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Book review: Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President by Ron Suskind



President Obama has been out on the stump lately, plugging his new "tax the rich, create jobs" plan. The speech tour is as much an effort to win back disillusioned former supporters as to win over the great American political center. Some of his former supporters love the new, feistier Obama, but many of them are reacting with a ho-hum and a "Where the hell have you been?" attitude, like a scorned woman whose unreliable lover shows up after a three-year absence asking, "Do you still love me?"

Reasons for former Obama fans' misgivings can be found aplenty in Ron Suskind's new book about the current administration's first two years, Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President. As he did for The One Percent Doctrine, his piercing inside look at the Bush presidency, Suskind talked to a number of big White House players, then wove their stories together into a portrait of an administration's inner workings. The picture Suskind draws of the White House under Obama's leadership isn't exactly a confidence builder. After reading Confidence Men, I'm not sure the word "leadership" is the right word to describe Obama's role in his own organization. Voters knew Obama was relatively inexperienced when they elected him. In Suskind's book, though, the new president comes across as beyond inexperienced; more like "in over his head," strangely detached and almost passive — particularly in the early months when the White House struggled to keep the economy from a second Great Depression after they inherited a dangerous mess from the Cheney/Bush administration.

Most of the publicity accorded Suskind's book so far has been a recounting of Confidence Men's more surprising tales. It's an understandable press reaction, considering that those stories include a dysfunctional, bickering economic team rife with internal power games; an economic adviser, former Treasury Secretary and Harvard President Larry Summers, who seems to have thought he was elected president; and the former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Tim Geithner, who Suskind accuses of ignoring or deliberately stalling the implementation of some of Obama orders. According to Suskind, Larry Summers was a self-anointed gatekeeper to the Oval Office on economic issues, doing his best to keep advisers who had opinions differing from his own out of Obama's earshot. At one point, after talking to Obama about the country's financial muddle, he told budget director Peter Orszag, "We're home alone. There's no adult in charge. Clinton would never have made these mistakes."

Summers also emerges as the king of sexist pigs, in the accounts of former chair of the Council of Economic Advisers Christina Romer. Summers resigned in 2006 as president of Harvard after he told an academic conference that the reason fewer women succeed in science and math careers is due to a "different availability of aptitude at the high end."

Suskind reserves his sharpest critiques for Obama's choices for his economic team. Like many other observers and pundits, he is dumbfounded by Obama's decision to ditch the economic advisers who had guided him during the election campaign — former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, economist Joseph Stiglitz, and Professor Austan Goolsbee — and rely instead on Summers and Geithner, who in their previous governmental incarnations, "had contributed to the very financial disaster they were hired to solve." With those two in power, supposedly helping a new, inexperienced president, Obama's promises to carry out an array of new regulations for Wall Street turned into finding ways to save some of the financial world's most irresponsible institutions. Suskind offers a telling quote from Paul Volcker, Obama's chairman of the Economic Recovery Advisory Board and former chairman of the Federal Reserve. Volcker described Geithner's "first, do no harm" philosophy as being a delaying tactic that "always sounds reasonable" until matters get bad enough "where there'll be consensus that we need to act in a forceful way." Volcker noted, however, "you never get that consensus, because so many of the actors, the institutions and so forth, will follow their own self-interest right off a cliff."

So now Obama is listening again to some former advisors, and he's coming out swinging as the man who'll protect us from the nation's financial predators. He's a smart man, so maybe he's learned a few political lessons. Let's hope so, because as Suskind's book makes plain, Obama was one unsure, nearly lost soul during his first couple of years in office.

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