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Decision Making in the Obama White House


James P. Pfiffner is University Professor and Director of the Doctoral Program in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University. He is the author or editor of a dozen books, including Power Play, and Torture as Public Policy.


Presidents attract extremely smart, ambitious people to serve in the White House, but the quality of the advice the president receives depends upon how he or she uses the available talent. Chief executives face daunting challenges in evaluating the onslaught of information, judging the perspectives of their subordinates, and ensuring that they receive advice based on presidential perspectives rather than the priorities of their subordinates.

Political scientists who study presidential decision making have come to consider several factors as central to understanding White House organization and process: the level of centralization, the extent of multiple advocacy, and the use of honest brokers to manage advice to the president. This article examines President Obama's decision-making style with respect to these three factors and uses several case studies to illustrate them: economic policy, detainee policy, and decision making on the war in Afghanistan.