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March 09, 2009

Obama's Thousand Yard Stare

As most of you know, my husband is a Marine officer.

After nearly three decades of active duty he's been promoted a few times. Unsurprisingly, as one moves slowly up the ranks (and promotions tend to be slow in the Marine officer corps) both the range of jobs and the scope of authority change. The available jobs for a senior officer fall into two broad categories: command of a large battalion or facility - a school, for instance, or some other large organization -- and what I'd call "chief of staff" or aide de camp jobs. This natural bifurcation of responsibility corresponds to a structural division in the Corps itself. Throughout their careers. Marines alternate between operational or fleet billets and admin/staff billets.

The chief of staff billets are there for a reason. Wikipedia defines the role thusly:

A chief of staff is the coordinator of the supporting staff and primary aide to an important individual, such as an Office of the Prime Minister.

In an organization that prides itself on its fighting spirit, it's easy to dismiss such jobs as "pushing paper". But the fact is that, while a battalion or regimental commander may guide the fate of a large number of Marines, the Generals supported by senior administrators make decisions that affect far more people. They direct the fate of the entire Marine Corps, deciding where battalions and regiments will go; which supplies and equipment they will receive; how many bodies the Corps needs to meet projected end strength goals; how much money the Corps will request from Congress each year. These are enormous decisions, without which the entire organization would quickly come to a screeching halt.

Over the years as my husband has risen through the ranks, I've noticed something: a look one sees on the faces of Generals everywhere. Not all the time, but often enough for me to notice it. I call it the Thousand Yard Stare.

That's a battle metaphor. But anyone who thinks wrestling with the truly bewildering array of decisions faced by senior leaders at DoD isn't a constant struggle doesn't know what they're talking about. Of course it's not anything like actual combat. But it tends to produce the same prophylactic response: a tendency, at times, for the mind to shut out as much as possible. The risk of great responsibility is myopia and the paralysis that results from too many things to do and too little time.

This is why senior leaders have a chief of staff. The job is literally so big and the number of daily decisions so overwhelming that even the best leader can't possibly take it all in. So he needs capable "lieutenants" (in this case, normally senior Colonels) to help prioritize tasks, organize resources, and delegate some of the work; a process much akin to eating an elephant one bite at a time.

With the support of an effective aide, senior leaders are freed to focus on whatever task is truly important at the moment rather than getting bogged down in the sheer volume of demands made on his time and attention. On any given day, no person in this type of position can do everything that is asked of him. The problems are too numerous and too diverse. The only way to maintain focus and lead effectively is to prioritize and delegate.

Which leads me to Obama: a brand new president with no previous executive experience facing a truly daunting financial crisis. As I mentioned during the campaign, despite the "experience" argument posed by both Hillary Clinton and John McCain (or perhaps because of it) the media paid little attention to just how rarely America puts legislators with no executive experience in the White House:

Americans have only elected 6 U.S. Presidents who had no previous executive experience. Notably, since the Civil War, we have only elected one: John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

But we are not allowed to notice this. You see, that would be racist.

Now that we've elected an ambitious and energetic man with no previous experience to the biggest job in America, it seems not out of place to wonder: did we focus on the wrong things? Because faced with two truly existential crises (the war on terror and the financial crisis), Obama's administration, rather than prioritizing and addressing the hardest problems first, has launched itself upon an aggressive campaign to remake America in the progressive image. They openly admit they're using the financial crisis to enact their policy preferences. But when the house is on fire, you don't stop to redecorate the living room:

"Never waste a good crisis..." Says Hillary Clinton.

What if George Bush or Dick Cheney had said something like that openly? It's the kind of line that people used to imagine Bush people saying in secret.

IN THE COMMENTS: jayne cobb says:

Didn't Rahm Emanuel say the exact same thing?

He did. And who's Rahm Emmanuel? Obama's chief of staff: the guy who's supposed to be helping him prioritize and focus the enormous power wielded by the Executive branch. When the house is on fire, you don't have time to check off items on your "honey do" list. First you put out the fire. Then you can change the drapes and remodel the kitchen.

In a crisis, it's more important than ever to prioritize. And to all appearances, the Obama administration seems to be focusing on the wrong things. We're told, for instance, that he's "indifferent to the stock market":

With the stock market in a practical free fall since he was sworn in to office Jan. 20, Mr. Obama seemed to dismiss the plunge in equities Tuesday in an Oval Office conference with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, suggesting that he was unconcerned about Wall Street's daily fluctuations.

"What I'm looking at is not the day-to-day gyrations in the stock market, but the long-term ability for the United States and the entire world economy to regain its footing," he said.

"The stock market is sort of like a tracking poll in politics, it bobs up and down, day to day. And if you spend all of your time worrying about that, then you're probably going to get the long-term strategy wrong," he told reporters.

But Mr. Wyss and some of his colleagues on Wall Street - where investors have lost trillions of dollars in savings and the market is not so much bobbing as dropping straight down - think Mr. Obama could have shown more concern for the markets, which represent the economy and signal its future direction.

..."I agree with him that you can't obsess about it day to day, but you cannot ignore it, because it's telling you something," he said.

Harm Bandholz, an economist at UniCredit Research in New York, called this attitude toward the stock market, "one of the big problems with the administration, that they underestimate the role of the stock market in the current recession, because without the stabilization or recovery of the stock market, the U.S. economy won't be able to get out of this recession."

This is lunacy of the first order. The nest eggs of millions of Americans are rapidly vanishing. Who's going to start a business or invest in our recovery when they have no reliable safety net? With stock prices currently in the penny range, how will American corporations raise much needed operating funds? In the current climate they certainly can't borrow it. And what about that other existential issue - the war on terror? Here, too, Obama is inexplicably "indifferent":

Allies of Mr Obama say his weary appearance in the Oval Office with Mr Brown illustrates the strain he is now under, and the president’s surprise at the sheer volume of business that crosses his desk.

A well-connected Washington figure, who is close to members of Mr Obama’s inner circle, expressed concern that Mr Obama had failed so far to “even fake an interest in foreign policy”.

Maybe part of the reason the White House is frazzling itself into the ground is that they’re trying to remake everything. Everything has now become part of the delta. Everything is changing. Now they are facing the revenge of the second derivative: the rate of the rate of change. They are trying to restructure the government so it is run with Czars instead of cabinet secretaries; “engaging” hostile nations with little or no preconditions and getting blown off; changing the basis of the economy to conform to their untried vision of the future; creating the single greatest expansion of government since FDR; redesigning health care; holding consultations on everything and planning to save the world from Climate Change. They’re busy because crisis creates an “opportunity” for their own vague revolution

The cumulative consequence of these actions is a vast increase in the amount of risk the entire system has to endure because variables are being added faster than they are being solved. The margins are gone — removed by design. The margins are in the way. But while things might hold together for so long as the road ahead is smooth, what happens if things hit a bump? What happens in the Obama administration, too preoccupied to “even fake an interest in foreign policy meets a sudden challenge?

So far the Obama administration has only had to deal with the economy. And despite their campaign handwringing about how much less safe America has become, its foreign enemies, perhaps still picking themselves up off the ground from the pasting they received at the hands of George W. Bushchimp, have not yet made a move. But one day they too may notice that nobody is at home.

We're facing urgent problems which require every ounce of skill and care the Obama administration can bring to bear. But instead of focusing his attention on putting out the fires, he's not only changing the drapes, but playing with matches.

Perhaps it's not Wall Street so much as the White House that could learn a few things about leadership from the Marines:

The White House this week was consumed by extreme interest in a celebrated radio critic, reportedly coordinating an attack line with antic Clinton-era political operatives who don't know what time it is. For them it's always the bouncy '90s and anything goes, it's all just a game. President Obama himself contributes to an atmosphere of fear grown to panic as he takes a historic crisis and turns it into what he imagines is a grand opportunity for sweeping change. What we need is stabilization—an undergirding, a restrengthening so things can settle and then rise. What we're given is multiple schemes, and the beginning of a reordering of financial realities between the individual and the state.

The Obama people think they are playing big ball, not small ball, and they no doubt like the feeling of it: "We're making history." But that, ironically, was precisely the preoccupation of the last administration—doing it big, being "consequential," showing history. Watch: Within six months, the Obama administration will be starting to breathe the word "legacy."

What they're up to will win and hold support, at least for a while, until the reaction.

But is it responsible? Or is it only vain?

This President is not "tired". He's out of his depth, and his chief of staff had better get him focused before we find ourselves in a world of hurt.

CWCID: CW4 for calling my attention to Richard Fernandez' excellent analysis.

Posted by Cassandra at March 9, 2009 08:36 AM

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You hit a lot of good points. Good call.

Posted by: Red at March 9, 2009 10:44 AM

"The President is not "tired". He's out of his depth, and his chief of staff had better get him focused before we find ourselves in a world of hurt."
Yet another exzellent obzervazion Prinzess. Alas, zoze who do not know of or understand ze importance of ze leaderzhip and management zat you outlined prior to ze
"Which leads me to Obama:"
morale of ze story seczhon will not understand ze rest of ze piece. Zey might even zay zat you are jus whyning. 8^{►

And EU's to doughnuts zey will never accept any responzibility for voting Ze One and the complicit Congress creachairs into ze office.

"The nest eggs of millions of Americans are rapidly vanishing."
Zis a nize mood enhanzer for one who must trek to liaise wis ze TAX MAN, iz iet not?

P.S. Ideas? Do not forget to call 1-800-IDEAS?

Posted by: The duc Knot de Nouncer, Royal Vassal to the Inquisitor at March 9, 2009 10:51 AM

You have a group of people who are utterly unprepared for the level and scale of the responsibilities they now have and who have never really worked at any executive level at all... Lord help us all...

Posted by: olga at March 9, 2009 11:25 AM

The introduction of too many variables is the perfect explanation of why this recession will last longer than usual or go into depression.

Posted by: Jill Farrar at March 9, 2009 11:27 AM

These are the people who think money and benefits grow on trees. They're standing around befuddled now, trying to figure out what happened to the trees.

Posted by: Texan99 at March 9, 2009 11:58 AM

"...what happened to the trees."

They can't see them....the forest is in the way.

"We're facing urgent problems which require every ounce of skill and care the Obama administration can bring to bear."

Ummm......I know you're a busy woman and all, but I wonder, if you could cite something (a link, a report, a link to a report somebody thinks they read...anything, please?) that could point to what governing skills, exactly, Xerxes possesses. He's made it abundantly clear how much he "cares", and we know well his *skill* of being able to sell used oats as prime grade shinola. However, I have yet to see any shred of evidence whatsoever that anyone in this administration is even smarter than a fifth grader, much less competent enough to run a government, and certainly not a government held hostage by an economic crisis of his own party's making.

Posted by: DL Sly at March 9, 2009 01:42 PM

Isn't Obama the one who denigrated Sarah Palin for her 'lack of experience' because she was the XO of the state of Alaska?

Or am I just too wrapped up in the inconsistency ad hominem fallacy of pointing that out and I am Out of Touch?

Corrections, please. I have a paper to write. It is a fluff piece, really, about stereotypes regarding politicians, tattooed people, feminists and senior citizens.

Of course, all that innuendo has to be cited.

Excellent post, Cass.

Posted by: Cricket at March 9, 2009 02:29 PM




Posted by: Aristotle the Hun at March 9, 2009 04:04 PM

I'd say that the Thousand Yard Stare belongs to men and women who have the capability to zone out "distractions" and focus on what needs to be done. I respect people who can step into the middle of a s^&t-storm, stay calm, and keep moving forward. Obama is not one of those creatures.

The Anointed One can not even bring himself to notice the ruination being visited on people--other than to blather on about getting new health care initiatives passed and "I'm still thinking about you--I haven't forgotten you."

Frankly when this President says "I haven't forgotten you", I want to get in a bunker and hide, because when he gets "rountuit", he'll come and destroy the rest of my life's savings.

Posted by: Mike Myers at March 9, 2009 05:10 PM

I will admit that the focus of the few is not mine to command. It belongs to my husband. However, I have been known to stay focused on a few things at a time until the really critical stuff was done, however long that took.

What I am not seeing here is his ability learn.

What he and Biden mocked Palin for with regard to 'on the job training.'

Posted by: Cricket at March 9, 2009 05:32 PM

Well, the sense I was using "Thousand Yard Stare" in was that of shell shock (the protective numbness that takes over when combat vets have seen too much). There may be other usages of the term, but if so I didn't intend to evoke anything other than the look of someone who, however temporarily, is just plain overwhelmed.

People can and do overcome shell shock, or PTSD as we call it nowadays. But they do so along a spectrum. You see the same phenomenon to a lesser degree (in fact, it's purposely induced) in recruits when they're exhausted and stressed and (again) overwhelmed by one too many demands made upon them in too short a time. That's what breaks down the ego and gets people to buy in/identify with the unit: when you're exhausted and stressed, you lack the time and energy to swim contrary to the current.

I think the same thing is going on with Obama - he's got too many things coming at him at once, and instead of revisiting his priorities to match the real world, he's "hunkering down" and retreating to his list of campaign promises.

After all, the campaign trail must seem like a halcyon of calm compared to what he's faced with now.

Posted by: Cassandra at March 9, 2009 05:45 PM

IIRC, Cricket, they didn't start using the lack of experience tack until it had gained footing with the MSM and other Democrat campaign tools MoveOn and Code Pink. (haaawkkptoooie)
It seems to me he has learned well the Chicago politics where he first suckled at the taxpayer breast: Everyone and everything is a tool to be used for my further success and tossed aside like....well, like the tool they are.

Posted by: DL Sly at March 9, 2009 05:46 PM

I know you're a busy woman and all, but I wonder, if you could cite something (a link, a report, a link to a report somebody thinks they read...anything, please?) that could point to what governing skills, exactly, Xerxes possesses.

Hey - I didn't say he had a lot to work with on the personal front :p

But he does have a fairly experienced Cabinet, so there's a pool of experience to draw from. And whatever he does have between himself and his Cabinet, we need every ounce of it.

Posted by: Cassandra at March 9, 2009 05:47 PM

"Hey - I didn't say he had a lot to work with on the personal front."

Heh. One crank yanked.

"But he does have a fairly experienced Cabinet..."

I'll give ya part of that one, but (and I realize this may make me appear to be somewhat silly) I coulda swore our elections were designed to choose one person to lead our country. "The President proposes...." not the "Presidential Cabinet proposes". I realize he gets advice from his staff, but he's supposed to have a freaking clue first! Otherwise it's not taking on advice to use in order to make an informed decision, it's letting them make the decision for him.

Posted by: DL Sly at March 9, 2009 06:18 PM

"I coulda swore our elections were designed to choose one person to lead our country."
Is the cry heard in shanty towns and ACORN.org offices nationwide. Yet for just billions a day you can;

Feed a hungry bureaucracy
Lubricate a Chicago crony
Fund HopeNChange Housing
Provide the newest little anarchists with fertilizer and diesel fuel
Buy meaningful DVD's for our closest allies, who are after all, just one of 190 other entertainment deprived UN nations and
Refurbish and redecorate every federal office in foggy bottom... and a few private homes and offices to boot.

We are manning the switchboards 24x7 so call with you generous suggestions on managing the economy. Call 1-800-IDEAS?
Or generously surrender all your assets now to avoid the rush.

Won't you help?

Posted by: Sally Struthers at March 9, 2009 06:44 PM

One of the marks of a great leader is the choice of people he brings in as advisers. No one can run the world by themselves (which lights up the joke on any of the villains in books who want to "take over the world"). You need good advisers, ideally people who disagree with each other.

Another mark of a good leader (you see this in business all the time) is that he makes significantly more good decisions than bad. (It might have been Lincoln who noticed that the only way to make no mistakes is to make no decisions.)

That's the type we need in the Oval Office. I can't recall the list of good decisions Obama made over the years. Maybe that's because nobody seems to have publicized it.

Obama has surrounded himself with his own. For all the grand talk of "diversity", I doubt we'll find more than one opinion among the whole lot. They're all followers of the Sacred Flame - in this case, apparently of socialism.

He even managed to promote Hillary upstairs where she can do little damage. Unfortunately, her first trip out raised more than a few eyebrows. She couldn't even find someone in the State Department [??? !!!] who spoke Russian. (Unlike the last inhabitant of that office.)

I wonder if there's more than a fine line (like that between genius and insanity) between the 1000 Yard Stare and the Deer in the Headlights.

(In the EU, that would be the 900-meter Stare.)

Posted by: ZZMike at March 9, 2009 07:58 PM

Are you some kind of stare master?

I would be careful about conserving the personal supply of outrage and anger regarding the present Administration. This is a marathon, not a sprint.
We have nearly four years to go, so getting mad about things now is pretty small potatoes. I think we are the ones that will be shell shocked before long and have the "1,000 yard stare". Will you be willing to join the Borg, er, Democrat party soon to join the nirvana? They must have some secret stash of happy gas somewhere, and I want some!

On a lighter note, while most peoples 401K/IRA plans have gone into the toilet, I made $3.97 on my money market account (cash, not equities) in this last quarter. At this rate, I should be in great financial shape when I retire.
Be glad about small victories. :)

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at March 9, 2009 08:36 PM

$3.97!? Make that 2 Samuel Adams Boston Lagers, a quart of Wite-Out® and one Slap-Chakra! =;^}

Posted by: bthun at March 9, 2009 08:42 PM

/smacking Sally Struthers :)

Thanks. I needed a good laugh!

Posted by: I'm going to pay for this.... at March 9, 2009 08:53 PM

Don't know why, but I found hilarious to find the terms: "Thousand yard stare" and "Hillary Clinton" together in the same paragraph.

Don't know whether just the thought of her would induce a thousand yard stare in anyone, or whether she would give the "evil-eyes" upon anyone crossing her (just ask the travel office).

Posted by: Boquisucio at March 9, 2009 11:50 PM

Don--re "Stare Master"--I didn't spend my life in the military-nor even in an occupation where there was any physical danger (I'm not a firefighter or a cop). But I did spend a good deal of time solving problems and managing crises while leading small to medium sized teams of people--often responding to things that had gone seriously awry. Those are the storms I referred to. And you learn to focus on sorting things out, dealing with the most important things first and moving forward. Staying calm in those situations is important. But it's also important to figure out what needs to be fixed and when. Obama may have the first part figured out--folks comment on how cool and collected he seems--but he sure as heck doesn't have the second part figured out.

Wasting anger early?--I can keep up a good head of steam for years at a time, and Obama presents what the military might call a target rich environment. But he's in an enviable situation since the line of succession after Obama is Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton in that order. I want Obama to stay healthy until the voters usher him out, because the "nuts" under the shells 2,3,and 4 are too damned painful to contemplate.

Posted by: Mike Myers at March 10, 2009 01:53 AM

Obama may have the first part figured out--folks comment on how cool and collected he seems...

Unfortunately, you can get the same impression from someone who's gone catatonic from sensory overload.

Posted by: BillT at March 10, 2009 02:56 AM

Two thoughts:

The original moral of The Ant and The Grasshopper is that you don't want to be the lazy Grasshopper because he starved when winter came.

The revised moral of Obama's Ant and Grasshopper is that the Grasshoppers won so they are entitled to as much of Ants earnings as they want. Who wants to be an Ant, nowadays?

Second, commentators are openly saying that Obama's election was a historic first because we elected a Black man. And they're openly saying he's not up to the job. So we hired an under-qualified man just because he's Black? Wait, there's a phrase for that process, what is it?

Ah yes, Affirmative Action.

Affirmative Action is fine for make-work Outreach jobs or maybe in the Post Office but not for the top dog. How long until commentators admit it?


Posted by: Joe Doakes at March 10, 2009 01:36 PM

"How long until commentators admit it?"
How long before the media's chattering class admits that I One! was/is not up to the job? About the same time that we are forced to don our fur-lined, asbestos outerwear as a result of anthropogenic climate change in Hades.

Posted by: Phyto Plankton the IIIx10^1024x10^1024-ad_infinitum at March 10, 2009 02:18 PM