Thursday, November 13, 2008

Who Is In The Room?

When I was in grad school, I was assigned this book about politics that outlined the information bubble that American presidents operate inside.

The president is privy to almost any information he requests, but because of the nature of his job and the nature of bureaucracy, the president doesn't always know what data he should be seeking. So, he's at the mercy of aides and cabinet members who decide on their own what theories and data to push forward and what information to withhold. In addition, most political underlings instinctively shy away from presenting the president with information he might not appreciate or agree with because they don't want to feel his wrath, or fall out of favor.

In the end, the president often hears what he wants to hear, or, more accurately, what people think he wants to hear.

With people like George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan, this information bubble can lead to dire consequences because without dissenting opinions both of these men made terrible choices based on ideology or political expediency. With Bill Clinton and Bush Sr., the bubble was less of a problem, but they did make less than intelligent decisions because of its constraints.

This state of affairs places a premium on a president's willingness to seek out dissenting opinions constantly, and to challenge the long held theories of his appointees. It also makes it vital that there are a myriad of mindsets at the power table, or the President runs the risk of having his briefing room turn into an echo chamber.

I thought about this recently as President-elect Barack Obama went about the business of assembling his cabinet and White House staff. More specifically, I thought about it as I saw the parade of old white guys presented as candidates for powerful positions.

There is a debate going on in political circles about how much diversity Obama will bring to his cabinet. That includes a diversity of ideas and a diversity of skin tone. People have theorized that he should just pick "the best people available" or that he should try to make his cabinet a true rainbow coalition. (I'll ignore the blatant racism inherent in assuming that if Obama just picks the best candidates there is no way he will pick people of color. That's just typical. Here is a newsflash, Obama was the best candidate for president and he wasn't white. It can happen.)

Some commenters have noted that Obama hasn't faced the same scrutiny from minority communities or the press regarding the color of his selections as have previous recent administrations. They wonder if this is further evidence of our post-racial times, or if Obama will feel the heat soon. Some have theorized that black people are finally ok with selections being made based on qualifications not color because black people believe that was how Obama was selected.

I'm going to have to call bullshit.

True, black people haven't been complaining much because the afterglow is still there and because we don't want to make things any harder than they have to be for the new president. Black people are real sensitive about criticizing other powerful black people in mixed company. We prefer to keep our business in house.

That said, I wonder if the real reason that black people aren't complaining isn't much more simple. I think that we understand that it's cool to have people of color giving the president advice before he makes a decision, but the real power is when you're actually the person making the final call.

So, since we have HNIC I think we're pretty laid back about all the other NICs running around the White House.

Thing is, I go back and forth about whether this is a good idea. Obama's intelligence is obvious, but I wonder what his decision making style will be. News reports have said that he likes to collect as much data as possible before making a decision. But, my own observations tell me that he has certain core values and goals that drive his vision for this country and every issue is weighed against how it impacts those goals.

I'm curious to see if he will be a president who makes decisions based on the consensus of his staff, or if he will be guided by some sort of internal compass. I imagine it will be a mixture of both, and in that case I can see the argument for more diversity within his cabinet. Ultimately, he will be dependent on outsiders to bring him the information he needs to make decisions and to challenge his world view. If he surrounds himself with people who only reflect the worldview of white people, while ignoring Latinos, Asians and black people, well some problems could arise.

The thing is, for some reason I'm confident that Obama understands the core struggles of all of the racial groups in this country. His unique background and inquisitive nature have given him a knowledge base never before seen in the White House as it relates to understanding the total American story. I'm sure he still needs some seasoning and advanced education, but I'm confident that his vision of America is one that encompasses all of our stories.

I guess I said all that, to say that I'm not as concerned about the color of his staff as I once was. I would hope that he considers diversity when he makes hires, but I am more concerned about him accomplishing the goals he set forth during his campaign. I think that if that happens, everybody in America will benefit.



OG, The Original Glamazon said...

Well since Lincoln's book Team of Rivals is his favorite book I think I have a feeling how he will build his cabinet.

We know he has studied Lincoln and how he led the most divided country, so I think his cabinet building will look like that. He has said he isn't interested in yes men/women.

I also found this article interesting becasue it talks about the secret alliance of affluent blacks and what their role would be in the Obama White House.

I've been thinking about blogging on how a majority black cabinet is a problem for whites yet minorities have looked at majority white cabinets, well forever. anyway check it out, just in case I don't get around to it.


Big Man said...

I'll check out the article.

And what you mentioned about a reversal of fortune being a big problem for many white people is true in so many aspects of American life.

Affirmative Action was created because white people wouldn't give black people a fair shot, they immediately started complaining that now they weren't being given a fair shot.

Patronage systems ruled most urban cities for years with white people doling out favors to their friends. When does cities switched to black leadership, white people complained that they were being cut out of the pie.

It's the oldest trick in the book.

Torrance Stephens - All-Mi-T said...

i dont blam them except for policy
the people, what i call the ignorant electorate are at fault

Somebodies Friend said...

I understand with the statement about withholding information so you don't fall out of favor, but on the other hand don't withhold that information if it is important just because you think the president will lash out at you.

Darth Whitey said...

Given that African-Americans make up about 15% of the American population, one should not expect his cabinet to be represented by a significantly different percentage of Af-Ams, otherwise it would reek of favoritism.

Bush actually had the most diverse cabinet in history, including more Af-Ams than anybody with Powell, Rice, and the sec'y of education whose name I cannot recall atm.

Cabinet members should be chosen for their qualifications, period. It doesn't matter if the sec'y of defence "understands" white or black people. He/she just needs to understand the military.

OG, The Original Glamazon said...

Bush did have diverse cabinet it was something that Clinton started. My point is if a cabinet was all white no one would question it they would assume that all in the cabinet were qualified. I think it is very easy to say there are ENOUGH qualified black people to staff the majority cabinet.

We hire people we know. I know I hire people that I know who have outstanding reputations at what they do, granted they might not all be black but the majority of people I know are black and many are the BEST at what they do.

Its the sentiment that a majority cabinet of blacks would some how BE favortism that upsets me. I seriously doubt the cabinet will be majority blakc but if it was I wouldn't assume favortism after all people didn't assume favortism in the cabinets before Clinton and W.


Big Man said...


You are exactly right. I'm not surprised Darth said what he said. His view on what is and is not racist is skewed in many ways.

The fact is, it's quite possible to hire only black people and have a highly qualified staff.

In hiring, particularly in the world of politics, there is rarely a clear cut "most qualified" candidate. There are qualified candidates who fit the worldview of the person doing the hiring. White people seem to hold black people to this impossible standard of hiring the "most qualified" person, when they themselves rarely do this. They hire the person they like the best.

I'm saying I hope Obama likes diverse people the best.

Raving Black Lunatic