DIBACCO: Management by walking away

When the going gets tough, Obama gets gone

In the 1980s, the buzzwords for achieving results by executives were “management by walking around.” Nobody exemplified that trait better than Lee Iacocca, chairman of Chrysler Corp., who brought the company out of bankruptcy. Tom Peters and Robert Waterman in their best-selling book, “In Search of Excellence” (1982), pointed to other manifestations of “management by walking around” in successful companies.

Management by walking around simply means that business executives would randomly and frequently, without notice, visit their subordinate officers and rank-and-file workers, talking with them about their concerns and then making decisions to implement suggestions that would make for a better corporation. Not surprisingly, even before the practice became popular, leaders in business as well as government utilized the technique to ensure improvements in operation. Abraham Lincoln, for example, made unannounced visits to troops during the Civil War.

What has characterized the administration of President Obama is a new management wrinkle, best described as “management by walking away.” The latest example is detailed in a New York Times story of Aug. 17, dealing with Susan E. Rice, national security adviser, briefing the president at Martha’s Vineyard on Aug. 14 on the deteriorating situation in Egypt:

“After Mr. Obama left to play golf, Ms. Rice, 48, returned to her own lodgings to consult with aides at the White House. After 5 p.m., the two spoke again, and Mr. Obama signed off on the plan.”

For the president to have no reluctance or shame to take the time to play golf while the situation in Egypt is verging on anarchy — with adverse ramifications for the United States ranging from restrictions on American military overflights, elimination of special privileges at the Suez Canal, curbing of oil supplies and threats to Israel’s security — is shocking. However, it’s in line with the president’s walking away from other serious issues: the Benghazi attack on Sept. 11, 2012, when he went to bed without taking action and continued with a campaign trip the following day. Or with the Internal Revenue Service scandal about which not one word has been heard from him since his initial critique of the matter.

Regrettably, the president’s history has been filled with examples of walking away rather than facing reality and making hard decisions. He has walked away from working with Congress in general and Republicans in particular. Rather than have his administration craft the health care law in a bipartisan way, he left it to loyal Democrats to do the work, ensuring that not one Republican would vote for the package. Now that Obamacare is the law of the land, he has walked away from the difficult task of meeting its deadlines.

The president has walked away from the Fort Hood massacre, acceding to it being called by the unbelievable description of “workplace violence.” Rather than do everything possible to support veterans who often die before their claims are processed by the Veterans Administration, he walks away from the hard decision to fire the secretary. Rather than facing the necessity to make a decision on building the Keystone XL pipeline, he walks away, choosing instead to fabricate a story that the project would create only 50 permanent jobs.

In foreign affairs, the president seems to relish walking away from crises. No matter that the Egyptian military effected a coup of President Mohammed Morsi, he refuses to call it by that name. He has walked away from next month’s planned summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin rather than do some difficult face-to-face negotiating. On Syria, Iran and North Korea — all bad regimes capable of bringing about serious threats to the Middle East and American security — he has walked away from the red line that he drew. He walked away from the nitty-gritty task of getting a post-withdrawal agreement with Afghanistan so as to help ensure some political and military stability in a country where so many American lives have been lost.

From a historical point of view, no other American chief executive has turned his back on so many critical situations that plagued his administration. To be sure, the presidents with the worst ratings from historians — Millard Fillmore and James Buchanan, to name but two — made bad decisions in office, but they weren’t faulted for walking away. Conversely, the presidents with the highest ratings not only made better decisions, but worked hard at arriving at them. As one Washington editor wrote of President James K. Polk: “Few men are capable of the labors which he encounters; and few in his place would devote themselves with the same assiduity to the public service. He works from 10 to 12 hours in every 24.”

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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