Barack Obama’s Executive (Dys)Function

J. G. Collins Managing Director, Stuyvesant Square Consultancy
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Donald Trump recently suggested that President Obama’s failures were attributable to the president’s mental health. “There is something wrong, and nobody knows what it is … There are so many bad decisions. Can anybody be that incompetent?,” Trump asked.

The Donald’s amateur psychiatric diagnosis aside, what’s far more likely is that Barack Obama has a poorly developed executive function.

Executive function is the collection of personal skills, disciplines, and attributes that enable people to make plans, prioritize and track multiple tasks, supervise subordinates, engage in group dynamics, assess results, seek out additional required information and react to changed circumstances. It’s the chess player that exists in all of us, to a greater or lesser extent.

But great executive function isn’t a required skill for great political talents like Barack Obama; in fact, the skills are often at odds. (Recall it was George H. W. Bush, executive, who broke the “Read my lips: No New Taxes!” pledge of George H. W. Bush, politician.)

Politicians can also succeed by measuring simple metrics like polling and campaign cash. For executives, though, performance metrics are far more nuanced. “Success” and “failure” are determined by myriad variables and factors. Executives have to define and prioritize goals, set budgets, allocate, measure performance, react, reallocate and adjust or abandon strategies to achieve their desired objectives.

Successful presidents have to possess the very best attributes of both politicians and executives. They need to appeal to voters to be elected, set an agenda and lead an often hostile Congress to adopt it and still manage the massive business of government, defense and foreign policy.

Barack Obama’s presidency has suffered an array of embarrassing failures that could have been avoided had the president possessed better executive function.

Just days after ISIS captured Fallujah on January 3rd, for example, President Obama called ISIS a “jayvee team” compared to Al Qaeda. Ten months later, ISIS has gone from less than two thousand rag-tag insurgents toting AK-47’s in Toyota trucks to some 50,000 fighters with captured state-of-the-art US armor and, reportedly, Soviet-era MiGs. Its cash flow is reported to be some three million dollars per day and it occupies a large swath of Iraq. The ISIS “JVs” skipped the varsity team to become the all-pro terrorist army of 2014 in less than a year.

Had President Obama monitored any ISIS metrics – troop strength, ground won, military equipment captured, cash flow – from week to week, he would have seen the emerging threat back in the spring.  When he finally struck ISIS on the anniversary of 9/11, after two Americans had been beheaded, he was reactive, not proactive and, consequently, very possibly lost the best opportunity he had to stop the rise of ISIS.

Sound executive function requires intermittent evaluation of progress to ensure goals will be achieved. Without defined goals, metrics can’t be measured. Kathleen Sebelius, Eric Shinseki and multiple others have all failed the president, but their failures went unnoticed because the president either failed to set discernible goals for them to achieve or because he failed to monitor their performance. For the president’s subordinates, success and failure were indistinguishable because he hasn’t bothered to define either of them. Subordinates have no stated objectives, so there can be no accountability when they fail to meet them.

The president also seems unable to prioritize an agenda in changing circumstances, a critical executive function. In 2009, when the obvious priority was the failed economy he had inherited, the president spent most of his enormous first-term political capital on his signature healthcare program. In late September of this year, when ISIS was on the march outside Baghdad and the America’s first Ebola cases were being diagnosed, the White House focus and messaging was on climate change.

Obama also flatly refuses to even consider viable alternatives that run counter to his ideology. Instead, he risks national policy failures to curry partisan political favor. Would the president stick to his promise to his base to “never” put “boots on the ground” in Iraq if ISIS moves against NATO ally Turkey?What if our Baghdad embassy were under siege with all hands in danger?

Executive experience isn’t a prerequisite to good executive function. John Kennedy came to the presidency as a charismatic, enormously self-confident politician, with only the executive experience he had earned as the skipper of a small, twelve-man torpedo boat in World War II. But in the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy sought out new information, managed subordinates, considered alternative options and implemented an ultimately successful diplomatic strategy that avoided war. His work remains a textbook example of executive management in crisis.

Barack Obama, too, possesses the enormous self-confidence of JFK and readily displays it on the campaign trail. But unlike JFK, Barack Obama’s self-assurance as a politician veers dangerously into conceit as an executive; it’s as though the president feels he can dispense with the tools of sound executive management simply because he is in charge.

The president would do well to acknowledge this potentially catastrophic shortcoming so that he has at least a chance of rescuing what remains of a presidency that has, at least as of now,  largely failed.