Why Presidents Fail with Elaine Kamarck

Global Café Breakfast with Elaine Kamarck

US Presidents experience failures during their administrations, sometimes very visible failures - the botched roll-out of Obamacare, the incompetent response to Hurricane Katrina by President Bush, the disastrous hostage-rescue mission in Iran under President Carter. Unexpected events cannot be discounted, but often Presidents make failures more probable by not consulting widely enough amongst the 4 million federal employees - military and civilian - who work for them, instead relying on a small group of White House advisors who are, by definition, ideologically closely aligned with their boss. And those advisors, says Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at Brookings, are often more focused on promoting the President's accomplishments than highlighting problems or shortcomings.

Kamarck, who served in the Clinton White House for five years, said "the first thing they would say at the senior staff meeting in the morning was 'What is the message of the day?', and not 'How is the government doing?'"

The federal government is so vast that presidents have increasingly become distant from the various agencies they oversee - "they assume either that the government can look after itself, or that it is incompetent, depending on their philosophy." Either position can be a liability - as Kamarck showed in a series of analyses during her talk at a LAWAC Global Café breakfast meeting on October 19th.

After Iranian students took 52 Americans hostage in the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979, President Carter ordered a rescue mission, which ended with a helicopter crashing into a refueling plane during a dust storm in the desert, causing 8 US deaths. The dust storm was not foreseeable, but nor was it insurmountable, said Kamarck. What was ignored in advance was the evidence of multiple government commissions that had warned that the different arms of the US military were not able to carry out inter-service operations and did not know how to communicate with each other, and also the degrading of special operations forces. Nor was any full-scale rehearsal carried out before the mission was launched. "Compare that to the mission to assassinate Osama bin Laden in 2011," said Kamarck, when special operations troops ran the show and practiced repeatedly on a replica of bin Laden's compound that was built in North Carolina.

Similarly when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans unexpectedly, the disaster itself couldn't be predicted, but the response from federal agencies was lacking. And, said Kamarck, the real tragedy was that, after 9/11, the Bush Administration had drawn up detailed plans for a federal response to a large scale disaster in the form of a terror attack - which could easily have been applied to Katrina. "Had New Orleans been hit by a dirty bomb, the federal response, including from the military, would have been instantaneous. And the devastation from Katrina was similar to that from a dirty bomb..." But President Bush and the federal government stayed on the fence for several days as the disaster unfolded.

"One of the advantages of having a big government is that you have a lot of voices - that is why we have the interagency review process." But this was ignored during the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq. "It is dangerous when there is a small group of ideologically-motivated advisors who keep other options away from the President - this happened with Rumsfeld and Cheney - they treated [then National Security Advisor] Condoleezza Rice as a young kid." Absent any dissenting voices, Bush launched the Iraq invasion, no weapons of mass destruction were found, and soon the US was embroiled in a brutal war that would cost more than 4,000 American lives and tens of thousands of Iraqi lives.

Kamarck then showed how a similar reluctance to consult more broadly affected two of President Obama's most visible failures. When the Obamacare Healthcare.gov website was being prepared there were plenty of people in the technology industry who were pointing out that it was very odd that the agency in charge, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), was not conducting any tests before the site went live. "Every technologist knows that is how you construct new systems - you build a little, test a little, then build a little more and test more - they didn't do that." The result was a disaster that affected not just how Americans viewed Obamacare, but also helped increase voters' overall cynicism about governmental capabilities. "President Clinton once gave a speech in which he said they pay us - presidents - to look down the road and around corners. It is a difficult leadership skill, but you need to be able to look forwards."

In discussion with Elaine Kamarck

Kamarck also said that Presidents have become increasingly reliant on their White House appointees, who are both very close to their own views and also do not have to pass through a congressional confirmation process, and are less reliant on their cabinet members. This, she says, is a liability. "The cabinet should be the eyes and ears of a President over the bureaucracy - to point out what might be going wrong that ought to be fixed, and to offer alternative judgments and wisdom from across the federal system."

Presidents, in fact, have very limited power - "their power is really the power to persuade" - and to do that they need to be able to summons the best arguments from the best brains in government, and not just rely on the small group of loyal staffers who got them elected in the first place. "The reality of presidential leadership is very different from campaign leadership - unfortunately Presidents often have difficulty in making that transition."

Kamarck was mostly looking back on past presidents - to hear what a future President Trump or a President Clinton might do in their respective foreign policies, please come to our "Presidential Foreign Policy Debate" with Clinton-appointed Ambassador Derek Shearer and former Bush-appointed US Representative to the UN Robert O'Brien at the Intercontinental Hotel on Thursday evening, October 20th, at 7 pm - tickets are still available