President Obama had just received his morning briefings on national security and the economy and was about to confer with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen about the war in Afghanistan. In between, he sat down with U.S. News Chief White House Correspondent Kenneth T. Walsh to discuss one of the most important and fascinating aspects of his presidency—how he makes decisions in a crisis. He was, as usual, methodical, cerebral, and dispassionate. Excerpts:
You have faced an extraordinary array of urgent problems. Is decision making under crisis conditions different from decision making in normal times?
The things that for me work day to day become that much more important in a crisis: being able to pull together the best people and have them work as a team; insisting on analytical rigor in evaluating the nature of the problem; making sure that dissenting voices are heard and that a range of options are explored; being willing to make a decision after having looked at all the options, and then insisting on good execution as well as timely feedback, so that [if] you have to correct the decision that you make, that you are able to do so in time; being able to stay calm and steady when the stakes are high. You know, all those things are, I think, principles I try to apply in any circumstance. I find them particularly useful when the decisions are tough and the consequences of action are most weighty.
You had virtually no executive experience prior to the presidency. What prepared you for being an effective leader in a crisis?
I don't know [laughs]—in the sense that I don't think anything prepares you for the presidency. And so I think for me, at least, it grows out of experiences just interacting with people and, whether it's settings large or small, believing that if you are respectful of other people, if you recognize that you've got to make decisions based on information and not emotions, if you insist on a healthy debate to make sure that all voices are heard, that you are going to produce better decision making.
You said you try to make decisions based on information and not emotions. But have there been situations where emotions played a role—such as in trying to comfort wounded soldiers?
I think wartime issues are always of a different nature because they're life and death. You go over to Walter Reed and Bethesda [medical centers], and you see young men and women who have sacrificed limb and sometimes life. They are paying the ultimate price for our security, and so you'd better get those decisions right. And I feel a much greater weight when it comes to questions of war—although I will say that when we first came in, during the transition and the first two, three months of the administration, the economy was still in a precarious enough position, it was still touch-and-go enough where you did have a sense that every decision mattered deeply to the long-term well-being of the country.
Does anything stand out as a particularly difficult decision on the economy?
On the economic issues, everything was so interconnected I'm not sure you can just pull out one particular decision. I think how we worked through the bank issue at a time when a lot of people were clamoring for nationalization on one hand—others were suggesting that we were being too intrusive; finding a plausible strategy that would steady the markets and give the banks an opportunity to strengthen without papering over the very real problems they were having; and recognizing, too, that whatever actions you take were going to be wildly unpopular. So that you had to get this right because you might be out of bullets if you didn't. That series of decisions that were made, I think, were tough.
There are two aspects of this job that I think are relevant to this discussion. One is that if the problem has a clear solution, then it doesn't land on my desk. Somebody else has solved it. So the only things I'm deciding on are things that are tough. And the second and related point is that because these are tough questions, you are always dealing to some degree with probabilities. You're never 100 percent certain that the course of action you're choosing is going to work. What you can have confidence in is that the probability of it working is higher than the other options available to you. But that still leaves some uncertainty, which I think can be stressful, and that's part of the reason why it's so important to be willing to constantly re-evaluate decisions based on new information.
How do you know when you have enough information to make a decision?
If you're asking good questions and somebody doesn't know the answer to it, then you can probably rest assured that they'd better get an answer to you [laughs] before you make the decision. And there are occasions where, as good as my staff and team are, where there's something pretty simple or seemingly obvious that people who have been too close to it may not be asking. And you've just got to make sure that you're curious and you're not afraid of looking stupid by saying, "I don't understand what the underlying assumptions are here."
No one would tell the president he looks stupid.
Well, they're not going to say it to your face, but the point is that one of the things that I'm never bashful about is saying, "I don't understand this. What exactly does this mean?" And usually, during the course of a roundtable, you can spot where you've hit a weakness in an argument or a position because people start hemming and hawing a little bit. That's when you know that you need to do a little more work.
How do you get away from the stress?
Exercise every day. Seeing my family. Keeping things in perspective. Reading history. Reminding yourself that this is a long-term proposition and you're not going to get everything exactly right, but hopefully, if you're moving things in the right trajectory, that things usually work out.