Ron Suskind is a distinguished journalist; a Pulitzer Prize winner, he has been a heavyweight Beltway commentator and writer for much of the last twenty years. ‘Confidence Men – Wall Street, Washington, & the Education of a President’ is his highly readable yet problematic account of the first two years of the Obama administration, garnered from interviews (off and on record) with key White House players. Suskind presents a directionless West Wing, with little strategic planning, where senior advisors frequently clashed and the where the President was sorely lacking in organisational planning and execution. Obama’s team has hit back, with Tim Geithner, Jay Carney and Larry Summers all criticising the book – Suskind insists his portraits, characterisations and quotation attributions are correct; he stands by his story.
The dramatis personae would make for an interesting dinner party, to say the least. Rahm Emanuel, with his profanity, political pragmatism and street fighting ability, makes for a fascinating character anyway; he gets hit with a lot of the blame stick for his failures as Obama’s Chief of Staff. Remember Leo McGarry as Bartlet’s right-hand man? Doubt he ever told an assembled group of Principals to ‘shut the fuck up’. Emanuel’s departure to the Chicago for the mayoral elections was as a stroke of good luck for both the Chief of Staff and the President; Obama was all set to move him as part of an organisational shake up. Larry Summers (Director of the National Economic Council for the 2009/10) comes across as, well, Larry Summers: highly intelligent, arrogant, egotistical and dismissive of his boss. The strongest thread of Suskind’s narrative highlights the nexus between Government and Finance; Summers, along with Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, are painted as friends of Wall Street, happy to do the bidding of Big Banks and Big Business. If Geithner and Summers are the villains then Elizabeth Warren and Paul Volcker, Suskind’s heroes, are firmly in the camp of friends of Main Street.
The book is overly ambitious in scope in seeking to chronicle the causes of the 2008 Crash and beyond; it, among other things, covers derivatives, CDOs (all the acronymic ‘weapons of mass destruction’ are discussed in detail), draws pen pictures of Wall Street Players (volumes could and have been written about some of these characters) and looks to record the definitive reporter’s view of Obama’s first two, turbulent years; Suskind’s trying to do a Michael Lewis and Bob Woodward in the one book. He thanks his literary agent in the acknowledgements, Andrew Wylie. Wylie isn’t known as ‘The Jackal’ for nothing; he has a legendary status in the bookworld for the huge advances he gets for his clients. This may be where the problem lies; Suskind might easily have ‘sexed up’ off-record events and phrases attributed to Obama’s advisors; this is not lying – one person’s ‘livid’ is another person’s ‘troubled’. Allegations of sexism in the administration where Communications Director Anita Dunne and Chairperson of the Council of Economic Advisors Christine Romer, among others, state that a boys club atmosphere prevailed, are, perhaps, more a criticism of Emanuel and Summers’ toxic interpersonal skills and attitude to women than of Obama himself.
Suskind harks back to Grant Park and the idealism of 2008. At some level, he wants Obama to succeed, to defeat his own observation that Barack Obama is, after all, human. There’s little recognition of the sheer vitriol, extremism and downright lies (spurred on by right-wing talk show hosts and the ‘Tea Party’) Obama faced and still faces. You can plan and strategise for the big picture all you like, but if a lot of the media and many Americans don’t believe you’re even an American citizen, you have a daily war on your hands. In short, Suskind gives Obama nowhere near enough credit for getting anything done in a political climate as poisonous as the current. As the Western World teeters between Recession and Depression (with economic recovery looking like a distant prospect), the 44th President could and should have done more to fundamentally address structural market fault lines by punishing Wall Street when he had the chance; but, looking at the Republicans and their remedies for the US economy, is there a realistic alternative to the incumbent, who is, at heart, still a Progressive?
Suskind displays hindsight in spades, chiding Obama for not getting more done on health care and bank regulation. We’re left with a ‘pile on’ on the President, and ‘Confidence Men’ is a converging arrow of a book heading towards a conclusion vindicating Suskind’s central thesis that Obama just didn’t cut hit on the economy or health for much of 2009 and 2010. If Barack Obama wins in 2012, and, despite everything, this author remains optimistic about his chances, he will have a vast amount of crisis management experience under his belt. When it comes to the Obama Presidency, the narrative is far from finished.
‘Confidence Men – Wall Street, Washington, & the Education of a President’, Ron Suskind, Harper, $29.99