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Gary Horton: Why Obama will not proceed faster

Full Speed to Port!

Posted: November 10, 2009 9:42 p.m.
Updated: November 11, 2009 4:55 a.m.
“Why can’t Barack make up his mind in Afghanistan? What’s taking him so long?”
“Why so many half-steps in the Stimulus Package?”
“How come Obama needs to hear everyone out before making a decision? We just have to get things done.”

We’re moving toward one year of Obamaland and public opinion, for better or worse, is settling in. Some now complain that President Barack Obama is taking too long to act, that the man of hope has become the man of indecision.

And some even might privately think, but wouldn’t be so reckless as to speak, “Why can’t Barack Obama be more like George W. Bush? Why can’t Obama just ‘do it’ and go all in?”

“With Bush,” they would say, “we knew where we were heading.” Until his hasty and ill-considered plans turned out all wrong, that is.
It’s one thing to declare yourself “The Decider.” It’s altogether another to make good decisions.

America’s problems are riddled with complexity, risk and potential for serious failure. We face high-stakes choices, and they have to be made against high levels of uncertainty. It’s easy enough for us to decide what’s for dinner. It’s harder though, to save an economy plunging without any historic precedent. Or exiting two wars without leaving thousands of lives lost in vain, or committing thousands more to the same sorry fate.  

Its no secret Obama got handed a nasty plate of saber-tooth worms. Nearly a year on, it’s no secret that Obama is methodical and cautious. Sometimes annoyingly so.

Eight years of Bush left Americans accustomed to “problem solving” cowboy style.

“Damn the facts and let’s start shooting.”

“Damn the finances, let’s do tax cuts.”

Bush’s “problems solved” became much larger problems. It wasn’t that Bush didn’t try to solve problems — but rather, that he made bad decisions the nation was compelled to follow.

Most agree Bush failed as “The Decider.” He filtered facts to confirm his foregone conclusions. His administration was steeped in crippling groupthink bolted to one-sided reasoning. Facts, be they economic or strategic or scientific, wouldn’t slow his train or nudge his course. Bush had political capital to spend, and he tore through all of it on some of the worst decisions ever made in American history.

Sad for us, as those decisions also tore through our lives, our wallets, jobs and future. We’ve been sorely made to pay for Bush’s flawed thinking and worse decisions.

Wharton taught a humorous, albeit tragic, view of how we err on decisions. While they didn’t, they might have well named it, “The Bush Method.”

How To make a bad decision fast:
n Presuppose the actual problem;
n Limit alternative thinking;
n Validate your preconceived opinions;
n Find some supporting data;
n Propose compliant solutions;
n Railroad implementation;
n Dig up confirmation of success;
n Congratulate yourself — “Mission Accomplished.”

Most of us frequently fall into such decision-making traps. We’re firmly anchored in our own opinions. We give more weight to facts that confirm us rather than challenge us. And our affinities give us a higher sense of morality and truth than may be valid. It’s hard to “think outside our box” when we’re certain our box is tried and true.

We want our lives and viewpoints confirmed, not torn down.

Look around. Got any regrets in life or business? Most likely go back to decisions you wish you might have made better.  You were too hasty, had too few facts, too much emotion and not enough diverse input. Such is our common human condition.

Bush fired generals who expressed opposing views. He punished advisors exposing contrary evidence.

Truth and facts placed second to groupthink at the Bush roundtable, and we were rushed into places we wish we had never been led. America has resulting regrets.

Contrasting to the foibles of the “Bush Method,” good decision making may take substantial time and fact-finding to get right. The biggies may take months, or even years to get right.  

There are tough questions to answer when facing high stakes that frustratingly broaden issues and may slow our process. But getting accurate facts and discovering best options demand the extra effort and patience when Big Things are on the line.

“What don’t we know that we should and can know?”

“What are the major unknowables, and how might they be mitigated?”

“Where might we be overconfident and over-anchored?”

“Is some of our information slanted or biased from sources?”

This calculated, measured approach sounds like “go-slow” Obama and almost nothing like “trigger-finger” Bush. Yes, we wish we could push a button and just make Obama go faster. (Can’t the recession just be done?) But recession, wars, the health care debacle and everything else have been years in the making. They are smothered in uncertainty and peril. It’s doubtful Obama could prudently move any faster and still get things right for the long term.

Good decisions made methodically beat quick, tragic ones. I’ll give Obama a letter grade of A for going slow, collaborating, corroborating and getting facts before he acts.

Patience is indeed a virtue, especially after prior haste made so much waste.

Gary Horton lives in Valencia. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. “Full Speed to Port!” appears Wednesdays in The Signal.


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