Ezra Klein (AKA Beltway Bob) is really coming up in the world. He somehow managed to get a gig writing a review of Ron Suskind’s book Confidence Men for the New York Review of Books. I’m impressed, I must admit.
As you probably guessed already, Klein is quite critical of the book. In fact he thinks Suskind should have written a completely different kind book instead–maybe even a couple of different kinds of books.
As I see it, Suskind set out to write an interesting and entertaining political book about Obama’s economic advisers, how they interacted with each other and the President, and how administration economic policy took shape over the first couple of years. The book is gossipy and very much focused on the people involved and their relationships with each other. As a psychologist, I found it fascinating to read Suskind’s insights.
Klein admits that
The work that went into Confidence Men cannot be denied. Suskind conducted hundreds of interviews. He spoke to almost every member of the Obama administration, including the President…He takes you inside…the Oval Office. He heads to Wall Street and back. He quotes memos no one else has published. He gives you scenes that no one else has managed to capture.
But that isn’t good enough. Klein disapproves of the gossipy, personality-centered tone of Confidence Men. He wants Suskind to provide evidence for his personal assessments of people. For example, Klein objects to Suskind’s description of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s appearance at Obama’s announcement that Elizabeth Warren would be working with Geithner to set up a consumer agency that she had first conceived of and then fought for. Although Warren didn’t know it yet, she would never head the agency, because Geithner had already made a deal with the bankers: they would accept a consumer agency as long as Warren wasn’t put in charge.
Here’s the passage that Klein found offensive:
This has caused discomfort not only for the president, but also for his top lieutenants, including the boyish man in the too-long jacket at Obama’s right hip, bunched cuffs around his shoes, looking more than anything like a teenager who just grabbed a suit out of dad’s closet. That’s Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, looking sheepish.
Klein so objected to this paragraph that he felt he had to go watch the announcement again himself, to see if Suskind’s description was accurate.
I prefer to verify. So I went back to the tape. I rewatched the September 2010 press conference where Obama introduced Warren to the country. I paid special attention to Geithner. Suskind’s right: his suit is too big. But he doesn’t look sheepish or ashamed. He looks, by turns, bored and interested. He clasps his hands behind his back. He nods attentively. He tries not to fidget. He looks like every experienced bureaucrat looks when they’re asked to stand like a prop near the president. Blank, and trying not to make any news. He failed.
But Klein doesn’t offer any evidence for his observations either. How can he know what Geithner was thinking–that he tried “not to fidget” and tried “not to make any news?” He can’t. Klein has shared his own observations and interpretations, just as Suskind did. But Klein finds it annoying. He didn’t want to read a book about people, based on the close observations and opinions of its author. No, Klein wanted a book about policy, and he felt that
…any account of what he [Obama] has done wrong, or what he could do right, needs to provide, first and foremost, a persuasive case of how the White House could have done more to promote an economic recovery over the last three years, or could do more to accelerate one now.
Klein wanted a wonky book, heavy on policy and light on human interest, and he can’t understand why Suskind wrote something different. Quite honestly, I think Klein should go right ahead and write a book like that if he wants to. It wouldn’t be as much fun to read as Suskind’s book, but it might make people like Matt Yglesias and Brad DeLong happy.
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Autumn brings campaigns and the chilly season. This year also seems to be bringing chilly retrospectives on the Obama Presidency. This Presidency has disappointed many. I think there’s finally some introspection going on within the Washington Press Corps as well as the retrospection. They may be wondering how they became so enamored of some one who seems so detached from leadership basics.
People have been leafing through their copies of Confidence Men. I read an article today by Ezra Klein called “Could this time have been different?” Klein almost steps outside of his Beltway Bob mentality. Almost. Klein is still making excuses for how the administration got the economy so wrong even though the tick tock and the economic rationale make sense. Now, politicos will have to read this one from Scott Wilson–the white house correspondent at WAPO–with it’s interesting title: “Obama, the loner president”. It seems the defining campaign moment should’ve have been “Why can’t I just eat my waffle” because Wilson says that’s how the president handles in job.
Beyond the economy, the wars and the polls, President Obama has a problem: people.
This president endures with little joy the small talk and back-slapping of retail politics, rarely spends more than a few minutes on a rope line, refuses to coddle even his biggest donors. His relationship with Democrats on Capitol Hill is frosty, to be generous. Personal lobbying on behalf of legislation? He prefers to leave that to Vice President Biden, an old-school political charmer.
Obama’s circle of close advisers is as small as the cluster of personal friends that predates his presidency. There is no entourage, no Friends of Barack to explain or defend a politician who has confounded many supporters with his cool personality and penchant for compromise.
Obama is, in short, a political loner who prefers policy over the people who make politics in this country work.
Great. Now they figure that out. Isn’t that just special?
So, the theme of the piece is the portrait of Obama as an isolated man about to head into a reelection campaign that’s looking more and more uphill. His only good fortune at the moment is the one candidate that’s most likely to beat him–Mitt Romney–is the one candidate that can’t appease the vast whacky, moralistic, reactionary Republican base. I’m actually thinking that if this does turn out to be a race between the two of them that we’re likely to see the lowest voter turnout ever. We might as well consider the theme to be dull and duller.
The Wilson ‘essay’ is based on conversations with White House “insiders” and allies over a period of time and although most aren’t named, you can assume that WAPO still does some due diligence in terms of vetting unnamed sources. Well, maybe I should replace that with you would hope they still do that. I’ve been supremely interested in the incredible amount of turnover that’s happened in the staff. It seems the economists all but fled the West Wing. Confidence Men only partially satiated my curiosity. The article points out the quick and easy political response that Obama is such an intellectual and policy wonk, so professory, that he’s got some highly developed form of the Carter disease. The White House still thinks there’s been some major accomplishments and that the press and the public have been slow to appreciate them. I still can’t figure out how highly compromised, marginally effective legislation is supposed to enthrall and inspire. Color me jaded. I’ve gotten way pass the eleven dimensional chess explanation. The article still trots that out.
To veterans of the campaign, though, it was more a matter of Washington not understanding the leadership upgrade that had just taken place. “He’s playing chess in a town full of checkers players,” a senior adviser and campaign veteran told me in the first months of the administration. Obama had a “different metabolism,” the aide explained.
“It’s not cockiness,” the adviser added, “it’s confidence.”
I wouldn’t have called it cockiness or confidence. I thought it was basic mismanagement by failing to identify-and effectively dispatch–the priorities that sent you to the office. People asked for a better economy and an end to wars. The other request was less torture, less domestic spying, and more respect for the constitution. What they got was the old Dole Health care plan of the 1990s, incredible bailouts for Wall Street, and more of the same. He totally got the agenda wrong. That doesn’t seem to account for much, however, if you read the article or any of t he other semi apologetic retrospectives I referenced above. The Washington Media still wants to like him and still wants to be right. They’ve developed an incredible stake in an Obama come back story.
When AIG was preparing to pay its executives millions in bonuses after receiving billions in bailouts, Obama’s inner populist and inner law professor couldn’t come to an agreement. He talked about contract law, then lashed out at the greed and moral bankruptcy of Wall Street, then urged the country not to scapegoat bankers.
Who was the president listening to? The academics, bankers and campaign operatives who populated his inner circle — with personalities much like his own.
White House officials invariably told me that Obama listened to everyone in meetings, then made decisions within a smaller group, rarely reaching outside the White House. “He’s not a guy that leans on others too much,” David Axelrod, his senior adviser at the time, told me in January 2010. “He processes things in his own mind.”
In that cerebral isolation, Obama used his first year in office to chase history rather than focus on the most immediate problem of the day — an economy shedding hundreds of thousands of jobs a month.
Biden, whose last-minute lobbying had helped push through the stimulus bill, and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, the frenetic former congressman from Chicago and onetime Bill Clinton adviser, were among the few who offered a feel for contact politics, a personal heat to offset Obama’s cool. They pressed the president to think and talk about jobs — the issue the public ranked as most important — above all else.
Instead, Obama chose health-care reform, a campaign pledge that promised him a place in American history and, in his technocratic take, would “bend the cost curve” of the country’s fiscal plight.
I wrote this years ago and I’ll write it again. I think Obama chose health care not because of anything else other than to prove he could push through something that was considered Hillary Clinton’s Waterloo. It often strikes me as supremely ironic that we got the Republican Health Care plan out of all that and now he owns it big time. The Lincoln Chaffee plan developed by the Heritage Foundation and anointed Dole Care that was adopted by Romney for Romney care is now ObamaCare. The Democrats burned decades of political capital passing the plan they fought against tooth and nail in 1993-1994. Quelle ironie!
So, this is the killer part of the story. It details acts of narcissism as some kind of Obama brand of empathy. This I really don’t get at all. How can a person that self-identifies with every one but misunderstands so many people be some kind of American every man?
On the stump, Obama is often the star of his own story, preferring a first-person identification with nearly any issue.
He has called himself the first Pacific president, embraced his Irish roots, joked about being part Polish because of the years he spent in Chicago and presented his up-by-the-bootstraps life as proof that America can dig itself out of its current hole.
The next part of the article contrasts the Obama style to Clinton. This makes Obama look like a complete fish out of water for the career he chose. As an example, the narrative moves to the President’s attempt to preach religion to the Congressional Black Caucus which managed to raise more than a few eyebrows.
He addressed the audience as one of them. But the first African American president has made clear that his race does not shape his policies, nor does he identify as a black politician. So his final command was puzzling, even infuriating, to some in the crowd.
“I expect all of you to march with me and press on,” he said. “Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying. We are going to press on. We’ve got work to do, CBC.”
To watch Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), a former CBC chair, address the president’s hectoring a few days later — she said Obama must have gotten “carried away” — was to watch someone unable to explain the motivations of someone she did not truly know.
This is where I want to actually head back to that Beltway Bob piece because Klein thinks there is actually some indication that the White House sees some of its missteps and may be making a course correction. You see some of the same narrative there as in the Wilson piece. Is this wishful thinking on their part or political calculus on the part of OFA?
“The biggest problem we had in terms of the loss of political capital is we came in and did a bunch of stuff, and things got worse,” says Ron Klain, who served as chief of staff to Biden. “And some of that was just bad luck. If we didn’t have the 22nd Amendment and Barack Obama became president in late March rather than in late January, things would have been much worse when we came in than they were. And then the Recovery Act would have come not in February, but in May. We would already have hit bottom, and it would seem like things were getting better.”
This has led to a what-if that torments the White House’s political team: What if it hadn’t taken on so much? The administration rushed from the second bucket of bailout funds to the stimulus to the auto-industry rescue to health care to climate change legislation to financial regulation. In a world where the economy was steadily recovering, Obama might have amassed a record comparable to Franklin Roosevelt’s. But as the situation slowly deteriorated, the American people turned against the administration’s crush of initiatives. The frenetic pace made the White House seem inattentive and unfocused amid a mounting crisis.
But the alternative is similarly difficult to imagine. No one believes that significantly reining in the agenda would have led to much more stimulus. Perhaps the president would have benefited politically from speaking more about jobs and less about health care, but then again, he had historic majorities in both houses of Congress and had come into office promising dramatic change.
Yes, I do think there was this miscalculation that a minimal stimulus built to look like a compromise was going to wave a magic wand over an economic crisis that stemmed from a financial meltdown. These kinds of crises drag on for decades. All we have to do is look at the Asian currency crises of 1997-1998 and Japan to figure that out. That even misses our own experience in the aftermath of the last two of ours in the 1920s and the 1870s. However, when you’re elected on an agenda to end wars, jump start the economy, and stop executive branch excesses and you do none of the above, how the hell do you explain yourself period? When you’re given such a clear agenda and you fail to lie out the strategies and get with the program and stick with it, it can only be called bad leadership and worse management. It’s been three continual years of this. No one else is going to pay attention to the other things when you never handle the basic mandate.
Again, I’m seeing these retrospectives as The Village trying to figure out how they get the narrative in 2008 so wrong. They still so want to be right about him. It’s hard for me to take anything Obama says too seriously now given the disconnect of the last three years from his political rhetoric of three years ago. I see it less as changing course and more as just trying to suck every one into the hope for change again. Frankly, I’m pretty disgusted and at this point, I see voting as futile exercise. Correct me if I’m wrong.