Wednesday, January 16, 2008

"You don't want me as the chief operating officer."

Quite a lot has been made of this remark that Barak Obama made at the beginning of this week while campaigning in Carson City, Nevada. It even made its way into last night's debate. However, this is the sort of one-liner that deserves not to be pulled out of context. Fortunately, John McCormick has given us what appears to be the full context on his The Swap blog for the Baltimore Sun:

You know what you can't do? You can't put me in charge of some paper. I will lose it. You don't want me as the chief operating officer. But that's not my job. I'm not a systems guy. I'm not somebody who could make sure that, you know, everything is running on time.

To add to the context, let me also offer Tim Dickinson's reading of this remark, which he posted on his National Affairs blog for Rolling Stone as part of his debate wrap-up:

I fear we’re in for a more of this Chief Operating Officer discussion. It was an odd, unforced error for Obama to admit earlier this week that he wouldn’t make a good COO. He played it off tonight as if that job were no more than paper pushing, but I don’t think most Americans really have any nuanced appreciation of the distinction between a COO and a CEO. It’s all the boss, and Obama kinda said he wasn’t all that good at boss stuff.

Those nuances that distinguish the COO from the CEO have a lot to do with the specifics of the organization being run, as does the influence of the Board of Directors. When you think about that, it is not that different from the ways in which the power structure changes from one administration to the next in the Federal government. The real issue is whether or not Obama really feels (or meant to say) that he is not "all that good at boss stuff." Whether we like it or not, our government is constituted around the exercise of authority; and, as Truman reminded us, the authority buck stops at the desk in the Oval Office. If Obama is not into the authority dimension of governance, then is the Executive branch the best place for him?

For all of my dedication to our Constitution, I am not sure it would be a good idea to view it (particularly Sections 2 and 3 of Article II) as a job description for the office of the Presidency. Even an originalist would probably admit that nature of the job itself has evolved since the Constitution was ratified. So, while Article II should still be honored, it really does not "define the job" that a President ought to be doing. Nevertheless, Section 2 invokes the noun "Power" (capitalized as quoted) in all three of its paragraphs; so, even if it does not cover all the details, the language strikes me as pretty clear that much of what a President does is exercise authority.

This takes us back to the full context for Obama's remark. He is not shying away from exercising authority, which reveals a misreading on Dickinson's part: He did not "kinda" say that "he wasn’t all that good at boss stuff." He did say he was "not a systems guy;" but, in spite of the number of business schools that still believe that management can only be taught and practiced within the domain of systems theory, this is not the same thing as "boss stuff." Indeed, the reason I keep hauling out Isaiah Berlin's "Political Judgement" essay is because of the strong case it makes that not only are "academic" perspectives such as systems theory not necessary in the effective exercise of authority but also they may do more harm than good by interfering with other factors that might contribute to more effective judgment. Furthermore, if you do not want to wade through Berlin's admittedly dense prose, consider the case of Robert McNamara, who, in many respects, may be viewed as the first "systems guy" to serve in a position of authority in the Executive branch of our government; and consider how much of what he discusses in The Fog of War can be traced back to bad decisions made under the influence of systems theory!

So, whatever Dickinson may think about "boss stuff," the fact that Obama has declared that he is "not a systems guy" may be more of an asset than a liability. The factor that will determine whether that "may" can be converted to an "is," however, lies in whether or not Obama will be able to talk to systems guys, because, these days, it is impossible to run any organization without running into them; and, having spent some time "on the inside," I know just how good these guys can be at turning "objective data and analyses" into blue smoke and mirrors. If Obama is the sort whose eyes glaze over in the presence of a graph or a mathematical formula, he may be too susceptible to the influence of the systems guys. He may not be able to respond with the critical questions that can poke holes in their over-inflated balloons; and, as a result, he will run the risk of caving in to their influence, thus going down the same tragic path that McNamara was fated to tread. In other words whether or not Obama is really suitable to exercise the authority of the Presidency really comes down to how he will be able to deal with those who try to influence him with language and methods that he may not understand very well. If he can deal with them, then my knowing that he has that capability may be a factor in my deciding to vote form him when I get my turn here in California!

1 comment:

America Jones said...

Good catch. I don't want a CEO or a COO, I want a President; one who understands that he or she is a government official who represents Citizens, not a business executive who manages assets.

Really, if the man has sound judgement and good skills of discernment, Obama's "inexperience" may be an advantage for citizens - especially if he constantly has to ask other government officials, "what do you mean?"