How Presidential Decisions Are Made

And that is how most presidential decisions are made. Presidents deal with a never-ending series of memoranda that cross their desk on a daily basis, asking them to choose among different options developed by aides, often with deadlines looming that leave little time for careful reflection. Rarely do presidents have the luxury to delve as deeply into the substance of these issues and choices as they might like. Indeed, they are lucky if they can affect these options at the margins. More generally, the president must depend on the expertise and judgment of his (someday her) advisers, knowing full well that the repercussions of the choices they make will fall on their shoulders, and not their aides’. George W. Bush’s memoirs Decision Points (of which I will have much to say in a future post) focuses on the key decisions he made during his presidency. What it does not reveal, however, is how those decisions and option papers were developed en route to his desk; only rarely do we get a hint that his mistakes – and he admits to many – were rooted in part on the advice and information provided by others. Bush’s willingness to take the blame is an admirable trait, to be sure, and reflects the reality that, in the end, presidents are the ones who are rightly held accountable for the choices they make. But it also gives a misleading picture of the way decisions are made.

From this excellent post by Matthew Dickinson.

It is common not only to overestimate the influence that the president has on public opinion and policy, but to overestimate the influence the president has on even the decisions that he does make.

2 Responses to How Presidential Decisions Are Made

  1. Rich February 14, 2011 at 4:23 pm #

    I don’t agree with the spirit of the analysis: presidents set priorities, make appointments, etc. On the big questions, leadership matters–the Wars, health care reform over a big energy bill, etc.

  2. Steve February 14, 2011 at 9:11 pm #

    @ Rich

    I agree. While I think that this analysis probably applies to a lot (maybe even the majority) of presidential decisions, for the big issues which usually define their administrations Presidents are very much the leaders.

    Even when decisions rely on the input of experts and advisers, its the Presidents responsibility to hear all relevant sides of an issue and weigh the evidence fairly. Claiming bad advice isn’t an excuse when you only listen to one line of reasoning.