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Washington’s alpha male administration

Dennis Altman

29 November 2011

Dennis Altman reviews Ron Suskind’s account of Barack Obama’s presidency


Barack Obama and his first economic team (from left): Christina Romer, Timothy Geithner, Peter Orszag and Lawrence H. Summers. Talk Radio News Service

Barack Obama and his first economic team (from left): Christina Romer, Timothy Geithner, Peter Orszag and Lawrence H. Summers. Talk Radio News Service

Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President
By Ron Suskind | HarperCollins | $44.95

TO AN American, President Obama’s triumphant visit to Australia might have seemed like a return to that moment of triumph and hope when he was elected three years ago. Having come to office in the midst of economic decline, though, he has so far failed to reverse the apparent collapse of dynamism in the American economy.

That millions of Americans are disillusioned with their economic and political system has been demonstrated by the rise of the Tea Party and, more recently, the Occupy Wall Street movement. Obama’s failure to turn the economy around is also the focus of Ron Suskind’s book, which offers a sometimes confusing blow-by-blow account of Obama’s economic education and the struggles inside the White House to develop appropriate economic policies.

Obama the candidate was far better prepared to deal with the financial slowdown than was Obama the president, Suskind suggests. Indeed, as he reminds us, the turning point in the 2008 election campaign came when President Bush held a summit meeting with Obama and the Republican candidate John McCain at which it was clear that Obama was the best informed. On this reading, the new president’s failure stemmed from a loss of nerve when he made key appointments. His apparent assurance about how to manage the economy disappeared.

Suskind quotes Obama as admitting that “there was no narrative, no story to tell, because there was no guiding vision” during his first year. One wonders if Obama shared this insight with Julia Gillard when they spent time together in November. Or perhaps they spoke of the shared experience of governing without automatic legislative majorities – the norm in the United States, of course, where the division of powers between president and Congress and the independence of legislators from party discipline mean that the occupant of the White House must bargain to win the passage of any contentious legislation.

Increased partisanship, and the Republican triumph in last year’s mid-term elections, has made this process far tougher for Obama than most of his predecessors, with the exception of Clinton in his second term. Indeed, negotiating with the Greens and independents in Canberra would seem like a walk in the park beside the problems of persuading increasingly recalcitrant Republicans to support tax reform and greater stimulus spending.

Suskind’s account of Obama’s presidency is remarkably silent on the problems of dealing with Congress. He barely mentions John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, the Republican leaders in the House and Senate, focusing instead on the failures of his two central villains within the administration, Larry Summers, head of the National Economic Council, and Treasury secretary Tim Geithner.

Overall, though, Suskind’s thesis is persuasive. Obama brought into office men – and they were almost all of them men – who were deeply implicated in a system that had demonstrably failed, and whose instincts were against radical action to change that system. To appoint to most of the top economic positions people whose enthusiasm for deregulation had helped precipitate the financial crisis showed both timidity and a lack of judgement.

In this account, Summers and Geithner are the confidence men who, as Suskind writes of Summers, “could will into being the confidence that eluded others – those less self-assured and, maybe sensibly, on humbler terms with the complexities of the world.” In a sense, Obama is a “confidence man” too, assuring the electorate he knew how to rescue the economy.

Obama’s dilemma was one faced in Australia by Labor governments: even mildly reformist governments need to reassure the markets, and in so doing they appoint people who make the task of reform that much more difficult. It appears there were divisions of consequence within Obama’s inner circle of advisers, which is the most interesting revelation of the book. That nationalising failing banks (an idea precipitated by the possible collapse of Citigroup) could even be considered within the administration is an indication of the gravity of the crisis the United States faced.

Suskind provides interesting details about the failure of the White House to foresee that after Edward Kennedy’s death a Republican could capture the vacant Senate seat in Massachusetts, thus ending Democratic control of the Senate. This story is more interesting because one of Suskind’s favoured sources is Elizabeth Warren, who struggled to make the new Consumer Financial Protection Agency effective, and who is currently campaigning to regain that Senate seat for the Democrats. Warren had a strained relationship with the president, and one of Suskind’s contentions is that Obama was not good at working with senior women and was not sensitive to the impact of the behaviour of the alpha males around him. In time, the memoirs of Hillary Clinton or the one-time House speaker (now minority leader) Nancy Pelosi might give us greater insight into this assertion.

Confidence Men doesn’t seriously address the full range of policies promised in the publisher’s blurb. The subtitle of the book is more accurate: “Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President.” How President Obama deals with the most recent impasse of Congress, which has failed to find agreement on how to deal with spiralling national deficit, will be the real test of Suskind’s thesis.

Obama’s original plan to surmount the partisan politics of Washington has failed, and he is about to embark on a campaign for re-election that favours him only because the Republicans are struggling to find an electable candidate whom they like. He now has to make a plausible case that he will manage the economic decline differently in future, and to confront head on the illusion that maintaining tax breaks for the wealthy can continue while the deficit increases.

Suskind is a journalist by training, and a journalist desperately in need of a serious blue pencil. The book acknowledges the support of an executive editor, an assistant editor and an agent, none of whom apparently told him that Confidence Men needed drastic pruning and reshaping to make it readable. The book leaps confusingly from Obama in office to Obama campaigning for the presidency, from detailed accounts of exotic financial manipulations to near parody of action thrillers. “Carmine Visione looked out of his twelfth story window at one of Lehman Brothers’ midtown Manhattan offices,” Suskind reports. “On a warm late-April day they’d just put out the awning and the outdoor tables at Bice, his favourite Italian restaurant.”

Visione, who worked at Lehman Brothers, is one of a large cast of characters who weave their way through this book, often disappearing for hundreds of pages at a time only to reappear briefly – in his case, while driving his blue Mercedes through Brooklyn, no longer “having thoughts of suicide.” With patience and a large whiteboard it might be possible to follow a large cast of Wall Street and White House insiders through the book, but the narrative skill that its author believes Obama lost is also missing here.

Sometimes Suskind’s ability as a journalist shines through, though, as in his account of the clash of values between new and old money at a gathering of the very rich at the Rockefeller estate north of New York City. Such moments are rare. The book is published by Harper Collins, a News Corporation imprint, and shares with some columnists in another of the group’s outlets, the Australian, the tendency to be repetitive and portentous. •

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