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.
Read the rest of this entry »
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.
I got my copy of Ron Suskind’s Confidence Men late this afternoon. I’ve only read two chapters so far, but I’ve found those quite interesting. After watching the above video, I’m not sure I agree with Suskind that Obama has grown and changed in office. I hope he’s right, but how many times has Obama said the “right thing” in a speech and then done the exact opposite? I’d love to be proven wrong, but I’ll believe it when I see it.
Certainly, most people who have read the book don’t see it as favorable to Obama, even though that’s Suskind’s spin in the above video. I’ll keep you posted as I work through the book, and I hope some of you will read it along with me.
So far, in the first couple of chapters, I’ve already encountered an example of blatant sexism that no one in the media has mentioned. The scene is a two-hour meeting between Obama and his economic team in August, 2007. The discussion turns to the possibility that the housing bubble would burst, tanking the economy. What would the President do then?
The men (no women are mentioned) begin talking about jobs and how more women are now going to college than men, and men are dropping out of the labor market. How would they create jobs for all these underemployed men? The fastest growing segment of the economy–then and now–was the health care industry. How could they funnel men into nursing, caring for the elderly, and so on. Here’s what Obama had to say:
“Look, these are guys…A lot of them see health care, being nurse’s aides as women’s work. They need to do something that fits with how they define themselves as men.”
Now that is just plain ridiculous. As someone who has dealt extensively with the health care system, including the mental health system and elder care, I can tell you that there are tons of men in those fields–male nurses, orderlies, aides, and administrators. But the consensus in the room is that Obama is correct:
“men like to build, to have something to show for their sweat and toil.”
Therefore the answer is infrastructure. Well I’m sorry, but not all men are cut out to be construction workers either. And what about the men in that room? They’re not doing physical labor. I guess there’s some class condescension going on there too. And does a person who cares for other people–say a nurse–actually have nothing to show for their work? What about if you saved a life? Is that nothing?
Anyway, I won’t get off on a rant–just wanted to share that. I’m looking forward to digging to the book. In my experience, authors often aren’t the best judges of what their work is saying. I think Suskind is partly trying to soft-pedal the negative stuff in the book and partly engaging in wishful thinking about Obama’s learning curve.
that the president is a “brilliant amateur” who got rolled by his economic advisors in the beginning but got better at managing with time – bruised but intact.
I say Obama is still getting rolled. Otherwise, why isn’t Tim Geithner gone?
There’s been a lot of right wing attacks on the Obama Jobs Act. I continue my befuddlement. In this looking glass reality of ours, a Democratic President has put forth an unimaginative ‘job creation’ act representing fairly conventional republican thinking. However, there’s so much Obama Derangement Syndrome among the Republicans–especially the rabid right wing teabots–that a plan that would have been perfectly acceptable under either of the Bushes or Reagan to deal with jobless is being held up as an extravaganza of tax and spend. Eric Cantor has released a memo that basically guts this tepid response to the high level of unemployment and unacceptable level of long term unemployment plaguing this country. There is something seriously wrong with that man. He’s listed the areas of agreement and they are all the parts of the bill that really aren’t going to create jobs at all. These are items like passing the free trade agreements negotiated during the Dubya years or patent reform and regulations reform or programs that aren’t going to be very effective like the ‘bridge to work’ program which is likely to create a revolving door of unpaid internships.
David Dayen has an analysis up at FDL so I don’t need to recreate that. He’s basically calculated that the House Republicans have taken the $447 billion Act to about a $11 billion blip. It may have started out a tepid, conventional plan but Cantor’s basically turned it into a give away to a few select groups. The only remaining portion that’s not disagreeable is help for returning veterans. The rest won’t do a damned bit of good.
As you may know, the AJA is comprised of about 57% tax cuts and 43% spending initiatives. So in the main, House Republican leaders tossed out the spending and embraced a few of the tax cuts. They also rejected the tax hikes on corporations and the wealthy to pay for the bill.
Grok that? It’s 57% more worthless tax cuts that haven’t done a damned thing for the last 11 years but undermined the Federal Budget. I’ve heard a lot of Democrats think it’s wonderful just because Obama put it out there. Again, this is a conventional republican republican policy that probably would’ve come from some one like Bob Dole in the past. This is getting old. The republicans will say no to anything Obama puts out there and Obama is putting their kind of policy out there and the democrats won’t say no to it.
Meanwhile, there’s a number of really bad things that result from persistent jobless happening as we speak to millions of Americans. Here’s some examples from Sarah Murray at the WSJ who reviewed an academic paper on long term salaries of folks laid off during recessions. The bottom line is that their incomes will remained depressed for a huge period of time when they finally get jobs. That’s just the monetary impact.
When a worker was laid off, his earnings dropped steeply at the time of the layoff and eventually experienced a kind of recovery. But “The earnings losses do not completely fade even after 20 years,” the paper states. That’s true even when the economy is doing well. When the economy is performing poorly, the initial earnings loss is steeper.
Workers who were laid off in recessions experienced, on average, $112,095 in income losses — three years of pre-layoff earnings. Those laid off in expansionary times experienced a $65,424 loss.
The negative impacts of job losses extended beyond the financial hit, affecting workers’ health, mortality outcomes, child achievement levels and happiness.
“The negative consequences of job displacement, and fears of job displacement, are among the main reasons that recessions and high levels of unemployment create so much concern in the general population and among politicians,” the paper states.
So, I guess in order to play out political games we’re going to embrace all these negative consequences for the large number of people that have been experiencing unemployment over the last few years. It’s just really disgusting. The jobs bridge plan–or as we liked to call it here the federal version of the Georgia Slave Act–brought to mind this program in Hungary where you have to go to a Labor Camp in order to collect unemployment.
Wielding scythes and pitchforks, about 30 men and women hack through brambles on a hillside above the Hungarian village of Gyöngyöspata. With the nearest road more than a half mile away, workers have to hike in with food and water for the day. For bathroom and lunch breaks, they duck into a thicket that offers the only shade in the 98F heat. “It’s degrading to work in these conditions,” says Károly Lakatos, a 38-year-old father of three who was laid off earlier this year from his forklift-operator job in an auto parts factory. When his unemployment benefits ran out, the government assigned him to a brigade clearing land owned by the village.
If Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has his way, hundreds of thousands of Hungarians will soon join similar squads. Under a plan approved by Parliament in July, by 2012 some 300,000 people will be working in community service jobs—doing everything from picking up trash to building stadiums—instead of drawing welfare or unemployment benefits. Hungary will no longer “give benefits to those capable of work, when there is much work to be done,” Orbán said in June. The effort is part of the ruling Fidesz Party’s 2010 election pledge to create 1 million jobs over the next decade.
Is this what the jobs act will become? More tax cuts for the political donor class and labor camps for the folks that don’t work for them at depressed wages?
At the same time we get Obama’s second Republican style whack at our economy–in other words a big speech with a small stick–more news keeps coming out about how really, truly dysfunctional the Obama team of economists has been. Have you noticed how many have gotten out of the White House quickly as if they were really worried about their reputations or sanity? One more sneak peak was granted for the Suskind book “Confidence Men” in New York Magazine prior to its Tuesday release. It has me even less enthused about anything coming out of Obama policy advisers than before. Read some of this back and forth between Andrew Moss and Frank Rich who read the book and conclude that that Obama has stuck himself and the US in an economic quagmire. It just doesn’t give one confidence in the policy process, the advisers or the president. This one is from Frank Rich.
I guess I thought Geithner’s role was more shocking just because I have become inured to tales of Summers’s outrageousness, dating back to his ill-fated presidency of Harvard. Particularly damning in Suskind’s narrative is that when Summers says “there’s no adult in charge” in the White House, he’s actually right — and appoints himself as adult in charge, Alexander Haig–style. Summers was in charge, all right, but he behaved like a child and little got done except derailing the president’s initiatives — he even blocked Obama’s agenda of tough climate-change legislation.
But the buck stops with Obama. There’s a poignant moment of sorts in December 2008 when the North Dakota senator Byron Dorgan implores the president-elect not to go with his economic team. “I don’t understand how you could do this,” he tells him. “You’ve picked the wrong people!” As indeed Obama did, under the tutelage of Robert Rubin, who also tried to finagle a White House guru role for himself, not unlike the perch from which he helped wreak havoc at Citigroup during its subprime orgy. So Suskind’s book often reads like Halberstam’s “Best and the Brightest,” with Summers and Geithner as McNamara and Bundy. But the quagmire isn’t a neo-Vietnam like Afghanistan — it’s the economy, and the casualties are measured in lost jobs. After the stimulus bill passed in February 2009, Suskind writes, “little else happened on the jobs front for a year and a half,” with proposals being “talked to death without resolution.”
Take this response from Andrew Moss:
I kept flipping back and forth between fury at Obama and — I know I’m easy — sympathy. So much of the damage comes from the initial decision to hire these guys, a decision he had to make almost immediately after being elected. He was inexperienced, he needed help, they burned him, he let them — that’s the story in brief. The number of stupefyingly momentous decisions he had to make in those first few months put me in a vicarious panic. There was no obvious path, the way I read it — though in your view, I suspect, the choices were clearer. Though we’ll never know for sure what other solutions might have worked, the book is a litany of missed opportunities, particularly with respect to financial reform (one banker after another wonders incredulously — and anonymously — why Obama didn’t pin them when they were down). Would some other president have had more success?
One thing you’re struck with is how bizarre it is that Obama has this job in the first place. Obama feels that too — and it gives him a deluded sense of his own magical powers. “Look, I feel lucky,” he says. “Just look at me. My name is Barack Hussein Obama and I’m sitting here.” He’s cocky, but also kind of amazed. What an astonishing blend of good and bad luck the man has had — the unusual cocktail of circumstances that brought him to the White House, and the pretty much impossible situation he faced when he got there. Which is not to say it’s not agonizing to watch him, in the book, fail time after time to make the big, bold move — the book is a narrative after all, and passivity (or, to be fair, caution), does not become a protagonist.
Frankly, the ones who should have every one’s sympathy are the vast number of people whose lives will be forever upended by this vast, deep unemployment. They are the ones to whom the pranksters in the Republican party and the dumbstruck Democrats should think about but do not. Again, Republicans are rejecting conventional, mild mannered, ineffective republican policy simply because it’s coming from a Democrat and Democrats are supporting it simply because that’s all the President and his team seem to be able to come up with and he’s a democrat. They all may be democratically elected but they continue to prove that they represent no one but themselves and their corporate owners. We’ve got a great history of what does and does not work to get the economy out of horrible places and they’re ignoring it all to force us to play political musical chairs. It’s just not right.
Oh, and if you want to be flabbergasted at more villagers, Steve Chapman at the Chicago Trib has basically written an op-ed that suggests Obama step down and Hillary Clinton step in and clean the place up. Now, he’s not exactly on my list of enlightened op-ed writers since he writes at Reason and the National Review too, but sheesh, he’s using Democrats words to support the argument so it’s worth a read. I think every one feels we’re drowning in an economic quagmire now and we need the best person out there to guide us out. I’ve skipped the first part but the last part is worthy of mention here.
Besides avoiding this indignity, Obama might do his party a big favor. In hard times, voters have a powerful urge to punish incumbents. He could slake this thirst by stepping aside and taking the blame. Then someone less reviled could replace him at the top of the ticket.
The ideal candidate would be a figure of stature and ability who can’t be blamed for the economy. That person should not be a member of Congress, since it has an even lower approval rating than the president’s.
It would also help to be conspicuously associated with prosperity. Given Obama’s reputation for being too quick to compromise, a reputation for toughness would be an asset.
As it happens, there is someone at hand who fits this description: Hillary Clinton. Her husband presided over a boom, she’s been busy deposing dictators instead of destroying jobs, and she’s never been accused of being a pushover.
Not only that, Clinton is a savvy political veteran who already knows how to run for president. Oh, and a new Bloomberg poll finds her to be merely “the most popular national political figure in America today.”
If he runs for re-election, Obama may find that the only fate worse than losing is winning. But he might arrange things so it will be Clinton who has the unenviable job of reviving the economy, balancing the budget, getting out of Afghanistan and grappling with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Obama, meanwhile, will be on a Hawaiian beach, wrestling the cap off a Corona.
Meanwhile, I’m on the job market AND wrestling the cap off of an Abita. Frankly, the only people that deserve to be jobless in this country are all working in the beltway right now.