“A brilliant amateur”

    It’s easy to dismiss the Republicans when they reflexively attack President Obama, because, well, they’re Republicans. And because, by dint of their own words and actions, they have intended all along to destroy him.But it’s not so easy to dismiss the work of Ron Suskind.Liberals were always thrilled when Suskind, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner, wrote damning books and stories about the Bush administration. Suskind, after all, is the guy who popularized the phrase “reality-based community,” by quoting a Bush aide who disdained the notion that policy should be based on reality. And Suskind, drawing on thousands of internal government documents, concluded in one of his books that Bush was fixated on invading Iraq long before 9/11 gave him a pretext.But now it’s Obama’s turn. Kudos to Suskind for working as a traditional journalist – taking the story wherever it goes, irrespective of any partisan inclinations. The result is Confidence Men, a buzz-worthy book that may well provide Republicans with fresh weaponry. So be it. If Obama’s own economic insiders are painting him as an ineffective leader, the reality-based community will be hard pressed to dismiss the portrait.The usual caveats apply, of course. Dissing the boss in mid-tenure has become a Washington tradition; prior to Obama and Bush, it happened to Bill Clinton. Ticked off aides typically have motives of their own (“if only he had listened to me” and “it’s not my fault”). And some players quoted in these books typically insist that they never said the nasty stuff that was attributed to them (a standard attempt to cover their derrieres.)But, knowing what we already know about Obama (notably his penchant for floating above the fray, before swooping down to endorse half-measures or to surrender altogether), key passages in the book ring true. Especially since other books have chronicled episodes of dysfunction within the Obama economic team.For instance, Paul Volcker, a former Fed chairman who ran an Obama’s economic advisory board, told Suskind: “Obama is smart, but smart is not enough. Leadership is another thing entirely, about knowing your mind enough to make real decisions, ones that last.” And Lawrence Summers, who was arguably Obama’s gatekeeper on economic matters, reportedly complained to budget director Peter Orszag, “We’re home alone. There’s no adult in charge. Clinton would never have made these mistakes.” (Summers, a controversial figure, now denies he said that. For what it’s worth.)It’s indisputable, as Obama always reminds us, that he inherited an economic disaster from the hapless Bush regime. But Suskind, having absorbed the views of several hundred sources, writes with authority that Obama (“a brilliant amateur”) lacks the requisite leadership skills to clean things up. These passages may strike a familiar chord with disillusioned Obama supporters: “The administration’s domestic policy was fast becoming a debate society….Obama would sit on high, trying to judge if there was any shared ground between the competing debate teams that might coalesce into a policy.” Obama himself told Suskind in an interview that he’s always looking for “the perfect technical solution.” But Suskind questions whether Obama’s “above-the-fray perch” was “a model for sound decision making, (or) a crutch to delay or avoid the decisions only a president can make, or a recipe for producing half-measures — a pinch of this, matched with a scoop of that — masquerading as solutions.”Suskind writes that Obama’s statesmanlike passivity has similarly dictated his dealings with the Republicans who are bent on destroying him. During the first two years of his tenure, Obama was always “respectfully acknowledging opponents’ positions, even those with thin evidence behind them, that then get stitched together into some pragmatic conclusion — but hollow.”Worse yet, Suskind writes that Obama blew early opportunities to get tough with Wall Street, because he allowed himself to be “systematically undermined” by key aides (starting with Treasury chief Tim Geithner) who came from Wall Street and were thus part of the problem. Yet although, in Suskind’s words, the aides’ behavior was “perilously close to insubordination,” Obama never slapped them down. And when word got around that it was possible to block Obama without paying any price, other powerful Washington players took it as evidence that the president could be rolled. As Suskind puts it, the bankers and the health care providers quickly concluded that Obama “exhibited certain human frailties that might be easily exploited. What they also saw – many of them managers in banking and health care with long experience – were that his words were not being translated into action.”

    The White House, as expected, is pushing back on the Suskind book, listing various factual errors. (For instance, economic aide Gene Sperling actually played tennis at the University of Minnesota, not at the University of Michigan. I’m glad that’s settled). Whatever; Suskind can clean those up for the paperback. The bottom line is that the Obama fans who loved Suskind’s harsh depictions of Dick Cheney will have a tough time contending that the author’s reportorial toolbox is any different now.It’s all well and good that most Americans still find Obama to be “likeable.” But what Confidence Men makes clear is that a president can’t be effective unless he is respected, unless the players in town fear the consequences of crossing him. If Obama’s own economic team feel free to cross him, then why should his critics feel cowed? And is it too late for Obama to man up, as he seems to be doing this morning, with his tax-the-rich deficit-reduction plan? All questions worth pondering by the reality-based community.——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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