Ezra Klein Reviews “Confidence Men,” and Finds it Sorely Lacking

Ezra Klein, AKA Beltway Bob

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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The Big Beltway Chill

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.


Late Night: “Confidence Men”

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.

Here is Politico’s take on what the “narrative” of the book is:

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?


Beltway Bob Rationalizes Obama’s Blunders, while Michael Tomasky Sees a “Scared President”

Beltway Bob

Okay, I realize that is a silly title, but after reading Beltway Bob’s Ezra Klein’s latest post and then reading the transcript of Barack Obama’s Rose Garden speech from this morning, I was feeling a little bit punchy.

Dakinikat recently called Ezra Klein “Beltway Bob,” or the Bagdad Bob of the Beltway. That’s a perfect name for Klein, who is apparently way too young to remember anything about politics before about 1990. The guy is naive beyond belief. Lately he seems to see his role as explaining away all of Obama’s blunders, usually by arguing that the President is just too good and moral for the rough and tumble of politics.

This morning, Klein set out to explicate the “deficit reduction plan” that Obama announced in his speech this morning. Specifically, Klein wanted to explain “why the White House changed course.”

President Obama’s deficit-reduction plan (pdf)
is most interesting for what’s not in it. It does not cut Social Security by “chaining” the program’s cost-of-living increases. It does not raise the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 67. Nor does it include any other major concessions to Republicans. Rather, the major compromise it makes is with political reality — a reality that the White House would prefer not to have had to acknowledge.

Since the election, the Obama administration’s working theory has been that the first-best outcome is striking a deal with Speaker John Boehner and, if that fails, the second-best outcome is showing that they genuinely, honestly wanted to strike a deal with Speaker John Boehner.

That was the thinking that led the White House to reward the GOP’s debt-ceiling brinksmanship by offering Boehner a “grand bargain” that cut Social Security, raised the Medicare age, and included less new revenue than even the bipartisan Gang of Six had called for. It was also a theory that happened to fit Obama’s brand as a postpartisan uniter and his personal preferences for campaigning on achievements rather than against his opponents. But though it came close to happening, the “grand bargain” ultimately fell apart. Twice.

The collapse of that deal taught them two things: Boehner doesn’t have the internal support in his caucus to strike a grand bargain with them, and the American people don’t give points for effort.

Very likely you’re asking yourself, “What the heck does that mean?” I certainly was when I first read it. Is this guy trying to tell us that no one in the White House understood until recently that Boehner had a bunch of looney-tunes tea party reps to deal with? Is he really trying to convince us that–after all those years in Illinois politics and his admittedly short time in national politics–that Obama and/or his advisers actually did not understand that voters expect results, not “just words?”

The answer is “yes.” Beltway Bob does expect you to believe that. The rest of his column is devoted to explaining in great detail that Obama and his advisers actually believed that voters would be thrilled if he made nice with Republicans even if it meant selling out every Democratic ideal–that if the President “looked like a nice guy,” the voters–especially Independents, I guess–would rush to the polls to reelect him.

But now, according to Beltway Bob, the White House staff and the President understand that they made a huge mistake: “the second-best outcome isn’t necessarily looking like the most reasonable guy in the room. It’s looking like the strongest leader in the room.” So that’s why Obama threatened to veto any plan that cuts Medicare or Medicaid and he has for now supposedly taken Social Security off the table. It’s all so sad, according to Beltway Bob–poor Barack has had to go back on all his ideals (those ideals apparently being that he wanted to a great compromiser, while caring nothing about the effects of his compromises) and accept “politics as usual.” Boo-hoo-hoo.

Rather than emphasizing his willingness to meet Boehner’s bottom lines, which was the communications strategy during the debt ceiling showdown, he’s emphasizing his unwillingness to bend on his bottom lines.

That isn’t how the White House would prefer to govern. It’s not how they would prefer to campaign. It is, let’s admit it, politics-as-usual. It’s the triumph of the old way of doing things, an admission that Washington proved too hard to change. But it’s also the only option they have left.

Ezra Beltway Bob can’t seem to recall the hundreds of times that Obama has vowed to draw lines in the sand and then quickly backtracked–not to mention all the Campaign promises he went back on. But why on earth should anyone with a functioning memory believe this hogwash?

Frankly, IMHO, if Obama has in fact taken Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid changes off the table–which I strongly doubt–it’s probably because he’s scared silly that Americans are finally seeing through his lies.

If you read the transcript of Obama’s speech, you’ll see that he sounds defensive, hesitant, scared of his own shadow. This morning he called for the wealthy to pay at least 20% of their income in taxes. We are supposed to buy that that is a tax increase. Yet under Bush, the wealthiest Americans were supposed to pay 35%, already an unconscionably low rate–why not make them pay that much at least?

Michael Tomasky

Because our President is a scaredy cat, that’s why! I think the change–if it’s real–has everything to do with the news that has come out about Ron Suskind’s new book Company Men, which will be released tomorrow. The news reports about the book make Obama sound like a weak, passive, detached executive who lets his underlings push him around. Michael Tomasky at the Daily Beast calls him “The Scared President.”

Tomasky notes that he was persuaded by what Suskind wrote about the Bush administration in a previous book.

I’m on record as taking Suskind at his word in such matters. In early 2004, when Suskind and Bush Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill produced The Price of Loyalty, I reviewed it for The New York Times and found it persuasive.That book was the first to confirm what everyone knew anyway: that the Bush White House was run according to politics, not policy. Confidence Men also confirms what we knew about Obama’s White House: that the president appointed the wrong economic team from the start, failed to crack down on the banks, and was Solomonic to a fault when formulating responses to the financial crisis (oh, and news flash: Larry Summers is hard to work with!).

That would be interesting without being shocking. But the indictment goes one mortifying step deeper: Geithner and Summers and Rahm Emanuel, and perhaps others, sometimes ignored Obama, refused to carry out his orders, and, in Summers’s case, mocked him, saying at one point to then-Budget Director Peter Orszag that “there’s no adult in charge” in the White House. And while I don’t yet know whether Suskind emphasizes this point, let’s carry the critique one step further: They did so, as far as we know, without suffering any consequences at all.

No matter how much the White House tries to deny the details that have come out on Suskind’s book, the overall takeaway is that Obama is weak and indecisive. And that is the impression that most Americans have about him already, so why should they disbelieve it? Tomasky:

That’s the problem the book reveals. Adam Moss and Frank Rich of New York magazine did get an early copy and read it, and in an online dialogue posted over the weekend, they home in on what Rich calls Obama’s “intellectual blind spot.” Obama even recognized it himself, telling Suskind he was too inclined to look for “the perfect technical answer” to problems; Rich quotes Suskind as writing that Obama always favored policies that were “respectfully acknowledging opponents’ positions, even those with thin evidence behind them, that then get stitched together into some pragmatic conclusion—but hollow.”

That sounds awfully apt to me. Obama was afraid to be the president. He listened to a dozen viewpoints and tried to come up with something that made everyone happy. Unfortunately, “everyone” included people on his team who were looking out for the banks more than for the public (or for their own boss), and it included people on Capitol Hill whose clear agenda was Obama’s political destruction. It’s the central—and depending on how the next election turns out, possibly decisive—paradox of this president: In trying way too hard to look presidential in the sense of “statesmanlike,” he has repeatedly ended up looking unpresidential in the sense of not being a leader.

Obama wasn’t ready to be President in 2008, and he still isn’t. Tomasky claims to have hopes that Obama can turn it around, but I think it’s just too late. There have been too many lies, too many betrayals of campaign promises, too many sellouts to Wall Street and the Republicans, and too many reversals of supposed lines in the sand.

Perhaps if Obama were capable of followingJames Carville’s advice and fired most of his staff and stood up to Wall Street and the Republicans, as Tomasky hopes. But Obama simply can’t do it. He’s too weak and inexperienced.

Whether you look at Obama through the eyes of Beltway Bob and conclude that this President is just too good and holy for “politics as usual” or through the eyes of Tomasky and conclude that Obama is scared of his own advisers and of Republicans in Congress, this man is simply not qualified for the office he holds. Obama must go. There is no other realistic solution to the country’s problems.