In this second installment of benchmarking the job of the President of the United States, we have assembled a group of stakeholders who directly interact with the President. The task for this group is to identify the most important key accountabilities, their priority ranking, and to specify how each will be measured.
Last week we suggested a crowded stakeholder panel of sixteen. As reader Steven mentioned, we could have rightly included others such as someone to represent the perspective of another country, perhaps a prominent world leader. But rather than expand the list, logistics require us to limit it further. So our panel today consists of the following participants:
- The POTUS (to represent the role itself) – Barack Obama
- Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (to represent the military) – General Joseph Dunford
- Secretary of State (to represent the Cabinet and diplomatic interests) – John Kerry
- Attorney General (to represent the legal system) – Loretta Lynch
- White House Chief of Staff (to represent staff who directly report to the POTUS) – Denis McDonough
- A sitting Governor (to represent the States) – Nikki Haley, South Carolina
- The Prime Minister of Israel (to represent the interests of our allies) – Benjamin Netanyahu
- The president of the Chamber of Commerce (to represent commercial interests) – Tom Donohue
- Speaker of the House (to represent the Legislature, budgeting and the people) – Paul Ryan
- A specially selected ordinary citizen (to really represent the people) – You
There is tension in the room. Those who serve the current administration line up ideologically against the others. You can especially feel the chill between Netanyahu and Obama. I know I have my work cut out for me, so I take a deep breath and brief the panel with the following:
“You’ve been selected because you represent important perspectives with respect to the duties of the President of the United States. There is diversity of opinion represented here as well, so we will probably have to agree to disagree on more than one specific. What we need from each of you is your top one or two priorities that you see would describe success for a person serving as President of the United States. To be most useful, key accountabilities need to be top-of-mind memorable. The goal is not only for the person in the job to remember them, but also those who interact with the person so that they are best equipped to contribute to the person’s success. We’ve found that limiting the list of Key Accountabilities to 3-5 best accomplishes this. This means that some of the accountabilities for the role will be left out, maybe some very important ones. This is fine, because studies indicate that success is usually best achieved by keeping the main thing the main thing. Pareto’s Law also tends to obtain here: the top 20% of your responsibilities yield 80% of the results.
Logistics have already required us to limit this process and will continue to do so. We will not be able to consider everything. For this reason, a benchmark, this one included, is not set in stone, but subject to continual revision as we discover more about what success looks like in a role and how the whole organization is best served.
So let’s start there. What precisely is our organization? Is it the government of the United States? The whole of the American people? The entire world?”
McDonough speaks first: “Of course the President serves the people, but he does so through the apparatus of the Executive branch of the federal government, which serves the people. To be most effective, the President must put the right people in positions to carry out his will, which was mandated via his election. He must then empower them to succeed.”
To the surprise of some, Netanyahu agrees: “You may think that I believe that as leader of the most powerful force in modern geopolitics, I would suggest that the American President serves all people. After all, America can and does make such a difference for people suffering in all places. But you would be wrong. A leader must serve his people. It is a special and unique circumstance that as the leader of the American people, it appears to some as though the President serves all people. This is only true because of the universal truth and high aspiration codified in your Constitution. But also in the minds of the authors of that profound document was the wisdom to recognize the folly of becoming entangled in the affairs of others. The people of Israel appreciate the support of the American people. But we do not look to your President to represent us.”
I ask: “So is it true that the healthier and more successful the government, the healthier and more successful the people?”
The room is divided on this question. After a long discussion, we settle with the recognition that the government is a tool, a means, and that the health of the people is the paramount determiner of success. “How do we measure the health of the people?” I ask, knowing that this will likely stoke a second debate.
It does, and it takes the better part of an hour. At the end, we are able so summarize, saying the people are healthy when there is:
- Justice – people are treated fairly in a system that is blind to race, creed, status, etc.
- Prosperity – people can pursue their potential and earn a living that meets standards
- Safety – that it is reasonable to feel safe from attack from criminals or foreign invaders
- Peace – no wars, no domestic violence
“Are these some of the Key Accountabilities for the President?” I ask, as I write them on the white board.
“This list is nice, I like the intention. But it doesn’t really describe what must be done on a day-to-day basis,” Obama suggests. “I spend most days listening to people on one hand and on the other doing my best to persuade people. When that doesn’t work, you just have to do what you believe and then be willing to take the heat from those folks who see things differently.”
“Above all, to be effective a President must be able to communicate his priorities, decisions, along with pertinent information to all of the vested groups.,” Donohue says.
“This includes working hand-in-hand with the people’s representatives in Congress,” says Ryan with a degree of irritation.
“Let’s keep this as non-partisan as we can,” I caution. “But we will capture this as a potential consideration.”
Panelists offer their priorities and we end up with the following list:
- Effective public speaking
- Builds coalitions
- Works with Congress to codify needed policy changes
- Proper preparation and deployment of armed forces
- Champions the causes of the disenfranchised
- Recognizes and recruits talent
- Appoints supreme court justices and other influential officials
- Effectively delegates to and empowers personnel
- Meet with foreign dignitaries and negotiates favorable treaties
- Empathetic listener
- Understands macroeconomics
- Faithfully executes the laws of the land
- Understands governmental structures, functions and standards
- Strong vision, futuristic thinking
Many of the heads nod as we review the list. But you have questions, and offer: “Doesn’t it matter what the vision for the future is?”
Now you’ve done it. The room erupts and things devolve along a partisan line. Netanyahu, Ryan, Haley, and Donohue argue that the President should reduce the influence and reach of the Federal government, while the others argue that agencies should be improved and empowered. I realize we are not going to reach consensus on this, since we have struck fundamental philosophical differences. On one side, the feeling is that the people make their own way. On the other, the feeling is that people won’t be able to do that and require the help of a strong Federal system.
I suggest a break after which we will winnow and rank the named priorities. We reconvene with cooler heads, and the discussion proceeds in a productive direction. Dunford and Lynch, along with Donohue and Ryan, like the list of four as much as they do the list of fourteen, feeling that this is a much better definition of success. The others don’t see how you can directly connect the job of the POTUS to these macro end results, and favor continuing to focus on things that one person can reasonably control.
I share my view: “Both sides have valid points. Let’s look at both lists together and generate the top four. What is the one thing that rises above all others, the one thing that the President must accomplish in order to be successful?”
After much more discussion, the group is split, but agrees that the top three must include Justice, Prosperity, and Safety. The order is not agreed upon, because there is disagreement about which condition precedes another.
You’ve been quiet throughout this discussion. So I turn to you and ask: “What would you say – of these three, which precedes the other?” (I look forward to your response.)
“Okay,” I continue. “What does the President do or not do in order to result in Safety, Justice, and Prosperity?”
After another lengthy discussion, a theme emerges. The President must a) respect the laws, and b) communicate effectively. I prod to reach specifics: “How do you measure respect for laws?”
Haley makes a comment under her breath, something about a pen and a phone. Normally, I would seek to uncover the feeling behind a remark such as this, but we’ve had enough contention and I knew that it would not move us forward. So I let it go. The discussion goes on, but does not lead to a clear, usable result.
“How do you measure effective communication?” I prod.
I hear various answers offered: poll results, regular press conferences, “fireside” chats, and a clear, easily navigated web-based resource that explains issues in detail. Ultimately, the feeling is that this is difficult to measure too. At this point, there is a feeling of frustration in the room, one I share. I feel that the panel is growing weary, and is not likely to push through to a robust result. I knew this was going to be a difficult process, but for the first time I began to wonder if a reasonable benchmark simply cannot be reached.
Just as I’m about to float the idea of reconvening at another time, you take the dry erase marker from my hand. You go to the white board, and write the following four Key Accountabilities:
(Please send me your answers.)