Image: Obama signing legislation
Gerald Herbert  /  AP
President Barack Obama know he's "firing with live bullets," according to an administration official. All presidents make two kinds of decisions: those they choose and those they must.
updated 3/17/2009 9:08:02 AM ET 2009-03-17T13:08:02

That's what presidents do. They decide.

Some do it better than others, but all do it. History does the grading.

President Barack Obama, taking office with the economy crashing and two wars under way, barely knew his way around the Oval Office before he was neck-deep in critical decision-making.

As an administration official put it, Obama knows he's "firing with live bullets."

Broadly put, presidents make two kinds of decisions: those they choose and those they must.

So far, Obama has chosen to act on matters he brought ready-made to the White House, including a determination to close the Guantanamo Bay military prison, issue strong statements against torture and reverse Bush policy on embryonic stem cell funding.

The 44th president also walked into the White House with his mind made up on undertaking a massive spending program to pull the economy from a nose-dive unmatched in at least a half century. There also was his commitment to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq.

On the economy and Iraq, however, Obama's intention to act on predetermined choices was quickly complicated by "the streams of pressure," as Ed Gillespie calls it, that bear down on all presidents. Those realities gum up chosen decisions with those that must be made — the unappetizing but necessary compromises — to govern in Washington.

"It's axiomatic that it is much easier to run for president than to be president," said Gillespie, who was a counselor to former President George W. Bush.

Deciding on how, not whether, to remove U.S. forces from Iraq, Obama administration officials said, grew out of a series of meetings. The most important came Jan. 21, his second day as president, in the super-secure "tank" at the Pentagon.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates "had committed to the president that he would hear from everybody involved and hear all the viewpoints out there. Gates was not going to shelter the president from any opinions," said a top White House official. Like others in the West Wing, this official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private meetings.

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Comparing commanders
Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration, has given an uncommonly frank public assessment of the decision-making styles of both presidents. He said his new boss was "somewhat more analytical, and he makes sure he hears from everybody in the room on an issue. And if they don't speak up, he calls on them."

Video: Gates compares Obama, Bush Bush, by comparison, "was interested in hearing different points of view but didn't go out of his way to make sure everybody spoke if they hadn't, if they hadn't spoken up before," Gates told NBC's "Meet the Press" a few weeks ago.

Drawing such comparisons invites a deeper look at the ways in which the back-to-back commanders in chief differ when they must decide.

Obama, a Harvard-educated lawyer who taught the craft at the University of Chicago, brings a legal mind to the process.

"He wants to hear both sides of each argument," an Obama administration official said. "He often times will in some ways kind of elevate the two sides, have two individuals make the arguments in front of him. I don't know if that comes back to a law school type thing."

The official added, "He's not wedded to how one gets to an outcome, as long as he's convinced that is the best way to get to that outcome."

Bush the decider
Bush brought a Harvard MBA to the office and ran the government like a corporate chief executive.

Gillespie cited "a pretty definitive meeting" at the White House last year on the federal bailout of the financial sector. Bush told his economic team "to find a fix" to the deepening crisis. "They came back with recommendations and he signed off," Gillespie said.

But not before Bush "pressed back very hard, challenging the fundamental premise that the markets could not correct the problem on their own. In the end, he agree it was necessary but he needed to be convinced. He only agreed after about an hour of pressing for explanations on why the market would not be self-correcting."

Bush, who famously said "I'm the decider, and I decide what is best," made momentous decisions in his eight years in power. The most dramatic probably was the decision to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein. But he also pursued a free-marketeer's economic philosophy that took the country into the economic thicket from which Obama is trying to hack a path back to stability.

History still is grading Bush's exam paper. Obama, meanwhile, has just begun to write his.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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