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Why Has He Fallen Short?’

David Petraeus; drawing by John Springs

Among those critics who are fundamentally sympathetic to Obama, explanations for his disappointing performance abound. To many, he is not and never really was a progressive, only a cautious pragmatist who pandered to primary voters in 2008 by speaking in broad liberal bromides and reminding them incessantly that he had been to the left of Hillary on Iraq. Many see him as far too wedded to a naive and platonic ideal of bipartisanship that amounts to unilateral political disarmament when confronting an opposition party as nihilistic and cynical as the current GOP. He lacks a fierceness in battle that, as William Pfaff and Robert Reich have suggested, might have driven him to exercise federal authority over BP at the start of the oil spill, much as an angered Truman did when he seized the steel industry to end the crippling strike of 1952. (Truman’s executive action was ruled unconstitutional in the absence of a law authorizing it, but Reich has argued that present law, including the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, would allow BP to be placed in temporary receivership as AIG and General Motors were last year.) Obama is also faulted by disappointed fans for his surprisingly subpar political skills. The master orator who left millions of Americans fired up and ready to go during election season has often come off as aloof once in office, and has proven a surprisingly prolix and lackluster salesman for his own policies.

There is some validity to all these diagnoses. The falloff in messaging prowess is particularly perplexing. Alter attributes some of it to the success of Obama’s speech on race during the Jeremiah Wright firestorm of the campaign. Because that comprehensive and nuanced address was “a hit without sound bites,” Obama felt that his congenital distaste for glib verbal formulas had been vindicated. But as Alter notes, his “diffidence toward cogency was ahistorical.” Sound bites like “a house divided against itself cannot stand” or “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” are hardly without their virtues. “Without them,” Alter writes, Obama’s speeches often amounted to “fast food that left you hungry again soon after the meal.”

The White House’s sporadic attempts to dress up its marketing with catchphrases—“New Foundation” as an umbrella description for Obama’s domestic programs, for instance—have been too bland and scattershot to gain traction. They are certainly no match for a focused, Fox-perfected Republican message that conjures up vivid bogeymen like “government takeovers,” “out-of-control spending,” and “death panels.” That the GOP, which perennially pushes for the castration of Medicare, could present itself as Medicare’s valiant defender during last year’s health care wars was a particularly telling feat. Obama had a lot of trouble formulating his own health care message in accessible language—“It was like he was trying to find the combination on a lock,” said his close friend and adviser Valerie Jarrett—and so the opposition could fill the White House’s vacuum with any outrageous bumper-sticker message it could whip up.

It’s also true that Obama has been victimized by his overconfidence in his ability to woo political adversaries. “We should have taken the hit for ending bipartisanship early because it was never going to be bipartisan,” a White House aide admitted to Alter in retrospect, after months had been wasted waiting for the administration’s health care point man in the Senate, Max Baucus, to strike a bargain with supposedly congenial moderate Republicans like Charles Grassley and Olympia Snowe. As detailed in The Promise, Snowe was particularly adept at stringing along the White House to burnish her public image as a paragon of Maine’s vintage brand of flinty Yankee Republicanism. When she finally announced that she would join the rest of her caucus in a filibuster after all, her excuse, that she hadn’t had time to read and absorb the bill, was patently false. “I’m an eternal optimist,” Obama had said months earlier, after his tussles with congressional Republicans over the stimulus. “That doesn’t mean I’m a sap.” But Snowe had played him for a sap.

Even so, Alter’s chronicle confirms that the biggest flaw in Obama’s leadership has to do with his own team, not his opponents, and it’s a flaw that’s been visible from the start. He is simply too infatuated with the virtues of the American meritocracy that helped facilitate his own rise. “Obama’s faith lay in cream rising to the top,” Alter writes. “Because he himself was a product of the great American postwar meritocracy, he could never fully escape seeing the world from the status ladder he had ascended.” This led Obama to hire “broad-gauged, integrative thinkers who could both absorb huge loads of complex material and apply it practically and lucidly without resorting to off-putting jargon”—and well, why not? Alter adds:

Almost all had advanced degrees from Ivy League schools, proof that they had aced standardized tests and knew the shortcuts to success exploited by American elites. A few were bombastic, but most had learned to cover their faith in their own powers of analysis with a thin veneer of humility; it made their arguments more effective. But their faith in the power of analysis remained unshaken.

This was a vast improvement over the ideologues and hacks favored by the Bush White House, but the potential for best-and-brightest arrogance was apparent as soon as Obama started assembling his team during the transition. The Promise leaves no doubt that his White House has not only fallen right into this trap but, for all its sophistication and smarts, was and apparently still is unaware that the trap exists. During the oil spill crisis, Obama and his surrogates kept reminding the public that the energy secretary, Steven Chu, was a Nobel laureate—as if that credential were so impressive in itself that it could override any debate about the administration’s performance in the gulf.

This misplaced faith in the best and the brightest has not coalesced around national security, as in the JFK-LBJ urtext, but around domestic policy—especially in the economic team, whose high-handed machinations Alter chronicles in vivid detail. Contrary to some understandable suspicions on the left, Obama’s faith in that team has nothing to do with any particular affection for captains of finance (his own campaign donors included), or their financial institutions, or wealth. “Over and over in his career, often to Michelle’s chagrin, he had turned down chances to make more money,” Alter writes. Obama is if anything annoyed by Wall Street’s hypocrisy and tone-deaf behavior. “Let me get this straight,” he said at one meeting about TARP and its discontents. “They’re now saying that they deserve big bonuses because they’re making money again. But they’re making money because they’ve got government guarantees.” Obama’s angriest moment in his first year of office came when he heard that Lloyd Blankfein had claimed that Goldman was never in danger of collapse during the fall 2008 financial meltdown—an assertion the President knew was flatly untrue.

But if Obama is not blinded by dollar signs, he suffers from a cultural class myopia. He’s a patsy for “glittering institutions that signified great achievement for a certain class of ambitious Americans.” In his books, he downplayed the more elite parts of his own resume—the prep school Punahou in Hawaii, Columbia, and Harvard—but he is nonetheless a true believer in “the idea that top-drawer professionals had gone through a fair sorting process” as he had. And so, Alter writes, he “surrounded himself with the best credentialed, most brilliant policy mandarins he could find, even if almost none of them knew anything about what it was like to work in small business, manufacturing, real estate, or other parts of the real economy.” Not only did the director of the Office of Management and Budget, Peter Orszag, have the quintessential best-and-brightest resume (Princeton summa, Marshall Scholar, Ph.D. from the London School of Economics) but even the OMB spokesman, Ken Baer, had a Ph.D. from Oxford.

Obama complains that he doesn’t get enough credit for stabilizing an economy that was teetering toward another Great Depression when he arrived in office. “It’s very hard to prove a counterfactual, where you say, ‘You know, things really could have been a lot worse here,’” as he puts it. He has a point. The stimulus package, actually five ambitious pieces of legislation packaged together for political expediency, was the largest economic recovery bill in American history, bigger in constant dollars than any program of FDR’s first hundred days. It gets no respect because it left no New Deal–style legacy of grand public works and did more to prevent jobs being lost—as more than 2.6 million were in 2008—than it did to add new ones.

Yet it’s hard not to wonder if much more would have been accomplished, both substantively and politically, had Obama’s economic principals, Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers, been more open to ideas not of their own authorship and more capable of playing with others, including a public that still hardly knows either of them. Obama “apparently never considered appointing a banker or Fed governor from outside the East Coast who knew finance but was less connected to the policies that caused the crisis,” Alter writes. The homogenous team he chose “all knew one another and all looked at the world through nearly identical eyes.” Once in place in Washington, they would all underestimate the threat of rising unemployment, be blindsided by the populist anger rising outside the capital, and even fail to predict the no-brainer popularity of the “cash for clunkers” program. Their paramount group-think lapse—their inability “to think more boldly about creating jobs fast”—still haunts the administration. A White House job summit didn’t materialize until December 2009, nearly a year too late.

The Promise depicts a carelessness and dysfunctionality in the economic team that at times matches that revealed by Rolling Stone in the military and civilian leadership of the team managing the Afghanistan war. Geithner’s inexplicable serial income tax delinquencies, as elucidated by Alter, should have disqualified him for Treasury secretary just as Stanley McChrystal’s role in the Pentagon’s political coverup of Pat Tillman’s friendly fire death should have barred him from the top military job in Afghanistan. Summers’s Machiavellian efforts to minimize or outright exclude the input of ostensible administration economic players like Paul Volcker, Austan Goolsbee, and Christina Romer seem to have engaged his energies as much as the policy issues at hand.

In April 2009, at Obama’s insistence, a group of economists that Summers had blocked from the Oval Office, including Volcker, Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, and Alan Blinder, was invited to a White House dinner. That colloquy has been cited ever since by White House aides in response to complaints that the administration’s economic circle is too insular. The dinner was a one-off, however, and the liberal economists’ ideas about tougher financial reform and a more ambitious stimulus package have languished.
Obama may have entered the White House with the intention of assembling a Lincolnesque “team of rivals,” but Summers subverted that notion by making himself chief packager and gatekeeper for any dissenting arguments about economic policy—all, he claimed, to spare the President from meeting with “long-winded people.” Lincoln’s “team of rivals” reported directly to Lincoln, but, as one source told Alter, Summers so skewed the process in this White House that it was like “a team of rivals reporting to Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s prideful secretary of war.” Even Warren Buffett, a supporter who had spoken to Obama weekly during the fall of 2008, “found himself mysteriously out of touch with the new president” once he took office.

Obama was now imprisoned within the cozy Summers-Geithner group “and it would be increasingly difficult for him to see beyond its borders.” This “disconnection from the world,” Alter concludes, was not due to ideology or the clout of special interests but was instead “the malign consequence of the American love of expertise, which, with the help of citadels of the meritocracy, had moved from a mere culture to something approaching a cult.” For all Obama’s skepticism of cant, he was “in thrall to the idea that with enough analysis, there was a ‘right answer’ to everything. But a right answer for whom?”

Once he belatedly reached out to business leaders for other ideas, Obama began to overrule his own economists. Presumably he will continue to learn from his mistakes. The administration is still young, and so is the President. If he has any immutable ideological tenet, it’s that he is “a big believer in persistence.” He doesn’t like to lose. Health care had not been an Obama priority in the campaign, but he embraced it during the transition. Though Joe Biden, Rahm Emanuel, and David Axelrod were all skeptical of pursuing it as a Year One goal, he wouldn’t be deterred.

His achievements so far have been accomplished in spite of obstacles that would fell most mortals—the almost uncountable messes he inherited from Bush-Cheney, a cratered economy, a sclerotic Congress in thrall to lobbyists and special-interest money, and a rabid opposition underwritten by a media empire that owns both America’s most-watched cable news channel and its most highly circulated newspaper. Indeed it could be argued that the matrix of crises facing Obama would have outmatched any Bush successor, no matter how talented. (They certainly would have drowned John McCain, whose utter cluelessness about the economic crisis alarmed even his Republican allies in 2008.) But Obama knew what he was getting into when he ran for president, and the question that matters now is how he can do the job better.

The most challenging quandaries he has faced from the start, unemployment and Afghanistan, may be overcome only if he addresses his own internal obstacles. These include not just his misplaced faith in his own cultural cohort and his romantic illusions about bipartisan collaborations with a Mitch McConnell–John Boehner GOP that has no interest in governance. He might also reexamine his split-the- difference approach to decision-making. Compromise and pragmatism have their virtues, but they can also produce Rube Goldberg policies like an Afghanistan strategy that is at once intellectually clever and yet makes no discernible sense on the ground.

Can Obama self-correct? He remains the same driven, smart, psychologically balanced leader we saw in the campaign, and to these familiar attributes, Alter adds another quality that is less frequently displayed in public—an utter lack of sentimentality. He’s “the most unsentimental man I’ve ever met,” says one aide, summing up for many of his peers. That trait may be the most useful of all if Obama undertakes the ruthless course corrections that are essential to the realization of his promise.

—July 22, 2010

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