David Drum's Reviews > Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President

Confidence Men by Ron Suskind
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Dec 30, 2011

really liked it

My liberal friends have two views of President Barack Obama, the first African American to be elected President. The most cynical view is that Obama was always a “Trojan horse,” talking liberal talk while always basically aligned with the interests of corporate America and Wall Street. A more sympathetic view is that Obama went into office a good man with great ideas, and simply couldn’t pull them off because he wasn’t up to the job.

Ron Suskind’s book, Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President, published in 2011, comes down on the side of the latter.

Suskind takes a long look at Obama’s first two years and paints a devastating portrait of an inspirational figure who fell to earth, dreadfully short of public expectations. In Suskind’s view, Obama’s lack of management skills allowed the supremely confident trio of Ron Emanuel, Larry Summers, and Timothy Geither to take virtual control of the White House’s response to the economic crisis, and basically abort Obama’s reformist agenda which was swept, piece by piece, off the table and into the dustbin of good ideas.

Suskind doesn’t get into Obama’s nearly complete cave in to what has been called the military-industrial complex, his continuation of former President George W. Bush’s two wars and its expansion into other countries such as Pakistan. He doesn’t mention Obama’s refusal to prosecute anyone in the Bush administration for crimes against the Constitution, his inability to close Guantanamo or any of that. And he doesn’t waste many words on the hatchet dance that Republican senators and representatives embarked on from the day he entered office, vowing to make Obama a one-term president, warning signs that Obama seemed to ignore in his naïve or idealistic search for the winning compromise.

As the book’s subtitle indicates, Suskind focuses on the Obama administration’s nearly complete cave in to Wall Street, a place where casino investing and exotic financial instruments had replaced common sense and led to a devastating financial crash.

During his run for office, Suskind notes, Obama had plenty of friends on Wall Street, many of whom he’d met at fund-raising events. His contacts gave him an inside track to understanding the financial crisis as it was looming, and allowed him to appear to be ahead of the curve when the financial walls began to come down, calling for reform, which helped him win the election.

A lucky guy, Obama had been elected senator from Illinois because of his Republican opponent self-destructed in a sex scandal. As presidential candidate, and a brilliant speaker, the economic meltdown played into his hand.

But once in office, enjoying solid Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, Obama’s inexperience began to show. He had never managed a company or an agency before. His jobs – corporate lawyer, teacher, community organizer, politician --were basically jobs which required him to think, write, and talk. Afraid to show his imperfect mastery of the many crises which he found on his plate the minute he took office, Obama pushed aside advisers like Paul Volker and Robert Reich who had guided his campaign, and took on what Suskind calls “the B team.”

Two aggressively self-confident bullies, Ron Emanual and Lawrence Summers, the former president of Harvard, were appointed to crucial positions. New Chief of Staff Emanual, a foul-mouthed mover and shaker as well as architect of the Democratic party’s conservative “Blue Dog” strategy, tightly controlled access to Obama. Summers, who was briefly Secretary of the Treasury under Clinton and so confident in his own intellect that he bragged he could win either side of any argument, took over the framing of economic policy. Both of these confident men had received lots of money from the financial community, and both rose to control much of the debate as the economic crises compounded. The third “confidence man,” sartorially-challenged Treasury Secretary Geithner, a tax dodger who once led the New York Fed, worked to preserve business as usual in the financial casino and basically accomplished that.

Suskind makes clear there was a moment early on when Wall Street would have accepted whatever medicine the president chose to dole out, including limits on their big bonuses and regulation of their risky business operations which were sucking money and talent out of the economy without providing anything in return. But when the president called the titans of Wall Street into his office and told them that they had a public relations problem, and that he wanted to help them, this helped signal that the bottom line was still business as usual.

In staff meetings, many observed that Obama seemed unable to make a decision he couldn’t see as an all-encompassing compromise, and get his staff to agree with. While many women on his staff felt shut out of the game, Obama’s staff had lots of meetings where ideas were hashed and rehashed or “relitigated” with no significant action because Obama wasn’t confident in moving forward. Meanwhile, millions of Americans were getting thrown out of their jobs and houses.

Obama’s early decision to go for health care reform rather than completely focus on the economic mess is presented as a mistake. For one thing, Obama could not get the knowledgeable former Senator Thomas Daschle appointed to head Health and Human Services, which would have helped. Working out the tedious details of health care reform, through many back-room deals and compromises, left Obama with a package which didn’t contain what many advisers felt was the most important element of his original proposal – cost controls in the form of incentives for doctors and hospitals to practice “evidence based” medicine which eliminates dubious tests and treatments and financially rewards medical treatments that are proven to work. Suskind doesn’t make much of Obama’s refusal to support the popular “public option,” which would have provided private health insurance companies some price competition, and perhaps lowered costs, too.

Obama is presented as inconsistent rather than sinister, making glorious speeches one day, and not following through the next. His inexperience under the microscope of the world’s biggest job, plus his vacillation and his unfortunate B team appointments, basically left him after two years in office on a par with Jimmy Carter at projecting confidence. Near the end of the book, when Obama realizes the need to shake up his staff, Emanual resigns to run for mayor of Chicago, and Summers leaves his position with admiring words from Obama, but without the appointment to head the Federal Reserve that he expected.

Probably no president since Franklin Roosevelt had come into office with challenges like those Obama faced, and with such public support to shake things up. Unfortunately, Obama is too timid to become a Roosevelt. Suskind describes Obama as a brilliant amateur who arrived at the presidency believing he’d make his case with correct answers to complex problems, but because of inexperience, a lack of confidence, and bad personnel choices he could not competently execute his good ideas.

Obama admittedly admires former President Ronald Reagan’s ability to inspire confidence in people while playing the role of president, and Reagan’s mastery of symbols and gestures. In an interview with Obama near the end of the book Suskind makes it clear that he is still working on that confidence thing.

Even for a Pulitizer Prize winning reporter, the task of nailing down the moving target of public policy as it develops through hundreds of late-night meetings and the clashes of big egos and practical considerations is enormous. Suskind manages to make sense of this tedious process in Confidence Men, a supremely readable book. He has written a brilliant first draft of the history of Obama’s first two years, and he extracts some lessons from the chaos in which hopes were betrayed, and opportunities for meaningful change were squandered away.

Obama’s failure to impose significant reform on Wall Street, so important and so apparently within his grasp at one time, may well come back to haunt this country in the years ahead.
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message 1: by Anna (new)

Anna He doesn’t mention Obama’s refusal to prosecute anyone in the Bush administration for crimes against the Constitution, his inability to close Guantanamo or any of that.

Seriously? Obama is a globalist hack just like Bush. Bush was bad enough but Obama has outpaced Bush as far as being unconstitutional. Bush started SPP. He just handed the baton to Obama. Obama's Czars are completely unconstitutional. Bush wasn't able to get the trucking industry turned over to Mexico. Obama did it under executive order. How about his recent NDAA! As he signed it he said he could imprison American citizens without charging them or legal representation but he wouldn't. The democratic co-sponsor said Obama's lawyers insisted the language be in the bill or he wouldn't sign it. The only "terrorists" who are going to be inprisoned will be American citizens who don't want to go along with the North American Union. Don't you get it? Obama is a globalist. He is working for the destruction of this country and for the new world order. Don't you remember his citizen of the world speech? Dem versus Rep is just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Step out of the matrix. The oligarchy is beyond borders in their quest for unlimited profits. There is too much money and power in the middle class. Obama will be rewarded handsomely. America is toast.

"The chief problem of American political life for a long time has been how to make the two congressional parties more national and international. The argument that the two parties should represent opposed ideals and policies, one, perhaps of the Right and the other of the Left, is a foolish idea acceptable only to the doctrinaire and academic thinkers. Instead the two parties should be almost identical, so the that American people can 'throw the rascals out' at any election without leading to any profound or extensive shifts in policy."
- Carroll Quigley, member of Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), mentor to Bill Clinton, quote from Tragedy and Hope, 1966

David Drum Yes, seriously? I agree with several things you say, but I was reviewing the book not so much reviewing Obama. The book was mostly detailing the mechanics of how Team Obama blew cleaning up the Wall Street mess.

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