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Inside Obama's War Room

Author: Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow
March 11, 2009
The Daily Beast


If you were allowed to perch inside the Situation Room at the White House and listen to a National Security Council meeting, you’d find the most centralized and controlled operation, well, ever. It is an Obama-centric system. The president sets the schedule of meetings, runs the discussions with an iron hand, actually calls on attendees to talk, and usually ends the session by making decisions at the table. And either because of his command personality and style or the moderate consensus of the participants or both, they are getting along with each other better than any group of NSC officials in memory.

It’s hard to escape the feeling that some of the Obama decisions fall into the category of change for change’s sake.

The principal participants in these meetings, besides the president, are: Vice President Joe Biden; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; Defense Secretary Bob Gates; National Security Adviser Jim Jones; his deputy, Tom Donilon; another deputy, Denis McDonough (known as Obama’s enforcer); and intelligence chiefs Dennis Blair and Leon Panetta. Key aides from the departments and NSC staff also attend, depending on the subject.

Historically, the meetings have been more or less informal, with the national-security adviser running the sessions, asking questions, making sure the agenda gets covered. Participants joined in as they had something to say, often interrupting each other. Presidents, of course, intervened as they wished to comment or question. Only on rare occasions did presidents actually make decisions at the table.


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