o’clock, and there’s a — you know what’s coming, and there’s a 70 percent chance that the meeting will have begun by 10:15.

If you wrote Barack Obama a memo before the meeting, it is a virtual certainty that he will have read it. If you seek to explain the memo you wrote to him during the meeting, he will cut you off, and he will be irritated. If he, as the leader of the meeting, will ask one or two questions to kick the tires, but will basically focus on how whatever subject you’re talking about fits with the broad vision and approaches of his presidency.

He will basically take the attitude if you’re his financial advisor, that if you can’t — it’s up to you to figure out whether preferred stock or subordinated debt is the appropriate financial instrument for your bailout, and that if he doesn’t trust you to figure it out, he’ll get a new financial adviser, but that is not the question on which he is going to spend time.

So it’s a very focused executive, big picture guidance, disciplined approach. At the appointed time, his secretary will come in and will bring a card that says it’s time for his next meeting, and you will be out of that office within five minutes. It is a certainty. That’s working for Barack Obama, and it is a wonderful experience.

Working for Bill Clinton is also a wonderful experience. It is a different experience.


DR. SUMMERS: The probability that your meeting will begin before ten o’clock is zero.


DR. SUMMERS: The probability that there is compensation for the fact that your meeting will begin late, it is virtually certain to end late. Bill Clinton has a 30 percent chance of having read your memo before the memo. Bill Clinton will, however, with near certainty, have some set of quite detailed and thoughtful perspectives to offer on your topic.

He will say things like “I was in the White House library reading the Journal of Finance, and there’s some really interesting thinking about the role of dividends in the system.” “I went to a conference at the Brookings Institution 11 years ago, and do you know that there’s a really interesting experiment with providing credit access in Tennessee?”

“Did you read the latest issue of — the Asian edition of The Economist? It had a perspective on Thailand that you might want to think about.” There was a stunning, I mean you know, while he wasn’t reading your memo, it wasn’t that he wasn’t doing anything about it.

9 comments… add one
  • Drew

    I found this to be a fascinating little snippet. And it confirms everything I’ve believed and commented about Obama.

    In particular, the following statement resonated with me, because of what I do. Maybe Summers was being a bit cavalier, but if not…..

    “He will basically take the attitude if you’re his financial advisor, that if you can’t — it’s up to you to figure out whether preferred stock or subordinated debt is the appropriate financial instrument for your bailout, and that if he doesn’t trust you to figure it out, he’ll get a new financial adviser,”

    A real CEO does not do this. A decision like that is too important, too fundamental and has too many implications to just delegate to staff. Said another way, Obama, not having ever run anything, is simply a process oriented guy prancing about looking Presidential, but with little substance. He’s represents everything wrong in large corporate when the “pretty guy” gets promoted beyond his capabilities.

    Its actually kind of funny. The left usually hates all things “corporate,” but Obama is the quintessential large corporate, opportunistic man. But they are blinded.

    I never liked Clinton, for a number of reasons. But as god is my witness, I’d take him back over this zero in a heartbeat.

  • michael reynolds


    If only Obama had some of your boy Jimmy John’s experience supervising the salami.

    So the Drew Theory is that a POTUS should be conversant with every minute detail in the USG. Every detail of the economy, defense, foreign relations, justice, welfare, health care . . . a “company” infinitely larger than any other on earth, a system infinitely more complex than any other man-made institution.

    Jimmy John! I reckon this salami should be more peppery. Whadda you think? Well, lemme just taste that salami and I’ll decide on how much paprika! I’m the CEO!

  • michael reynolds

    Mr. President! Should we use the .50 caliber here or the 20 mm cannon? It’s your job as president to know!

  • Drew

    That’s just stupid, Michael, and shows that you have never run an organization of any size and have zero appreciation for management of a real organization.

    In fact, that reference to preferred stock/subdebt manifested itself in the GM bailout, where they made grevious errors that resonate to today. No competance.

    I know you have the need to massage his unit daily, but he’s just plain and simple out of his league. God, give me back Clinton.

    BTW – if you actually knew anything about business you’d know that the CEO of Jimmy Johns or any other fast food organization agonizes over ingredient quality, sourcing and quality control. But, of course, you know nothing about managment, so you don’t know that.

  • john personna

    That’s interesting. We’re caught between presidents who trust economists too much, and economists who trust themselves too much.

    (I discard Drew’s “just wing it.” We are dealing with decision making in the face of uncertainty. CEOs do that with certainty all the time … and then their replacement tries it another way.)

  • Let me give my opinion about good and bad managers. A good manager doesn’t delegate his decisions to his subordinates and, most especially, to his staff. The staff’s job is to tell the manager the advantages and disadvantages of the decision and, possibly, to express an opinion but not to hand the finished, unadorned decision to the manager. Only bad managers pit their subordinates against each other. Good managers make their staffs better.

    From my admittedly obscured vantage point presidents who are really good managers are extremely rare. I would rate the presidents of my lifetime: Truman-terrible, Eisenhower-excellent, Kennedy-good to fair, Johnson-poor, Nixon-poor, I have no sense of Ford, Carter-poor, Reagan-fair, I have no sense of Bush 41 (which may mean he was an excellent manager), Clinton-fair to poor (wanted to wear every hat), Bush 43-terrible. My estimate of Bush 43 is because his was a style I’ve experienced firsthand from others and I thought it was terrible then.

    Note that I’m not rating them as presidents or rating their policies, just as managers.

  • Drew

    I generally choose my words pretty carefully. And did you notice my comment about Summers perhaps being cavalier?

    It was a sucker punch. I can guarantee you one thing, no CEO worthy of the title doesn’t understand the basics of his cap structure, or in this context, the implications of what happened at GM. None. The fact that that point went straight over the head of certain commenters speaks volumes. And Michael picked the wrong business to chastise about CEO’s not understanding details. Lord.

    Anyway. Of course a CEO can’t know what lurks in every knook and cranny. Although you might be surprised when you get to $500M and below businesses what they do know.

    We can take Summers at his word or not. If we do, I stand by every word I wrote. It may not resonate with those who are not familiar with organizations and running them, but Summers sort of threw him under the bus. Or we can impute a BS or simplistic factor to Summers comments. Since none of us have worked in the White House in this Administration we just don’t know.

    So we are left with simply observing and guessing. Given Obama’s lack of any previous executive experience, and watching, and Summers comments, I’m guessing the place is a mess. On the other hand, as Dave knows, I’m in posession of perhaps exculpatory information.

  • michael reynolds


    I don’t believe anything Obama could do would change your opinion. I don’t think facts matter much to you, and I see no evidence that you’re capable of objectivity.

    I don’t know whether Obama is a good manager or not. I do know it wouldn’t matter to you.

    After all, you were also calling him weak and indecisive — moments before he put the hit on Osama bin Laden.

    For you it’s conclusion first, based on your own very narrow world view, and evidence appears only insofar as it confirms your pre-established conclusion.

    Dave, I listen to and consider. You? Nah. Your sandwich empire experience notwithstanding.

  • john personna

    Obama is bad for being indecisive, except when he is bad for being decisive.

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