The Deadline Presidency

Does it matter that Obama is behind schedule on most of his major plans?

President Obama

As a professor of constitutional law, Barack Obama gave his students eight hours to complete his exam —even though the exam was designed, he wrote in the instructions, “to be completed in three hours.” Now that he’s president, Obama could use that kind of cushion. Upon taking office, the president promised that the prison at Guantanamo Bay would close in a year. He now says it will not. He demanded that Congress pass a health care bill by August. It still hasn’t. The president’s promise to sign a health care bill this year has now been pushed into 2010. Obama was also going to announce his new Afghanistan strategy in early November. It may now come as much as a month later. There are also delays—some, of course, beyond his control—in seating judicial nominations and passing climate-change legislation.

Whether you think this is a big deal depends on what you think of deadlines. (I’m on deadline right now, so you know where I stand.) The president has a professor’s fondness for deadlines and a writer’s lack of respect for them. “If you don’t set a deadline in this town, nothing happens,” he said last July before Congress sailed past his August deadline on the way to the beach for recess. His aides share the boss’s view. When White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel heard Senate Majority Harry Reid suggest that a vote on the health care bill may not take place until next year, he immediately contacted Reid to voice his displeasure.

Yet Obama doesn’t like it when people point out that he’s missing deadlines. He warns against judging him out of context. Obama rails against the media’s and his critics’ artificial deadlines—why haven’t you ended the wars yet, he asks, mockingly. Indeed he has been busy. The problem with all of this is that it is Obama himself who set the deadlines in the first place. Even now, he’s setting suspiciously deadline-like expectations on Afghanistan policy as other deadlines on other issues pass.

Deadlines matter for several reasons. First, as a tactical matter, a deadline creates a momentum that can work in the deadline setter’s favor: The person who makes the deadline limits the options of the person who has to meet the deadline while simultaneously putting pressure on him to make a choice. This motivates people to accept limited options they might not otherwise find attractive. Explaining this principle in Managing With Power, professor Jeffrey Pfeffer quotes the country music song “The Girls All Look Prettier at Closing Time.” (See also: getting the bum’s rush.)

In the Senate, recalcitrant Democrats who do not agree with the president’s health care program know how this works. That’s why they’re threatening to block debate on reform before it even starts. They have more leverage now, before debate begins, than they would after the bill has been debated and the looming deadline of a final vote would pressure them not to be the one person standing in the way.

With homework as with health care, when deadlines are blown, it gives people who have had a deadline imposed on them a chance to make mischief. This is what happened in August with Republicans. If you delay long enough, you can get negotiations started afresh on more favorable terms. Missed deadlines also give a president’s opponents quotes they can use to make him look out of touch, like this one from Raleigh, N.C., in late July: “First of all, this [health care] bill, even in the best-case scenario, will not be signed—we won’t even vote on it probably until the end of September or the middle of October.”

Deadlines also matter in measuring the hard-to-measure but crucial quality of presidential prestige and credibility. If a president’s deadlines are meaningless, then he is less able to get other politicians to do what he wants. Voters may simply view him as ineffective.

Blowing a deadline isn’t all downside, of course. Even if you buy the downsides to delaying a decision on Afghanistan—confusing allies, irritating the military and inspiring insurgents about America’s lack of will—rash decision-making has also been pretty thoroughly debunked in the last eight years of war. Politically, letting a deadline slip can also give your supporters more time to build support for your program. (It’s the flip side of allowing your opponents more time to make mischief.) There’s some evidence that Obama’s supporters wanted him to slow down in August.

Experience has not cured Obama of the deadline habit. If there’s anything that has upset presidential deadline setting in recent years, it is war. And yet when describing his coming Afghanistan policy, the president is full of clarity and deadline talk. “I’m going to be able to present to the American people, in very clear terms, what exactly is at stake, what we intend to do, how we’re going to succeed, how much it’s going to cost, how long it’s going to take,” Obama told NBC’s Chuck Todd. Those may be the things he says when he announces his new plan. But given the uncertainty of war, he’s not going to be able to keep all of his promises.

Obama also made another declaration he can’t really mean. Asked if the press leaks about his Afghanistan strategy sessions upset him as much as they do Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Obama said they bother him even more. He went on to tell CBS’s Chip Reid that leaking was a firing offense. Does he really mean that? Not only did a similar policy trip up his predecessor, but when Gates complained about the leaking, he wasn’t just talking about members of the military. He was also talking about White House aides. If Obama enforced his rule, he wouldn’t have much staff left, joked one Pentagon aide.

Fortunately, the definition of leaking is pretty flexible. It’s sort of like a deadline that way.

Become a fan of John Dickerson on Facebook.