The Partial Observer: Presidential Decision Making: the Difference Between Doing a Good Job versus Bad

The Partial Observer by Thomas Kane Jr.

Presidential Decision Making:
the Difference Between Doing
a Good Job versus Bad

Individuals make decisions every day in both their personal and work life. Not surprisingly, scholars study how these decisions are made. Of the countless studies published on this topic, only one individual in this country has been singled out for intense scrutiny for at least the last 75 years. That person is the president of the United States. The reason for this is obvious. The president makes decisions that are critically important to the nation and the world. Understanding a president’s approach to decision making is, then, most important.

A decision-making process is effective if it provides a president with accurate and complete information as well as advice from the people from whom the president should hear. The criteria for judging a good approach to decision making is simply its effectiveness in providing this information and advice. There is no one perfect approach. Here are examples of how four presidents went about decision making—two did a fine job, two a poor job.

Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency was marked by organization. A man who spent his life in the military, he quickly appointed a chief of staff—the first ever in the White House. He established the National Security Council, which consisted of the national security adviser to the president, secretaries of state and defense and other key officials. The council met every week and took up the most important foreign policy issues. In regard to domestic affairs, the president met with his cabinet members each week, taking up key issues. Eisenhower was very well informed, following closely the discussions which took place in each meeting. He based his decisions on these discussions. Eisenhower’s approach to decision making was widely admired.

Barack Obama’s presidency was characterized by meetings that were less formal than Eisenhower’s. He relied more on White House staff, where Eisenhower relied more on cabinet members. Obama’s chief of staff was less of a central figure in “running” the White House than was Eisenhower’s. Both presidents, though, agreed on the importance of a rational approach to decision making. Obama, for example, spent a great deal of time in meetings listening to his advisers, including military leaders before making decisions on troop commitments to Afghanistan. He said about decision making: You have to have the best people working as a team, exploring all options for a solution to the problem being considered. Obama was captain of the team. Those studying the Obama presidency judged his approach to decision making as sound.

Lyndon Johnson’s approach to decision making was marked by inconsistency. He had no fixed approach for arriving at a decision. For example, he failed to have a serious examination with key advisers of all options for dealing with the Vietnam War, often refusing to discuss war policy with Vice President Humphrey. He had no regular meetings of the National Security Council. He often turned whatever meetings he held into an attack on his critics. His approach to decision making was ad hoc to a fault. Amazingly, he made many crucial decisions on Vietnam with a few aides over lunch, with no notes taken. Johnson’s approach to decision making was troubling.

George W. Bush’s approach to decision making lacked in adequate deliberation and input from top officials. In regard to Iraq, for example, Bush’s national intelligence director for the Near East said there was no process for making a decision on going to war—no meeting, no policy options papers, no debate in the Situation Room. Bush’s CIA director agreed. Bush, by his own admission, did not ask for recommendations about going to war from his secretary of state, secretary of defense, or his father, a former president. Bush once said he made decisions more by his “gut” feelings rather than by any process. That seems to be the case with regard to Iraq. Bush’s approach to decision making was flawed.

A good presidential decision-making process does not guarantee a good decision nor does a poor one make a bad decision inevitable. The odds are high, though, that a good process results in better decisions being made. The differences between the Eisenhower and Obama approaches compared to the Johnson and Bush approaches are stark. When presidents make decisions about war or any important matter the way Johnson and Bush did, the dangers are clear. The Vietnam and Iraq wars were in the view of most Americans a serious mistake. It is doubtful that Eisenhower or Obama would have opted for war in either country. A good approach to decision making is so important.

Tom Kane Jr. is a professor emeritus of political science at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and a long-time summer resident of Cooperstown.

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