The Very Insular Obama Administration

Remember that George W. Bush and his people got widely panned for supposedly living in a bubble. Remember as well that one of the supposed strengths of Barack Obama was that he was going to create some kind of “Team of Rivals” to staff his administration. How far the president has fallen from that vision—assuming that he ever took that vision seriously to begin with:

When then-Senator Obama was first gaining prominence on the national stage, a friend of mine who had worked with him over many years assured me that Obama was particularly gifted at the art of “understanding the other.” Obama, I was told, naturally, even reflexively, appreciated the arguments of all sides and was skilled at finding common ground — finding the synthesis that did not do violence to either the thesis or the antithesis. Ever since my friend painted that portrait, I have been waiting for that Obama to show up in the Oval Office.

If that Obama exists, he did not seem to play much of a role in the inaugural speech-writing process. As Michael Gerson observed, Obama’s second inaugural address was a “raging bonfire of straw men.” For those of us hoping to recapture some of the consolations of pride-in and hope-for our American system that sustained us four years ago, this second inaugural had precious little to offer.

It is one thing to engage in such systematic distortion during a bitter electoral campaign. It is another thing to let it permeate through all of the presidential rhetoric, including speeches usually reserved for appeals to unity and common purpose.

Yet it is a third, and more worrying thing, if that same dysfunction distorts the advisory process. In that regard, Tom Ricks’ reporting (here and here) on the treatment given General Mattis, the CENTCOM Commander, is especially disturbing. Ricks alleges that the White House hurried General Mattis into retirement because they resented the way he was asking probing questions that pointed to deficiencies in current policy.

Of course, it is the President’s right to pick the advisors he wants, but shouldn’t the President want to have advisors that ask tough, probing questions that flag deficiencies in current policy?

For the record, an Obama spokesman denied that Mattis was being moved along because of the way he provided advice, but even Ricks, a reliable Obama supporter, did not find the denial very convincing. There have been too many of these reports to dismiss this concern with a “nothing to see here” rebuttal: cf., Michael Gordon’s account of how the White House sought to stifle military advice it did not want to hear; Rosa Brook’s insider account, augmented by extensive additional reports, of a dysfunctional decisionmaking system that muzzled advisors; or then NSA-Jim Jones’ infamous ”whisky, tango, foxtrot” moment in Afghanistan when he apparently told the Marines not to request additional resources lest their request anger the President.

People ought to be worried about Team Obama’s tendency to shut out dissenting voices. But as far as I can tell, most of the press has hardly made a peep about it. And remember that despite its insularity, most of the press is under the impression that Team Obama and its allies make up “the reality-based community.”