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Obama's Messy Desk

I agree with Mike that Obama's candor about his greatest weakness--"I ask my staff never to hand me paper until two seconds before I need it, because I will lose it"--verged on being too cavalier. That was particularly true in light of Hillary's response to this concession, which I thought was her best of the night and, frankly, one of the better rationales I've heard for her candidacy. Here's what she said:

I do think that being president is the chief executive officer, and I respect what Barack said about setting the vision, setting the tone, bringing people together. But I think you have to be able to manage and run the bureaucracy. You've got to pick good people certainly but you have to hold them accountable every single day.

We've seen the results of a president who frankly failed at that. You know, he went in to office saying he was going to have the kind of Harvard Business School CEO model, where he'd set the tone, he'd set the goals, and then everybody else would have to implement it. And we saw the failures. We saw the failures along the Gulf Coast with, you know, people who were totally incompetent and insensitive, failing to help our fellow Americans. ...

So I do think you have to do both. It's a -- it's a really hard job, and in America we put, you know, the head of state and the head of government together in one person. But I think you've got to set the tone, you've got to set the vision, you've got to set the goals, you've got to bring the country together. And then you do have to manage and operate and hold that bureaucracy accountable to get the results you're trying to achieve.

Obama probably saved himself with a deft (and funny) follow-up about how Bush "was very efficient. He was on time all the time and, you know ... I'm sure he never lost a paper":

[W]hat he could not do is to listen to perspectives that didn't agree with his ideological predispositions. What he could not do is to bring in different people with different perspectives and get them to work together. What he could not do is to manage the -- the effort to make sure that the American people understood that if we're going to go into war, that there are going to be consequences and there are going to be costs.

But Obama should have been more careful out of the gate. He should have stressed that his weakness is personal disorganization (messy desks and the like) not managing an organization. (They're somewhat related, but hardly the same.) I think this is what he was going for, but, even so, he was a little too dismissive about the importance of operational skill. And that dismissiveness dated back to an interview he gave to the The Reno Gazette-Journal, which Russert cited last night.

--Noam Scheiber