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Peter Goldmark: Obama’s lack of management experience is showing

  • Newsday
  • Published Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013, at 12 a.m.

We have a president with little management experience. And it’s showing.

The health care reform mess has been spectacular. The troubles with the program’s website and enrollment are only the beginning. The recent news that some insurance plans are charging subscribers exorbitant co-pay fees for drugs to help offset the cost of not being able to exclude people with prior conditions also signals poor management. Would tighter management have spotted this trend earlier and avoided gaffes like the president’s misstatement about people being able to keep their existing health plans? My guess is “yes.”

Presidents have come from a variety of backgrounds, and some had deep executive experience before assuming the job. George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower were generals with challenging leadership jobs before the presidency. The two Roosevelts were former governors well-prepared to manage domestic issues. Barack Obama arrived in the White House with four years’ experience in the U.S. Senate, a few years in the Illinois Senate, and no experience in line management or familiarity with the executive function.

There are two classical options for a president with his background. Obama, a person with great personal strengths and assets, chose neither.

One option is to ensure that White House staff includes people with experience in project management oversight – a practice known by most strong executives as “hiring to your weakness.”

The other option is to appoint experienced executives to the Cabinet. Except for the successful appointment of Robert Gates as secretary of defense, Obama did not pursue that option, either. His first round of Cabinet nominees included nine people whose experience had been in elective office, largely legislative. One of them, Kathleen Sebelius, had served in Kansas as a lobbyist, insurance commissioner and governor. But in her case, experience as governor appears not to have prepared her for the management challenge of health care reform implementation as secretary of health and human services.

According to several stories reportedly leaked by White House staff, Obama wasn’t told “directly” about the problems with health care reform implementation. Nonsense. It is part of his job as chief executive to direct staff to relay all information and to create a climate in which bad news is fully conveyed.

Look at how John F. Kennedy, who also had zero executive experience, handled the Cuban missile crisis. He learned to probe the positions of his advisers, to make sure he received accurate information and independent advice, and to ensure decisions were carried out. What might have happened if his team had brought to the missile crisis the modus operandi that the Obama White House brought to health care reform? Can you imagine the Kennedy White House saying lamely the president wasn’t “told directly” about the Soviet missiles in Cuba?

Listen to what Obama recently told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews about health care reform implementation: “The challenge … is not so much my personal management style or particular issues around White House organization. It actually has to do with … these big agencies, some of which are outdated, some of which are not designed properly.” Welcome to the presidency and the world of government, Mr. President.

Another missed opportunity was Obama’s failure upon re-election to set up a personnel review team to assess the performance of the first-term team and suggest changes where appropriate.

Is it too late to fix it?

The president has three years left in his term – longer than the tenure of some chief executives. He has a reputation as a quick learner. It is never too late for strong management.

Peter Goldmark, a former publisher of the International Herald Tribune, headed the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund.

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