Biden’s Dithering Irks White House Staff

President Joe Biden speaks at the White House on July 8th.



President Biden has come in for a lot of criticism lately for his poor leadership. A recurring theme is that he lacks the determination needed for the job.

Perhaps because early decisions on Afghanistan and Build Back Better worked poorly, the White House is now plagued by “bottlenecks and indecisiveness,” according to CNN’s Edward Isaac-Dovere. Mr. Biden is consistently unable to finalize decisions on issues like tariffs and student loan debt, which have reportedly been in place for over a year. According to Politico, Mr. Biden’s inability to make up his mind is making his staff “a little crazy.” He pesters her with questions. If he doesn’t get an answer, he uses that as an excuse to delay a decision while the staff go back for more information.

Mr. Biden’s inability to make up his mind is reminiscent of Barack Obama, who was famous for long periods of indecisiveness, particularly on what to do in 2009 regarding Afghanistan. Former Vice President Dick Cheney accused Mr. Obama of “vacillating” on the issue. Mr. Biden shared this view of his former boss. “I thought he made a mistake on purpose,” the president-elect wrote in his 2017 memoir, Promise Me, Dad. “‘Just trust your instincts, Mr. President,’ I said to him. When it came to important decisions that needed to be made quickly, I had learned over the years that a president would never have more than about 70 percent of the information needed.”

The 70% figure could come from Mr. Biden’s decades in Washington, but it’s more likely from Colin Powell. Powell had a 40/70 doctrine for senior executive decision making that said that with only 40% of the information you are premature in making a decision, but if you are undecided with 70% of the information you no longer have control over that Events.

Decision-making is a key requirement of the presidency, and some presidents — including some of Mr. Biden’s most prominent Democratic predecessors — have been particularly good at it. When reporter John Gunther asked Eleanor Roosevelt, “How does your husband think?” She replied, “My dear Mr. Gunther, the President never thinks. He decides.”

Harry S. Truman may hold the record for the most difficult calls in a presidential administration. Four months into his tenure, he faced a decision on whether to drop the atomic bomb on Japan, despite never having heard of the weapon during his tenure as vice president.

He also had to make a tough decision to continue Operation Vittles, which created the Berlin Airlift and allowed West Berlin to remain a free city. Add to that difficult decisions about whether to recognize Israel in the face of opposition from its top advisers, defend South Korea from a North Korean invasion, and depose popular General Douglas MacArthur.

Lyndon B. Johnson admired Truman’s ability to make decisions. Doris Kearns Goodwin quoted him as saying, “You know, the great thing about Truman is that once he’s decided on something – anything, including the A-bomb – he never looks back and says, ‘Should I have done it? Oh! Should I have?’ No, he just knows he made the best decision possible and that’s it.”

Johnson, facing his own share of difficult decisions regarding Vietnam, made this observation somewhat wistfully, realizing he lacked Truman’s ability to make decisions and move on. “I wish I had something of that quality because there’s nothing worse than reconsidering a decision you’ve made, retracing the steps that led to it and imagining what it would be like if you took another turn” , Johnson said. “It can drive you crazy.”

Determination is an essential trait for all leaders. But presidential decisions are different. They can only be made by the person at the top and can have tremendous impact of historical importance. They are lonely decisions too. Helpers can advise, but ultimately the decision rests with the leader. Credit, blame, or both will fall on the responsible person. As Mr. Biden learns, it’s not an easy challenge, but it’s something effective leaders must do.

Mr. Troy is director of the Presidential Leadership Initiative at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a former senior White House adviser and author, most recently Fight House: Rivalries in the White House From Truman to Trump.

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