Charles Peters: How Obama Can Make Washington Work

It was good to hear Barack Obama tell Barbara Walters that he wanted to keep his BlackBerry in order to reach beyond 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for information and advice. Clearly, he knows the danger of becoming isolated in the White House bubble. But what worries me is whether he gets the dangers of the larger Washington bubble—Congress, the top levels of government agencies and the Washington press corps. The best advice I've heard given to Obama on how to escape it came from Sen. Jack Reed, a former Army Ranger, when the two men visited Iraq last summer. Reed urged Obama to reach down—and outside— the chain of command to learn facts on the ground from junior officers and reporters covering the war.

The greatest president of the last century, Franklin Roosevelt, immersed himself in the culture of the executive branch before becoming chief executive; for eight years, he served as assistant secretary of the Navy, the place where policymakers intersect with career employees. As a result, as president, he made a fetish out of seeking information outside the direct chain. He got bureaucratic foes like Harold Ickes and Harry Hopkins to comment on one another's proposals and used unofficial sources, like his wife and her friend Lorena Hickok, to find out what was really going on in the field with programs like the WPA.

John Kennedy learned the wisdom of this approach after he swallowed assurances by the CIA's top officials that the Bay of Pigs would be a piece of cake. Kennedy understood that a president can't always trust advice from commanders and agency heads. Oftentimes, they are too much in love with their own plans and too determined to protect their budgets to see anything wrong with their ideas or their agencies—or, if they do, to admit it. (By the time of the Cuban missile crisis, JFK's brother Robert was among those outside the chain providing the wisest counsel.) In 1986, engineers at Thiokol warned that O-rings on the Challenger's boosters would freeze at low temperatures, but top NASA bureaucrats threatened them with the loss of their government contract unless they shut up. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney could have found out about dissenting opinion at mid-levels in the CIA with regard to the wisdom of relying on a source code-named "Curveball."

Obama can learn another lesson from the British generals who, in 1944, stubbornly refused to acknowledge evidence that their plan to take Arnhem wouldn't work: do not become so committed to your own programs that you refuse to hear what's wrong with them. Listen to what you don't want to hear because, usually, that is precisely what your subordinates won't tell you. They tend to shut off the flow of bad news and gild the lily of good news because they know their leaders don't want to hear bad news—and want to hear that good is better than it is.

In the White House, the president and his staff not only don't want to hear what is wrong with their programs, they also usually ignore or fail to seek information about what the rest of their government is doing. In 1994 and again in 1998, I asked a top Clinton White House official if anyone there read the Government Accountability Office reports that provide useful information on what is going right and wrong with federal agencies, most of which have a serious need to get better. But each time the answer was no.

The president and his staff are prone to assuming (wrongly) that whatever is decided in Washington is being faithfully carried out in the field. In 2005 Condoleezza Rice told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that our military policy in Iraq was "clear, hold and build." According to Bob Woodward's "The War Within," when Gen. George Casey, the U.S. commander in Iraq, read about her testimony, he called his superior at U.S. Central Command, Gen. John P. Abizaid, asking, "What the hell is this?" "I don't know," Abizaid replied. "Did you agree to that?" "No, I didn't agree to that."

For a president to succeed in puncturing the Washington bubble, he has to make sure that all the troops, military and civilian, are clear about their assignments—not just the brass. He must understand that making sure a policy is implemented properly is just as important as making sure the policy is right. But to do so, he must have a characteristic that is conspicuously missing from the current president: curiosity. His desire to learn must be very nearly insatiable, and it helps to have an instinct for the right question.

Does that sound like Barack Obama? One indication that it does comes from my friend James Fallows, who, a couple of years ago, found himself standing behind Obama in a commencement line of honorary-degree recipients. Obama knew about Fallows's reporting on Iraq and the Pentagon, so he didn't waste time on chitchat. Instead, Obama launched into a series of queries about how our Army was doing in training the new Iraqi Army, asking, among other things, "Does the incentive system of the U.S. Army offer sufficient reward for success in training Iraqi troops?" I find that encouraging.