Ron Suskind's Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President offers a highly readable, lengthy, window into the White House during the first few tumultuous years of the Obama Presidency. One of the recurring themes, as the title suggests, is confidence: advisers who were too confident in their own ability, overconfidence in the strength of the economic recovery, and the lack of confidence President Obama had in pursuing his own instincts on several economic issues.
Suskind cites several key issues, from dismantling Citigroup to enacting a financial transactions tax, where the administration ultimately didn't pursue the policy the President said he wanted. "There are many things that the president wanted to do, but his adviser, either [Treasury Secretary ] Tim [Geithner] or [National Economic Council Chairman] Larry [Summers], blocked him," Suskind tells Aaron Task and me in the accompanying video.
The issue is not so much sabotage or a refusal to follow orders — although Suskind suggests in the book that Geithner slow-walked or ignored a directive to wind down Citigroup. But rather, as Suskind notes, it is that Obama was reluctant to proceed without consensus among his many headstrong advisers. The President allowed for plenty of discussion, but "he doesn't force the issue at the end of the day."
The problem for Obama on domestic and economic policy — as opposed to financial policy — was that it was extremely difficult to achieve consensus among the crowd of very smart, ambitious, and articulate economic policy team. The issues at hand were highly unusual and unorthodox and didn't break down on purely ideological lines. Should the government bail out Chrysler? Should the government force the nation's largest bank to shut down? What was the optimal size of the stimulus? Obama didn't have the answers himself, and when he turned to his advisers, the response was a cacophony. "It's indisputable that he was having trouble running up the various learning curves, and ultimately what he defaults to in meeting after meeting, is the need for consensus from his senior advisers," Suskind said. "He wasn't getting that. And what you find is a president in that first year, year and a half, in a state of paralysis on a lot of these issues. That's just the history of this presidency."
Much of the press coverage of Confidence Men has focused on what might be called Kremlinology — who leaked, who doesn't play well with others, whose reputation has been enhanced. But Suskind's point on Obama's need and desire for consensus resonates. For we've seen in the last 33 months that Obama's presidency hasn't simply been hamstrung by an internal need for consensus. From the beginning, Obama has been focused on gaining an external consensus. And his commitment to doing so has damaged his presidency. When Obama entered office, he wasn't so much obsessed with enacting a particular set of policies as he was with changing the process in Washington. He envisioned a legislative world in which people came together across the aisle to agree on big legislative items. The Obama White House committed to this effort in part because it reflects Obama's temperament, in part because it was the only way to get things through a legislature in which Republicans were willing to use their filibuster power in the Senate, and in part because it's simply smart politics to convince opponents to take co-ownership on issues.
The problem is that, despite his efforts, there wasn't much room to forge consensus in Washington. Democrats didn't agree internally on the bailouts, and continued their long tradition of fractiousness. Congressional Republicans signaled, loudly and clearly, that they simply weren't interested in a deal on stimulus, on health care, or on financial reform. Obama refused to take no for an answer. He scaled back the size of the stimulus because doing so would garner three Republican Senate votes, and outsourced the construction of health care policy, allowing a bi-partisan group of Senators to work on a potential deal for a long time. These moves proved self-defeating — a larger, purely partisan stimulus would have done more to boost the economic recovery, and Republicans opposed the final health care bill anyway. Worse, Obama was continually surprised when consensus failed to materialize. While he should have seen the debt ceiling fiasco coming from miles away, the president seemed truly to be shocked that Republicans wouldn't cut a large deficit-reduction deal.
There are signs that Obama is starting to grasp that there isn't much middle ground between policy and rejectionism. And as the elections approach and the presidency grows into his office, Suskind sees a greater willingness by the President to draw lines, demark conflicts, and make substantive declarations about his policy preferences. In his final interview with Suskind, Obama told the author that he had suffered from "the policy wonk's disease," of spending too much time batting different proposals around. Says Suskind: "He's moving more toward a go-with-your-gut dynamism. . . He's making decisions more forcefully now."
The tale of this pivot will consume the headlines for the next 13 months, and will likely be the subject of Suskind's next book.
To hear Suskind compare President Obama's decision-making style to President Bush's, check out the bonus footage on The Daily Ticker's Facebook page.
Daniel Gross is economics editor at Yahoo! Finance
Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @grossdm
- Ron Suskind