New book doesn't tell all about Obama administration
A new book about the Obama administration does not exactly paint a flattering picture of the nation’s first black president and the internal workings of his White House.
The book, written by Pulitzer prize-winning writer Ron Suskind, is called Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President. And the book — touted as an insider’s view of the White House with interviews from over 200 insiders — has a great deal to say about Obama and the ways that he runs things — or doesn’t run things.
“By being himself — an alluring and inspiring self, supremely confident yet expressing humility, speaking powerfully grabbing history’s arc and bending it toward justice — Obama became the first black president,” Suskind writes. “But more and more, walking the halls of this building, he doesn’t feel like himself — someone who could bring people together, who could map common ground and, upon it, build a future.”
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If we are to believe the charges made by Suskind, then it helps us to understand the context behind the president’s policy decisions. For those Obama supporters and others who criticized his tendency to negotiate away the store when dealing with his Republican adversaries, his slowness to respond to the jobs crisis and bring about the change everyone sought in 2008, this book puts some meat on the bones.
Confidence Men has been criticized for focusing solely on this president’s failures and wallowing in them, while ignoring his various successes. And while the criticisms in this book are substantial, we should not turn away from them but rather embrace them and understand them. Perhaps there will be some lessons learned in a second Obama administration, I say with fingers crossed — hoping there is a second Obama administration, and praying they leave some of the baggage behind and channel FDR and Lincoln, but in the spirit of Dr. King. Nevertheless, we have to acknowledge the accomplishments of the Obama White House and own those as well.
Essentially, Ron Suskind creates for the reader on paper an administration filled with dysfunction, incompetence, sexism and a hostile work environment for women. Moreover, Obama’s soldiers undermine him as they engage in infighting and refuse to follow orders.
On the one hand there is Larry Summers, an overbearing, know-it-all economic advisor who reportedly told another senior aide that “We’re home alone; there’s no adult in charge. Clinton would never have made these mistakes.”
Speaking of Summers, President Obama said “there is no doubt that I brought in a bunch of folks who understand the financial markets, the same way, by the way, that FDR brought in a lot of folks who understood the financial markets after the crash, including Joe Kennedy, because my number-one job at that point was making sure that we did not have a full-fledged financial meltdown.”
“To compare Geithner and Summers to Joe Kennedy is a reach. Kennedy was so instrumental for Roosevelt in setting up the Securities and Exchange Commission because he knew Wall Street from the inside as a master operator, had made all the money he could ever need, and, crucially was bursting with zeal to move into the public sector and never look back, even if it meant that his old colleagues from Wall Street wouldn’t invite him to dinner ever again,” Suskind suggests.
“There has been no one remotely like this in a position of real power under Obama, especially not Summers or Geithner. The irony of Obama’s Joe Kennedy reference is that a comparable figure, in equal measures expert and unencumbered, is precisely what he needed, and lacked. This is something Obama surely knows at this point,” he adds.
Then there is Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who ignored Obama’s directive to break up Citibank and dragged his feet. “The Citbank incident, and others like it, reflected a more pernicious and personal dilemma emerging from inside the administration: that the young president’s authority was being systematically undermined or hedged by his seasoned advisers,” Suskind writes.One poignant example of the problems in the Obama White House is the story of Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard law professor turned senatorial candidate whose brainchild was the creation of a new consumer financial protection agency. Geithner, says Suskind, “huddled with top aides to develop what one called an ‘Elizabeth Warren strategy,’ a plan to engage with the firebrand reformer that would render her politically inert.”
The result was an agency that was shrunk into a bureau reporting to the Federal Reserve, as the banking industry wanted, to undermine its powers. The industry demanded that Warren not be allowed to run the bureau, and their demands were met.
And apparently, Rahm Emanuel was not Obama’s first choice for chief of staff. According to the author, when the Chicago mayoral race rolled around, the president could not wait to show Rahm the door.
Key White House players have denied the unflattering characterizations in the book, which makes sense, given that this is politics.
In many ways, Suskind’s narrative in Confidence Men reinforces a longstanding feeling that President Obama has placed far too much faith in Wall Street types with an Ivy League pedigree, given the populist, grassroots nature of his presidential campaign. And they have not served him well, crippling his ability to fight the financial sector during a time of deep, protracted economic suffering for ordinary Americans — including a foreclosure and unemployment crisis that has destroyed a great chunk of black and Latino wealth and has driven millions into poverty.
As Frank Rich of New York magazine aptly described of Obama, “He falls hard for the best and the brightest white guys. He stocked his administration with brilliant personnel linked to the bubble: liberals, and especially Ivy League liberals. Nearly three years on, they have taken a toll both on the White House’s image and its policies.”
All of this reminds me of Lyndon Johnson’s reliance on America’s “best and brightest” corporate bean counters to prosecute an unnecessary and deadly war in Vietnam. Johnson’s Defense secretary Robert McNamara managed the war like a badly run business, through smoke and mirrors and by cooking the books. The Vietnam War, which acted as a costly distraction from the War on Poverty, led LBJ over a one-term cliff in the process.
Yet Obama, like Johnson and other presidents before him, is only human like the rest of us. And there is every indication that this president realizes that his political fortunes are tied to his base. If he wants any chance of a second term, Mr. Obama will have to remember those who brought him to the dance.
Finally proposing a tax increase for the richest among us and a jobs and infrastructure plan for everyone else, a tougher president is tapping into the anger and frustration among working people. After all, the banks enjoyed their bailouts and the millionaires and billionaires their tax breaks, while ordinary folks are out of a job, out of a home, and struggling to feed their children.
The Barack Obama that people voted for in 2008 is re-emerging, and this is Obama at his best. This is the Barack Obama who understands the power of his office, not the risk averse Obama who puts his finger to the wind and acts only when success is guaranteed. Given the intransigence in Congress, his latest proposals could fail. Ultimately, the sense of urgency notwithstanding, the public wants to know that he is fighting for them, and not Wall Street.
Further, it is incumbent upon all to remember the successes of this administration, particularly within the context of the challenges it has faced. Obama inherited a nation in shambles, with two expensive wars and the worst economic downturn since the 1920s. After eight years of a faux cowboy swagger that embarrassed the U.S. before the international community, Obama brought civility back to the White House. History may very well present the man as the most brilliant person to hold the office.
Obama saved the economy from another depression. His $789 billion economic stimulus program saved or created millions of jobs, though a far larger stimulus was required to stave off a double dip recession. The president saved the jobs of thousands of teachers, saved cash-strapped states from fiscal ruin, and he funded broadband internet access in the public schools. And he provided a lifeline to the unemployed. In addition, Obama saved the American auto industry.
The president enacted the most significant federal health care legislation since Medicare and Medicaid, and established a patient’s Bill of Rights. He eliminated the middleman — the banks — in the federal student loan program, expanded Pell grants for needy students, and made the credit card industry a friendlier place for consumers.
Regarding civil rights, the U.S. Department of Agriculture settled with black farmers for the discrimination they faced in government programs. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act signed by Obama brings equal pay for women. With the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the military, gays and lesbians can openly serve their country without fear of retaliation.
Further, the Obama administration stopped defending the Defense of Marriage Act in federal court. And hate crimes legislation was broadened to include gender, disability and sexual orientation.
The president restored funding to the EEOC and restored the integrity of the U.S. Justice Department. He appointed the first black U.S. Attorney General and the first Latina U.S. Supreme Court justice. Nearly three-quarters of his confirmations to the federal bench have been minorities and women, not the usual white men who were traditionally favored for such positions.
For the black community, President Obama has served as a role model, as a leader and as a family man. His swagger has demonstrated the right way for a black man to lead the free world. And he has taught black men how to appropriately couple up for a night on the town with their wife or significant other.
Obama also restored America’s standing in the world. And don’t forget that he killed Osama bin Laden.
Meanwhile, no president has experienced such economic turmoil in his administration since Roosevelt. The presidency is no easy job, and Barack Obama has had more crises on his plate than any other leader in recent memory. Yet, the president has accomplishments came despite the death threats, lawmakers disrespecting him and labeling him a terrorist, and his foes vowing to wreck the economy in order to make Obama a one term president.
So with President Obama, let’s take the good with the bad. The challenges and shortcomings of this White House intermingle with the successes, and we can learn from each. History is still being written on this man, and in any case he has accomplished far more than a number of his predecessors. We can only hope that the president will stop taking bad advice from bad advisors and send them packing in a second term, if not sooner.