By Lee H. Hamilton
Here’s a basic truth about people who make decisions on public policy: they rarely have all the facts they want. Over the years, I’ve sat in countless meetings in which, after we’d reached a sticking point, someone said in exasperation, “Well, what are the facts?” We’d all look around the room because, no matter how much information was already on the table, a key fact that would help us move forward was missing. Yet policy has to get made anyway.
No one is confronted more often with this conundrum than the President of the United States, though members of Congress can come close. The challenge is that purported facts are dynamic — they keep changing. Additional facts come to light. Others are found to be wrong. Some are clearly reliable, others dubious. Some plain facts are highly controversial, while other “settled” facts are overturned by time. And regardless, they come at high-level policy makers quickly, relentlessly, from all directions, and from all kinds of sources.
So how do presidents and others sort through all this? They get a lot of information, of course, by consulting with experts. Every president forms a cadre of men and women he relies on — sometimes limited in number, sometimes quite extensive. In the chances I’ve had to observe these people at work, I’ve been impressed by how thoughtful, well-articulated, and solid the advice presidents receive usually is. Then, of course, there are the more formal sources of information, such as the Joint Chiefs, members of the cabinet, and the President’s Daily Brief, which reviews the information, data, and intelligence rounded up by the CIA from all of the American security and surveillance agencies.
Presidents have a lot of memos prepared for them, though not all read them. To be sure, they need the information to be condensed. They don’t have the time, patience, or inclination to delve deeply into a topic. Most policy makers are good listeners, able to absorb information quickly. We’ve had some remarkable intellects among our presidents, people like Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, who were able to take in vast amounts of information and advice, understand it quickly, and sort through it effectively.
Presidents and other policy makers pay attention to the news, of course. Many of them have several television sets in their offices, so that they can keep track both of the news of the day and how it’s covered. They follow the media pundits, who articulate the facts and present them from their own slant, because many of these men and women have vast audiences and it’s important to know what they’re telling their followers. Social media and online commentary are at a more bewildering and less developed stage, but there’s no question they can affect the thinking of millions of Americans. Not surprisingly, presidents differ on how systematically and thoroughly they do this fact-gathering, but generally they seek out sources of information with different perspectives and biases.
Presidents and members of Congress also rely on academics and think tanks: places like the Brookings Institution, the Rand Corporation, the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation — though which they listen to depends on their ideology. All, however, are in the game and strive hard to be presidential advisers. Most presidents, at least since the economist Walter Heller became a confidant of John F. Kennedy, have paid especially close attention to economists they trust.
Faith leaders are also an important source of information and advice. Like well-known pundits, many of them have significant influence among Americans on questions of values, and presidents will often call several together, often privately, to gather their insights.
This whole process, of course, has immense value — you don’t want a president to make decisions based on false information. It goes on constantly behind the scenes, often for weeks before we ordinary citizens hear the first presidential peep on a given subject. But I’d argue it’s also getting more difficult as sources of reliable and unreliable information multiply. That’s why, in the end, it is so vital for a president to be able to rely on advisers and professionals who can help the president sort out what’s true and what’s not.
Lee Hamilton is a senior advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government and a professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs; and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.