President Obama’s Style

A lot has been written about the President Elect’s style:  his cool, his dress, his parenting skills.  And he has talked a lot about wanting to change the tone in Washington.  Today on Politico.com’s The Arena blog, there was a very insightful entry I want to share.

It was written by Jeffrey C. Stewart, a professor of Black Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, in response to a question about Leon Panetta’s qualifications to be CIA director. 

I think the selection of Panetta to run the CIA is a great choice for Obama.

Aside from the complaints of insiders and their allies, who merely want more of the same, the main push back is from politicians who want to keep their validity index high during “Obama change.” But make no mistake, Panetta’s selection signals that “change is coming” to the CIA.

Panetta’s selection shows something important about Obama that is revealed through most of his cabinet-level appointments so far–beyond the obviously political ones like Richardson and Clinton. It has taken me awhile to get it, but my sense now is that Obama is a ex-radical Leftist who has absorbed neo-liberal management strategies. Think about it: The Left has taken power in several European countries in the past, Italy and France to name only two, but failed to hold power because it could not deliver benefits to the people at a consistent, i.e., corporate level of efficiency. Never enamored of ’60s strategies toward power, Obama absorbed through law school the corporatist approach to state power, that is, that management and outcomes are the keys to success.

Panetta is a manager. He’s a quick study. In selecting him, Obama is saying to the CIA: You are going to have to come into the 21st century in terms of how your operations are managed, and part of that operations management is improving your image and more effectively negotiating the tension between getting results from terrorists and respecting the ideals of a republic that needs to win the hearts and minds of the rest of the world to succeed against terrorists. Abuses that are well known and publicly associated with the CIA are part of the management inefficiency of the Agency from Obama’s perspective. Obama is saying, “yes, you are doing a good job in some areas. Let’s keep that. But you are going to have to do more to be a really successful agency for me and for the country’s long term benefit.” Inefficiencies, in other words, have to be eliminated, and Panetta is the kind of manager who can absorb all that the Agency does well and begin to cut out what it doesn’t do well. That is, of course, a corporatist, market-oriented philosophy of what successful management should do.

An interesting notion of the new President as an “ex-radical Leftist” with “neo-liberal” management skills.   The descriptions of Obama running community meetings as an organizer as well as descriptions of how he has run staff meetings as a Senator and candidate remind me of the meetings I attended in the 1960’s – everyone had their say – endlessly – as we tried to reach consensus.  The difference, however, is that Obama will listen to everyone and then make a decision.  He is appointing managers who can then implement the decisions.  It will be interesting to see if he and the men and women he has nominated for cabinet and staff appointments will be able to further translate that vision into a transformation of government.

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