Early in President Barack Obama’s second term, two Washington Post reporters examined the ways in which this president prepared himself to make decisions and solve problems. What they found is instructive and timely in this period as anxious Americans witness the way our current president operates.
The Post article cites a meeting in which Obama surprised his senior advisers by speaking up during a discussion between military officials about a new study of post-traumatic stress disorder. No one in the room had briefed the president on this, but his command of the subject made clear to everyone that he had read the study and absorbed it. Obama was a president who persisted in seeking his own information beyond what is offered to him by his advisers.
His advisers and friends described this president as one “who is deeply moved by the struggles of average citizens who stand up at town hall meetings or write thousands of letters to the White House — 10 of which he reads each day. When he turns to solving problems through policy, he reveres facts, calling for data and then more data. He looks for historical analogues and reads voraciously.” He sought facts. He read.
Obama actively sought viewpoints contrary to his own and listened carefully to the points being made. On one occasion, Obama invited several business people to the White House for a jobs summit, Nobel-Prize winning New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, a persistent critic of the president, among them. “Obama, said one aide, was grateful to have the ‘intellectual challenge’ of an adversary who would help refine his own thinking,” according to the Post article.
“He likes the rigor of having a conversation with someone who’s going to push him,” said adviser Valerie Jarrett. “There’s really no point in him wasting time with people who simply agree with him all the time, because it’s not going to refine his position. It’s not going to enlighten his position.” During one discussion on the economy, he found his advisers all in agreement, which frustrated him, so he sent them all out of the room with instructions to return with at least one dissenting opinion. One pointed out that he makes a point of asking people who haven’t expressed themselves whether they have something they would like to add to the discussion.
Barack Obama is not our president any longer. Clearly his approach to presidential decision-making differed from that of Donald Trump, who is our president now. In his 15 months in office, Trump has shown us repeatedly how he arrives at decisions and whom he listens to in getting there. We learn that among his most trusted advisers is Sean Hannity, a commentator with strong right-wing views, working on the conservative Fox television network. Trump turns to Hannity for advice almost constantly, at the White House, at Mar-a-Lago, at Trump Tower, on the phone at all hours. White House insiders note that the two men are in conversation several times a week. Hannity is loyal to Trump, a detail we have learned is of prime importance to the president. Clearly, the president listens to Hannity. Hannity has his ear.
During the disastrous presidency of George W. Bush, Americans worried about the influence wielded by then Vice President Dick Cheney, the true power behind the throne. That was scary enough, but at least Cheney was elected by the people. How shall we feel about crucial decisions being made by a president under the spell of Sean Hannity? Who elected him?