Review (Guest): Confidence Men – Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President

5 Star, America (Founders, Current Situation), Banks, Fed, Money, & Concentrated Wealth, Capitalism (Good & Bad), Complexity & Catastrophe, Congress (Failure, Reform), Corruption, Crime (Corporate), Crime (Government), Crime (Organized, Transnational), Culture, Research, Economics, Executive (Partisan Failure, Reform), Justice (Failure, Reform), Leadership, Peace, Poverty, & Middle Class, Politics, Power (Pathologies & Utilization), Public Administration, Secrecy & Politics of Secrecy, True Cost & Toxicity, Values, Ethics, Sustainable Evolution, Voices Lost (Indigenous, Gender, Poor, Marginalized)
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Ron Suskind

From Product Description:

The new president surrounded himself with a team of seasoned players—like Rahm Emanuel, Larry Summers, and Tim Geithner—who had served a different president in a different time. As the nation’s crises deepened, Obama’s deputies often ignored the president’s decisions—“to protect him from himself”—while they fought to seize control of a rudderless White House. Bitter disputes—between men and women, policy and politics—ruled the day. The result was an administration that found itself overtaken by events as, year to year, Obama struggled to grow into the world’s toughest job and, in desperation, take control of his own administration.

5.0 out of 5 stars Objective Look at Presidential Leadership,September 20, 2011

Suskind’s “Confidence Men” is based on 746 hours of interviews with over 200 people, including former and current members of the Obama administration – including the president. It’s negative observations will not make the president’s life any easier – already dealing with an emboldened, growing opposition, a floundering economy, the appearance of having been outmaneuvered during the debt-ceiling debacle, the Solyndra mess, another Palestine-Israel mess, and even prominent strategists already saying he should ‘fire much of his staff.’ It begins with candidate Obama’s crash course in economics and ends in early 2011, and does not include the efforts to kill Osama bin Laden, the more recent debt ceiling fight, nor his most recent efforts to create jobs.

The most attention-getting material involves comments from Obama’s economic team. For example, Lawrence Summers is quoted as saying to Budget Director Peter Orzag at a dinner that ‘There’s no adult in charge. Clinton would never have made these mistakes.’ Former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, in turn, describes the president as too reliant on Summers, smart, but not smart enough. Senior White House aide Pete Rouse wrote ‘There is deep dissatisfaction within the economic team with what is perceived as Larry’s imperious and heavy-handed direction of the economic policy process.’ Suskind also tells us Geithner was working behind the scenes to neutralize Elizabeth Warren and prevent her being named to leadd the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau – per bankers’ demands. And then there’s Christina Romer, former chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, stating that she ‘felt like a piece of meat’ after being kept out of a meeting by Summers; further, she once threatened to walk out of a dinner with the president and outside economists after the president skipped over her when asking his guests for their recommendations.

Additional concerns over sexism surface in the book. “This place would be in court for a hostile workplace,” former White House communications director Anita Dunn is quoted as saying. “Because it actually fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace to women.” Another – “The president has a real woman problem.” Some have complained to Obama about being ignored.

Per Suskind, President Obama decided in March, 2009 to create a plan to restructure many of the large, troubled banks, starting with Citigroup – only to learn a month later that Geithner/Treasury had ignored his directive. (Perhaps motivated by Geithner loyalty to former boss and Treasury Secretary Rubin (during the Clinton administration), then a Citigroup senior adviser and board member?) Insubordination, or protecting the president from himself? In any case, Obama excused it, when asked, as due to ‘this is really hard stuff.’ Unfortunately, Suskind does not report what Obama told Geithner when he found out.

Suskind sees Obama as a passive CEO sketching out guiding principles and allowing others to fill in the details. This ended up delegating the creation of ObamaCare to Congress, and fiscal reform to Geithner – losing control and momentum in both instances. Another Obama characteristic was seeking consensus among advisers, instead of considering whether one side or the other was just plain wrong.

Author Suskind also wonders why Obama turned away from his campaign advisers (eg. Nobel-winning Joseph Stiglitz, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich) and instead chose men associated with the disastrous prior deregulatory policies (Geithner, Summers). (Stiglitz called the enormously unpopular bank bailouts a win for banks and investors, and a loss for taxpayers. He also asserted that too much of the too-small stimulus went to tax cuts, that GDP is an inadequate measure of an economy.) Geithner is even described by one major bank CEO as ‘our man in Washington,’ undoubtedly at least partly due to Geithner having been selected by major bank CEOs to lead the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Geithner also had underpaid his taxes by $34,000 in recent years, via erroneous deducations. Reportedly former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel was not Obama’s first choice for the position, or even on the initial short list.

As for health care reform, Suskind contends that the debates and delays involved (partly due to Obama’s delegating its initial formation to Congress) wasted his ‘honeymoon’ leverage to obtain concessions from both health care providers and bankers. Orzag was aware of the highly credible practice-pattern variation data compiled by Drs. Wennberg and Weinstein, how American medicine had become supply- and investor-driven, and was aching to incorporate major potential savings from these findings. It was not done, however, and the result was minimal impact on driving down the costs of health care, limiting financial-sector salaries, or preventing future financial meltdowns.

Bottom-Line: The White House is now trying to minimize the effect of Suskind’s book – many of those quoted are recanting or challenging materials in the book. At least some, however, have been documented to the Washington Post via tape recordings. Suskind’s reporting of a largely dysfunctional White House is not likely to be easily dismissed – major symptoms have long been evident, some reported by previous authors. Clearly there are major problems with his leadership style – probably because he’s never been a leader before. And it is clear that our economic crisis is not an ordinary cyclical one that will go away with the passage of time – something has to be done about the millions of jobs lost to Asia via offshoring, and to illegal workers within the U.S.

On the other hand, President Obama must also be given credit for earlier strong leadership vs. the Pentagon during his initial review of Afghanistan options – including have the fortitude to confront that organization over leaks and eventually firing Gen. McChrystal. More obvious, his willingness to proceed with the risky attack on bin Laden within Pakistan. And as Massimo Calabresi points out, his economic team infighting pales in comparison to that between Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld in the Bush II administration.

The ‘really good news’ is that it is still not too late for Obama to start addressing underlying flaws in the free market system, and begin by replacing Geithner and others in his economic team with eg. Joseph Stiglitz (former World Bank Chief Economist) and Justin Lin (current World Bank Chief Economist). (Yes, I know Lin is Chinese – I’m suggesting him as just one member; regardless, China’s economy has been the world’s strongest source of growth for nearly three decades. Even more important, Chinese economists recognize both the harm ‘Free Trade’ has inflicted on American workers, and the fact that protectionism is sometimes essential.)

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