Gates: Obama Thinks He's Smartest Guy in Room, Ineffective at Developing and Implementing Strategy

January 19, 2016

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday that President Obama thinks he is smarter than his advisers and that he surrounds himself with people who will not question his views. As a result, the White House has struggled to develop and implement effective strategy during the Obama administration, according to Gates.

"You know, the president is quoted as having said at one point to his staff, ‘I can do every one of your jobs better than you can,’" Gates said on MSNBC's Morning Joe.

"Oh my God, " host Joe Scarborough said.

Gates' statement was in response to Scarborough, who asked, "President Obama has actually been criticized for always thinking he's the smartest guy in the room ... Did Barack Obama always think he was the smartest guy in the room?"

The question came while Gates and the Morning Joe panel were discussing leadership skills presidents must possess to govern effectively. Gates appeared on the show to promote his new book, A Passion for Leadership: Lessons on Change and Reform from Fifty Years of Public Service, which examines how leaders at all levels in both the public and private sector can better manage organizations and bureaucracies to be more responsive.

Gates also said he thinks "one of the greatest weaknesses of the White House is implementation of strategy, is difficulty in developing strategy and then implementing that strategy."

The former secretary of defense added that there are no "strong" people around the president who will challenge him on issues. Gates credited Obama for not shutting him down when he pushed back against the president while serving in the cabinet from 2009 to 2011, but he does not see people around Obama now who offer alternative views.

Critics have said the president is stubborn and does not listen to opposing viewpoints, even from his own staff. Politico published a story in October highlighting how this was the case with the administration's Syria policy when the president's advisors urged him to take more aggressive action, which Obama refused to do.

Another incident critics cite is when Obama was still a Senator from Illinois and traveled to Iraq in 2007. General David Petraeus, then commanding U.S. forces for the war effort, gave Obama his assessment of the fight against al Qaeda and how to prosecute it. Obama disagreed with the general's analysis, arguing that Petraeus had it wrong.

Gates also was critical of Obama because "he has centralized power and operational activities of the government in the White House to a degree that I think is unparalleled. An NSC [National Security Council] staff of 450 people at this point."

Senior military officials have expressed frustration with the White House under Obama for micromanaging the Pentagon and keeping national security decisions isolated within the president's staff. Another former secretary of defense who served under Obama, Chuck Hagel, recently lambasted the president and his staff for "politically motivated micromanagement" and "debilitating meddling" of the military.

Gates himself has said on previous occasions that he was frustrated with how the White House dealt with the Pentagon.

"It was the operational micromanagement that drove me nuts, of White House and NSC staffers calling senior commanders out in the field ... second-guessing commanders," Gates told Fox News last fall.

"That's the kind of thing that made me crazy ... It was with the background of having served on the NSC under four presidents ... When I was deputy national security advisor, if I would have tried to call a field commander, going around Dick Cheney, who was Secretary of Defense, or Colin Powell, who was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, I'd of had my head handed to me, probably personally, by the president."

Gates has served under eight presidents in various high-level roles, including as secretary of defense for both George W. Bush and Barack Obama.