Golly, who might Robert Gates mean? Actually, the former Secretary of Defense doesn’t keep it very mysterious in this discussion of leadership at the highest levels. Joe Scarborough comes to the point at about the three-minute mark in this panel discussion, picked up by Jim Swift at The Weekly Standard:
GATES: You know, the president is quoted as having said at one point to his staff ‘I can do every one of your jobs better than you can.’ And I think that he has centralized power and operational activities of the government in the White House to a degree that is unparalleled. An NSC staff of 450 people at this point, and yet, I think one of the weaknesses of the White House is implementation of strategy — is difficulty in developing strategy and then implementing that strategy, and I don’t see the kind of strong people around the president who will push back on him. I will give him credit, I pushed back on him a lot, and he never shut me down, he never told me to be quiet or refused to see me or anything like that. But I don’t see people like that around him now.
Gates’ book A Passion for Leadership comes after his memoirs, which had considerable criticism for Obama, especially on long-range strategy, but some praise for his personal qualities, too. Gates also said that he agreed with Obama’s decisions on Afghanistan in particular. The disagreements appear mainly to have involved Iraq, and later events have proven Gates’ fears about a total withdrawal to be prescient.
This isn’t a revelation about Obama’s insularity, either. Quotes similar to the one Gates cites go all the way back to the 2007-8 election cycle, when Obama declared himself the best campaign consultant he had. Initially, Obama pledged to use a Lincolnian team-of-rivals model for his Cabinet and White House, but there isn’t much evidence of that materializing except possibly for Gates himself, a holdover from the Bush administration. Obama pushed out the one SecDef that truly gave him trouble, the overmatched Chuck Hagel, and the rest of Obama’s team has studiously carried the company line.
And that’s not exactly a departure from tradition, either. Presidents, especially in their second term, tend to get too insular for their own good. A president who wins his second term in office probably thinks pretty highly of his own opinions, and isn’t going to listen much to those who point out weaknesses. Those who dissent look for other work (and usually find great opportunities), leaving the true believers behind to stick it out to the end. People respond to incentives, after all, and in a second term they’re all oriented to those who have the most to offer looking for, well, offers.
It might be interesting to see what Gates’ book has to say about that, but any insights along those lines won’t have much to do with 2016. They might have more relevance in 2020.