The President of the United States is both the executive in charge of our Government, and the symbol of our country’s power. The president is in charge of a complex network of departments and agency designed to implement policies for the public good. Increasingly, the President is facing complex crises. Responding to these crises means dealing with an internal labyrinth of career public servants and political appointees, as well as an external maze of opposing politicians and their expert opinions, media, industry and international concerns. Each of these “agents“, as they are referred to in complexity parlance, is influenced by the behavior of other agents. That is what makes the system complex.
Before the President can take decisive action, he must receive advice from hundreds of reasoned but diverging opinions, some focused on the short-term, others on the long-term, each seeing the world with a different eye, and each weighing risks and uncertainty differently. Decisions then must percolate through the system, be interpreted and followed through.
The oil spill crisis is a good example. The public and the media demand that the President take decisive action to stop the oil from gushing from the bottom of the ocean. The President must turn to his internal agents – the Coast Guard, the Department of the Interior, “Heck of a job” Brownies, and now HHS. These agents have limited resources, and must comply with slow moving rules and regulations. The President must then take into account the immediate and future impacts on the other stakeholders in the system. Either the President tries to take action – with little or no impact on the complex situation or he chooses not to act at all (anticipatory regrets).
Ironically, the power of the Presidency is founded on the perception that the President can take decisive action and make an impact. He/she is the most powerful person in the most powerful country on Earth… This is the shape of things to come: If the President cannot take decisive action and react effectively to solve our most complex issues, is the concept of the Presidency doomed?