“Surround yourself with the best people you can find, delegate authority, and don't interfere as long as the policy you've decided upon is being carried out.”
This was Ronald Reagan’s philosophy of governance, and it was a good one. No one person can be in charge of everything, and furthermore, nobody can be an expert in everything. The leader needs to have a base philosophy that guides him, and should be the final arbiter in large decisions, but the leader must delegate tasks to qualified people who share his philosophy in order to keep things running.
The current administration and the previous two have been interesting to analyze from this perspective, because all of them have differed as leaders in one key way from Reagan, and all of them were or are far less effective as a result.
Let’s start with Clinton. Clinton was a big-government liberal, obviously, but he was also concerned with the American people favoring what he was doing. He constructed a Cabinet of advisors who agreed with his basic philosophy. There was simply one major problem: Those people were mind-numbingly unqualified to do their jobs. Whether they were cronies from Arkansas (like Webster Hubbell) or beneficiaries of political correctness quotas (like Janet Reno), the basic incompetence of Clinton’s Cabinet resulted in frequent scandals, changes and investigations which helped render Clinton an ineffective leader. (Not that he didn’t have other issues, of course.)
After Clinton came George W. Bush, who went in a different direction: He put together a highly qualified Cabinet with people who had strong backgrounds in their given areas. The problem with Bush’s Cabinet was completely different: Some of the key advisors didn’t agree with Bush’s policies in the areas they were put in charge of. The most notable difference was Secretary of State Colin Powell, who differed greatly with Bush on handling of affairs in the Middle East, though in Bush’s defense, it didn’t come to the forefront until after 9/11. Another key area where Bush’s chief advisor disagreed with him was his first Treasury Secretary, Paul O’Neill, who was very much against tax cuts. Bush eventually replaced him in 2003. When you have key members of your Cabinet rowing in different directions from you, it’s hard to get anywhere.
This brings us to the current administration. Whether Obama’s set of advisors is a good one or not depends on the perspective from which you look at it. Obama’s advisors are all very much in lockstep with what he wants to accomplish, and they are qualified in those areas to achieve those ends. The problem for Obama’s leadership group is becoming more plainly obvious each day, however: the American people don’t want to go in the direction Obama does, which is the key difference from Reagan. Unlike Clinton, however, Obama doesn’t seem to care what the people think, and thus he isn’t constrained as Clinton was. Attorney General Eric Holder looks like an ignoramus every time he opens his mouth these days, but he’s doing Obama’s will quite well. Obama’s “czars” seem to be a giant freakshow in some ways, but they are all qualified to do exactly what Obama wants. Unfortunately, what Obama wants and what most Americans want are different things.
So if Obama is replaced in 2012, his successor should keep these things in mind when constructing a Cabinet. Have a sound basic philosophy (preferably as conservative as possible), hire advisors who know what they are doing, and make sure that they are all aiming for the same goals. This is the route to successful governance.