Obama’s Flunking Economy: The Real Cause

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Lawrence Summers, then director of the National Economic Council, and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Washington, D.C., December 2010

Ron Suskind’s Confidence Men is not a calm first draft of history. It is not an impartial or unbiased look at the Obama administration’s first two years. Rather, it is an investigation. The crime is homicide, and the victim is the promise of Barack Obama’s presidency. But this isn’t a suspenseful whodunit. Suskind tips his hand in the first pages.

He’s describing the press conference in September 2010 where President Obama announced that Elizabeth Warren would help set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Warren is one of Suskind’s heroes. She’s introduced as “the nation’s town crier” and “a leading voice for tough, restorative reforms.” The mystery of the initial chapter is why Obama seems to be holding her at arm’s length.

It’s quickly solved. The villain of this vignette—and one of the key villains of the rest of the book—is “the boyish man in the too-long jacket at Obama’s right hip, bunched cuffs around his shoes, looking more than anything like a teenager who just grabbed a suit out of his dad’s closet.” So who is this man-child who can’t find a properly sized suit to wear to the Rose Garden? Who couldn’t take the time to get his pants hemmed before stepping in front of the cameras? “That’s Treasury secretary Tim Geithner,” Suskind says, “looking sheepish.”

That “looking sheepish” is a common Suskind trick. His book doesn’t just have good guys and bad guys. It has good guys who look like good guys, and bad guys who squirm beneath the weight of their badness. You’re never left to wonder long over which is which. Of Larry Summers, Obama’s first director of the National Economic Council, Suskind says that his personality “recalls that of Nixon and Henry Kissinger, or, more recently, Dick Cheney.” As for Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s first chief of staff, he’s “all impulse and action, with very modest organizational skills.”

By contrast Peter Orszag, Obama’s first budget director, “could think in numbers, talk in full sentences, and work nonstop.” Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle’s comments are “counterintuitive, but incisive.” Financial regulator “Gary Gensler fell into one of those discrete categories of people who create lasting change in Washington’s marketplace of ideas.” When Treasury economist Alan Krueger passes around a pack of slides, each is “a chart of blazing, graphed insight.” Suskind offers little evidence for these descriptions. The book does not explain which of Gensler’s ideas will be current in thirty years. Suskind’s approach asks, rather, that we trust his assessments.

I prefer to verify. So I went back to the tape. I rewatched the September 2010 press conference where Obama introduced Warren to the country. I paid special attention to Geithner. Suskind’s right: his suit is too big. But he…

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