Chaos Theory Takes Hold in the West Wing

It may be that a flawed leadership style is filtering down to the rest of the government.

By + More

"Remember, a fish always rots from the head down," a colleague of mine would cackle loudly in his Baltimorean accent. He would do this every time he observed an organizational foul-up at the magazine where we worked decades ago. His voice began ringing in my head last week as we watched a trifecta of scandals wash over the West Wing.

We've got the Internal Revenue Service messing with Tea Party groups, the Justice Department spying on Associated Press reporters and the ongoing saga of the disaster at the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya. Do you get the feeling there is more to come?

When faced with an ugly situation, an old public relations trick is to change the subject. Being a practitioner of the dark arts of PR myself, it came as no surprise that Team Obama got their man out of town Friday to talk about jobs. Look for more of this sort of thing in the days ahead.

[See a collection of editorial Cartoons on Benghazi.]

We'll likely be treated to a series of bright shiny objects dangling from the White House communications shop in hopes that the national attention span will drift. They're hoping we'll get up from the collective national couch, get a soda, and when we come back something new will be on the screen and we'll have forgotten what we were watching before. Or will we?

The problem with the "change the subject" strategy is this: If you don't address the root issue that got the people's attention in the first place, the question eventually comes back. And if the root issue is not some fluke, but an intrinsic organizational flaw, then, like a vampire in a cable television movie, it will arise again and most likely at the worst possible moment.

So this is not a problem of public relations, but a problem of leadership.

Word late last week was that Denis McDonough, the White House Chief of Staff, has been hectoring West Wingers to keep focused on advancing the president's agenda and to spend no more than 10 percent of their time dealing with the scandals. I'm curious to know where that 10 percent figure comes from. It sounds suspiciously like the sort of arbitrary target that some businesses will set for their employees.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

These sorts of targets inevitably result in a supervisor developing a complex process of tracking the time and effort spent on various projects, which then can go into a nifty spreadsheet that will in turn become a slide in a PowerPoint presentation at the next meeting of the leadership team. Meanwhile, the fundamental issue that leadership should have addressed gets obscured by another layer of management fog.

Oh, I know what you might think: complaining about the politicization of government agencies is like Captain Renault expressing shock over gambling in Rick's Café Américain in "Casablanca." But actually it is a big problem, and if unaddressed it will become a bigger problem.

Back in the 1970s, an MIT professor, Edward Lorenz, came up with a theory to explain why large weather systems can be so unpredictable. This was the birth of a revolution in scientific thinking called Chaos Theory. The basic idea of Chaos Theory is very simple: In large, complex systems (these can be natural like low pressure systems or man-made like economic regulatory regimes), tiny variations at the beginning cause large unexpected variations later.

[Take the U.S. News Poll: Will the IRS, AP and Benghazi Scandals Hurt Obama Politically?]

In a complex organization like the U.S. executive branch of government, little management cues at the beginning of an administration can filter through the bureaucracy and yield unexpected results. Let's give President Obama the benefit of the doubt that he did not directly instruct the IRS equivalent of the Dunder Mifflin team to drag their feet on approving tax-exempt statuses for conservative groups. It still seems likely that some message, some aspect of leadership philosophy, did filter through that mammoth bureaucracy, making people think this was somehow appropriate behavior. And what about the failures in the decision making processes for the AP spying and Benghazi imbroglios?

Rather than just some strange "perfect storm" of unrelated events, what if these are all symptomatic of an Illinois politics leadership style that was put in place early on and that, at first, may have been seen as small stylistic changes, but which have deviated over time into much larger cultural shifts?

In that case, this may be only the beginning. And we are not even six months into Obama's second term.

  • Read Susan Milligan: In Marine Umbrella Incident, Republicans Still Deny Obama Is President
  • Read Jamie Stiehm: Obama Isn't Nixon, but Needs More Friends in Washington
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad