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Inside The White House

In a captivating 2011 article entitled Decision Making in the Obama White Housefrom the Center for the Study of the Presidency, Professor James Pfiffner identifies three dimensions set by U.S. presidents, the ultimate decision-makers, when defining their advisory system:


Is the administration’s decision making process centralized within the White House or delegated to the various departments or agencies? The author notes that the historical trends have been towards more centralization (and thus growing White House staff): “[…] It has been generally accepted that presidents had to oppose the centrifugal tendencies of American government by depending primarily on their White House staff at the expense of their Cabinet secretaries.” Control over policy has indeed been tightened over the years, and the Obama administration has been no exception.


Presidents need to assure that their “advisory systems provide them with a range of alternatives for any important decision” through “deliberative multiple advocacy”. Prof. Pfiffner observes that Obama has been an active proponent of multiple advocacy, departing from the previous administration, in particular in relation with military decision making.

Anecdotally, as reported by the article referred to below, Obama asked every single person—including “junior” personnel—for their views in the Situation Room when deciding upon the US. involvement in Libya in 2011. His justification: “What the [political] process is going to do is to try to lead you to a binary decision. The process pushes towards black or white answers.” Hence the need to broaden perspectives before narrowing them down.


The honest broker “acts for the president and ensures that deliberations involve advisors balanced in power and resources, brings in new advisors and different channels of information, if necessary, and arranges for independent analyses of the premise of the debate.” In other words, honest brokers are instruments which foster multiple advocacy. In that respect, the honest broker must give confidence to the White House staff that their views will reach the President “in unaltered form”, thereby reducing the incentive to use backchannels which can lead to a dysfunctional organization. Honest brokers, a role tailored for the Chief of Staff, are in a position to control the access to their president in an effective manner.

Under the first Obama administration, Rahm Emanuel, Chief of Staff, was instead seen as a policy advocate, as was Larry Summers on economic matters. More generally, unlike Clinton, Obama has not been relying upon a network of honest brokers. As a result, he has had to get personally involved in the details of policy in search for differing points of view himself, acting “as his own orchestrator of debate and interrogator of his aides”.

Obama’s advisory system meets many criteria set by political scientists (independently from whether or not one agrees with his decisions). However, it has ended up slowing down his decision making process quite substantially. His agony over the decision to increase US troops levels in Afghanistan in 2009 is a case in point.

In a separate article published by Vanity Fair in 2012 and available here, Michael Lewis, the author of Wall Street bestsellers including Liar’s Poker, The Big Short and Flash Boys, talks about the six months he was allowed to spend with Barack Obama. One of the most interesting pieces of advice from Obama includes the following: “You need to [pare down decisions to] focus your decision making energy, you need to routinize yourself.”

This has actually roots in science. In the “Chocolate and radish experiment”, psychologist Roy Baumeister demonstrates that willpower, which is required to make sound decisions, gets depleted as it is used, including through decision making. After each decision it becomes harder to make another one. Which is why Obama—and others—instinctively wear only grey dark suits and blue shirts, thereby limiting their selection of clothes in the morning, or avoid going shopping. They preserve their decision making power for situations deemed to be more important during the day.

To conclude, a final Obama quote from the Lewis article which puts emphasis on the quality of the decision making process, and the advisory system behind it, as discussed above: “You have to own [every decision] and feel comfortable with the way you made the decision”.

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