Evan Thomas: Why Presidents Need Contrarians

It's the curse of the modern presidency. Our chief executives need to make an active, aggressive effort to reach beyond their immediate circle of advisers, to demand fresh thinking and avoid the sycophancy that comes with the Oval Office. Otherwise, they'll only hear what they want to hear—or what their aides tell them. To judge from "War of Necessity, War of Choice," Richard N. Haass's new book on presidential decision-making with regard to Iraq, George W. Bush lived in a bubble, partly of his own making, that walled off creative dissent or even, in some cases, common sense.

Mindful of his predecessor, Barack Obama seems to be trying harder to make sure he hears all sides. On the night of April 27, for instance, the president invited to the White House some of his administration's sharpest critics on the economy, including New York Times columnist Paul Krugman and Columbia University economist Joseph Stiglitz. Over a roast-beef dinner, Obama listened and questioned while Krugman and Stiglitz, both Nobel Prize winners, pushed for more aggressive government intervention in the banking system.

That sort of outreach is admirable—but it would be a mistake to make too much of it. A couple of hours of conversation is no substitute for methodical inquiry and debate. At present, Obama's economic advice is closely controlled by his chief economic adviser, Larry Summers, who acts as a kind of gatekeeper, determining what Obama sees and hears—and what he does not. Paul Volcker, the wise old hand who ran the Federal Reserve in the 1980s and whipped inflation, chairs an advisory panel that does not appear to do much advising. "Our ruling intelligentsia in economics runs the spectrum from A to A-minus," says a member of the Congressional Oversight Panel on the banking bailout, who requested anonymity when speaking about the administration. "These guys all talk to each other, and they all say the same thing."

The most successful presidents encourage debate and even rivalry between their advisers. FDR played his aides against each other. This produced some chaotic results in dealing with the Depression but worked reasonably well during World War II. Some presidents only pretend to encourage dissent. During Vietnam, LBJ used State Department adviser George Ball as his in-house dove—more to placate critics than to listen to his advice.

Presidents often overreact to their predecessors. JFK believed that Dwight Eisenhower's national-security apparat was bureaucratic and stultifying. He preferred a more freewheeling, informal model—and got the Bay of Pigs, a botched invasion of Cuba cooked up by the CIA, largely without Pentagon input. Kennedy quickly reimposed structure on foreign policymaking. George W. Bush was appalled by the meandering, college-seminar–style White House discussions run by Bill Clinton. But his insistence on crisp discipline and staying on schedule stifled debate.

Obama is looser than Bush. Meetings do not always end on time, and the president likes to play law professor, teasing out illogic and sloppy thinking with probing questions. He insisted on keeping his BlackBerry—though, for security reasons, there are some limits on its use. Obama's style is more informal than his predecessor's. Bush insisted on respect for the office: aides wore coats and ties and saluted smartly, metaphorically and literally. White House photos show Obama in his shirt sleeves or tossing a football in the Oval Office. But all paper flows to him through an elaborate staffing process. He, like all presidents, is the captive of a system that has been designed for efficiency but is inevitably isolating. It will take more than a few dinner parties to avoid the fate of presidents who lost touch with reality.