I have this sense that when history looks back on 2009-2010 in American political history, it’s going to come away with the conclusion that a larger-than-currently-understood share of the problems had to do with poor handling of routine managerial issues. You had a new president who didn’t have a strong management background. You had a new chief of staff who, likewise, had a lot of DC experience but not a ton of management experience. You had a determination not to repeat the mistakes of the Clinton and Carter administration, and thus a ton of focus on managing the relationship with congressional Democrats. You had a determination to avoid scandals. And I think it’s important to concede that this relatively inexperienced Obama/Rahm duo really succeeded in making sure there were no huge blowups with congressional Democrats and no big scandals. But other things that are also important can end up falling by the wayside here.
Edward Luce’s column on the extent to which Obama is standing by his core group of confidants differs a bit from mine in specific assessment of individuals, but I think it does tend to get at this a bit. Management is a difficult task and any new president will inevitably face a learning curve. Very few new presidents take office in the middle of an economic collapse. Things are bound to go wrong to some extent. And I think one of the worst things that can happen to powerful people dealing with difficult situations is that something of a siege mentality can arise where the only people you really trust are the ones who were in the trenches with you.