'Confidence Men' by Ron Suskind
Obama portrayed struggling in first 2 years on economy
'Confidence Men' (September 30, 2011)
That's exactly what President Barack Obama did in his first two years of office, according to a controversial new book by Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Ron Suskind.
"Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and The Education of a President" portrays an inexperienced president struggling to manage an administration dominated by outsize male egos frazzled by epic economic challenges: stabilizing giant banks and a dilapidated auto industry, reforming Wall Street and pushing for health care.
Often, Suskind says, key lieutenants such as National Economic Council head Lawrence Summers and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner either ignored or delayed Obama's decisions.
The story of a conflicted administration comes at a sensitive moment for Obama as he continues to grapple with a stagnant economy, an increasingly depressed public and Republican presidential candidates doubting his ability to lead.
Political pundits, meanwhile, have relished the juicy score-settling the book offers, while a few of its subjects have accused Suskind of mischaracterizing or outright misquoting them.
The heart of the roughly 500-page book is Obama's economic team, led by Summers, portrayed as an imperious, tantrum-prone diva.
As the administration struggles to stabilize the economy, Summers leads economic meetings that devolve into aimless "debate societies" in which critical questions are debated to death but consensus is rarely reached, let alone policies unified.
Obama is often seen as a distant, poor moderator, "who would sit on high, trying to judge if there was any shared ground between the competing debate teams that might coalesce into a policy," Suskind writes.
Suskind is known for distilling insider accounts into novelistic narratives, as he did with "The One Percent Doctrine," his 2006 best-seller on the post-9/11 anti-terrorism strategy of Vice President Dick Cheney.
Suskind says he drew on more than 200 interviews, including a 50-minute interview with Obama, for "Confidence Men."
Action-packed anecdotes abound as he traces the economic dramas of Obama's first two years: Rick Wagoner is left speechless in Washington after car czar Steven Rattner asks him to resign as General Motors CEO, while across town the CEOs of the 13 largest banks await a critical meeting with Obama, "nervous in ways that these men are never nervous."
Women push back against the boys club and come off as heroes. Elizabeth Warren, champion of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and FDIC Chairwoman Sheila Bair press for more substantive reforms but have trouble getting through to the president, Suskind says.
It's not until after the November 2010 midterm elections that Obama's footing seems more assured.
A month later, Obama dismissed deals Biden negotiated with Senate leaders and hashed out an agreement himself with Republican Leader Mitch McConnell to exchange the extension of the Bush tax cuts for high-income Americans for a yearlong extension of unemployment benefits and a payroll tax cut.
Suskind writes, "Obama had simply taken control of the matter. He was sitting in the space his presidency had created. He owned it."
By Ron Suskind
Harper, 528 pages, $29.99