Friday, October 7, 2011

Ron Suskind's "Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President"

I enjoyed this book. Usually I get bogged down and bored with these "behind the scenes" exposés. Too many details, too much in-fighting, no grand theme, no insight. But this book held my attention. It had a clear theme: Barack Obama failed. It appends a closing few chapters about the house cleaning in late 2010 and the idea that Obama had learned his lesson, was more humble, and would now be a "take charge leader". Well, we've had eight months since writer laid down pen to consider this "happy ending". Anybody living through the debt ceiling debacle knows that the last few chapters of Suskind paint a rosy fiction. Obama has not changed.

I've read quibbles over the "accuracy" of this book. That is surprising. Yeah, the book may get a quote a bit wrong here or there. I noticed some sloppiness in editing. The book was rushed and it is clear that it is stitched together from a large set of notes. But the theme of the book is solid: Obama failed.

What makes the book very interesting is "why did Obama fail?". He had a solid mandate, he became leader in a crucial time, he claimed to want to be the new Lincoln to lead his country out of a modern day "civil war" between right and left through deft compromise and "let us all sit down and reason together".

Suskind blames many people around Obama for the failure, but doesn't flinch for the core truth: ultimately it was Obama who failed. Obama chose the wrong people, he listened and debated with himself and equivocated when he should have acted. He allowed subordinates to derail policy. He fostered a White House where the mandate for action got lost, where egos bruised each other, and the needs of the nation got lost in petty politicking.

I would recommend this book to everyone. It confirms my view that Obama is "the new Carter", a nice guy who simply isn't cut out to lead. He is a smart guy, he gives a great speech, he has good intentions, but he isn't a leader. Worse, he carefully deceived the voting public with his "hope" and "change you can believe in" slogans and his life story. These led voters to believe that they were voting in "one of their own", somebody who understood the plight of the bottom 90%, and somebody who would go to bat for them. Instead, Obama is a centre-right politician more concerned with balancing the budget and keeping the Wall Street bankers happy than in reversing a 40 year drift toward the rich getting richer and the bottom 90% slowly getting poorer.

Here are some quotes from the book to give you a taste of it:
Just a month and a half into his presidency, Barack Obama's White House was slipping into a kind of dysfunction. In a way, it was not all that surprising that a president who had never managed anything beyond his own personal journey had responded to wild expectations, at a time of crisis, by grabbing hold of every intractable dilemma in sight. But the improvisational ebullience, and energy, Obama mustered in the first few weeks wasn't being turned into concrete actions or strategies. As the president tried to rise to the demands of his job, the White House was increasingly being directed by a back-channel union between two forceful men: Rahm Emanuel and Larry Summers.
By late March those choices were the stuff of fierce debate. The administration's domestic policy was fast becoming a debate society run by Larry Summers. Obama would sit on high, trying to judge if there was any shared ground between the competing debate teams that might coalesce into a policy. The larger question simmering beneath each busy day was whether his growing inclination to seek consensus in these debate tournaments was a model for sound decision making, a crutch to delay, or avoid, the decisions only a president can make, or a recipe for producing half-measures -- a pinch of this matched up with a scoop of that -- masquerading as solutions. After all, if the breadth of perspectives is wide enough to represent the fullest range of views, consensus i unlikely. If consensus is swiftly achieved, it probably means too few voices have been heard.
Presidents are among the few mortals who are sometimes graced with chances to change a culture. Throughout a windswept March, the country had been working to dislodge some of the era's prevailing certainties about markets being efficient, about people -- economically, at least -- getting what they deserve, along with the concomitant belief that financial barons are brilliant and indispensable, and manufacturing executives are dinosaurs.

With the eyes of the country on him, Barack Obama ended the month by shielding Wall Street executives against these winds of cultural change, while he fired a man who had effectively managed four hundred thousand workers in their making of seven million cars a year -- without ever bothering to meet him. At the same time, he agreed to try to bail out Chrysler, and eventually GM, by adopting the practices and principles of private equity in the use of government funds.

Improbable combinations, blended solutions, the integrating of opposites.

This was the Obama method, in his life and in his work. But he hadn't gotten elected simply to search for this clever version of the middle ground. He's been elected at a time of peril to change the country's course.
I must admit I was hostile toward Rick Wagoner of GM, but Suskind's tale has turned me to see him in a more sympathetic way. I still feel he was an incompetent executive, but I do think he was brutally treated by Obama while the Wall Street fraudsters were coddled by Obama. GM and Wall Street were greedy. But Wagoner wasn't a manipulative fraudster. Wagoner got treated like a criminal while the real criminals get feted by Obama, protected, and paid handsomely. Life is more bizarre than one can imagine.

One of the guys presented as an evil manipulator was Rahm Emanuel. Here's a bit of a taste:
After listening to an hour of debate on the matter or what the outlines of reform should look like -- just like hour after hour of debates involving the president -- Emanuel took control of matters. "Okay, Time, what the fuck do you need here?"

Geithner, a bit stunned, paused for a moment.

"Well, a systemic risk regulator [someone to watch the landscape for systemic risk inside institutions], resolution authority [the statutory power to take down a problematic institution], and leverage [higher capital requirements to ensure that banks don't over-leverage themselves], Those three things."

Emanuel nodded, "Okay, let's throw in the consumer financial agency, and everything else can be flushed."

So it was decided. Everyone kind of shrugged. One participant in the deliberations thought about whether Emanuel had, in fact, simply made this decision, or whether he was just carrying out the wishes of the president, then concluded that "the president couldn't have decided those things and told Rahm what to do. At the start of the meeting, there were too many variables to choose from. You would have needed some sort of decision-making algorithm."
That isn't the vision of deliberation and wisdom one expects from high council in government. Suskind gives you a front row seat into the ugly reality. What is really scary is that it shows Obama as adrift and the underlings take over and run policy making for him.

This is where Suskind makes this point most emphatically:
"You know, Peter [Orszag], we're really home alone."

Over the past few months, Summers had said this, in a stage whisper, to Orszag and others as they left the morning economic briefings in the Oval Office. The topics varied: taxes, deficits, the economy, economics in general.

"I mean it," Summers stressed. "We're home alone. There's no adult in charge. Clinton would never have made these mistakes."

No "adult in charge" of the world's mightiest nation at its time of peril? It bespeaks a crisis -- of a president overmatched, unable to fulfill the duties of his office, and a nightmare no one wants to acknowledge in daylight.

While Orszag wouldn't publicly affirm Summers's critique of the president's abilities -- saying later, "I don't want to go there" -- he wouldn't disagree, either. He sat in meeting after meeting where the president would cover the same issue, or controversy, or policy dilemma, and "relitigate" it, in the president's parlance, over and over. Decisions were left unmade; policies drifted without direction. It wasn't a matter of intellectual framing. The president seemed to grasp the nautreof key policy dilemmas, like a journalist, or narrator, or skilled observer. The problem was in guiding the analysis toward what a president is paid, and elected, to do: make tough decisions.
The book is a very long series of details about the Obama presidency and it is an indictment. He's a smart guy but he isn't a leader. Funny, George W. Bush was a "pretend" leader (he called himself "the Decider") but in fact was manipulated an cajoled into the "right decisions" by his éminence grise, Dick Cheney. Obama has no consigliere who manipulated strings to get things done. Consequently the Obama administration has drifted.

What does this say about the US political system? They put presidential candidates through a grueling multi-year contest to win office. This eliminates many who refuse to give up two years of their life to a quixotic quest for power. It also means that elections are over media savvy and endurance more than over any "leadership quality". In the background money is buying and selling "positions" which are invisible to the electorate. Is it surprising that America is electing "leaders" who come up short, very short, on real "leadership" qualities? Read the book and think about this issue.

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