3. Get some people who actually know something. President Obama promised to ensure transparency and competence in government, but too often, nepotism trumps merit. Young and untried campaign aides are handed vital substantive portfolios (I could name names, but will charitably refrain, unless you buy me a drink), while those with deep expertise often find themselves sidelined.
Cronyism also reigns supreme when it comes to determining who should attend White House meetings: increasingly, insiders say, meetings called by top NSS officials involve by-name requests for attendance, with no substitutions or "plus ones" permitted. As a result, dissenting voices are shut out, along with the voices of specialists who could provide valuable information and insights. The result? Shallow discussions and poor decisions.
Here again, President Obama could easily make some useful changes. Why not appoint a commission of experienced former officials from past administrations to work with current officials on developing job descriptions for key positions -- and then insist that mid- and high-level political appointments be justified to the commission? This doesn't prevent the president or other senior officials from bringing in people they know and trust, but it could help ensure that those appointed have at least some minimal qualifications. What's more, President Obama should send his staff a clear message that cliques belong in junior high school, not in the White House. Permitting senior staff to exclude everyone but their favorites from meetings guarantees uninformed group-think.
4. Get out of the bubble. The National Security Staff operates as a tiny fiefdom. Many NSS senior directors say they speak with Tom Donilon only once or twice a year. Donilon and Deputy National Security Advisors Denis McDonough and Ben Rhodes function as gate-keepers, and even Cabinet-level officials often struggle to get direct access to the president. Some gate-keeping is necessary, of course, but this president lives in as much of an echo chamber as George W. Bush did. Add to this President Obama's even more infrequent contact with the press and his infrequent meetings with members of Congress, and you end up with debate performances like the one the president gave on October 3, in which he seemed surprised and irritated at being challenged in public.
Getting out of his bubble may not come naturally for Obama. As Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, put it in an unguarded moment, "The truth is, Obama doesn't call anyone, and he's not close to almost anyone. It's stunning that he's in politics, because he really doesn't like people." [Ed. note: Tanden later clarified her words, tweeting "I was trying to say how President Obama, who I admire greatly, is a private person, but I deeply regret how I said it. I apologize.]
But if he wants good, candid feedback, President Obama needs to deal with more people. He should increase the number of press conferences he gives, increase the number of formal and informal meetings with members of Congress, and institute at least quarterly town-hall style meetings with his national security staff -- invited based on position, not based on whether they're in the in-club -- and with other senior staff from State, Defense, and AID. He should also create internal "red teams," tasked with pointing out the dangers and flaws of the policy approaches recommended by his senior staff -- and he should require his staff to listen and respond to critics, instead of just repeating administration talking points.