Relevant History – Ron Suskind’s Confidence Men Review

I just finished Ron Suskind’s new look at the first two years of the Obama presidency, and I have to admit that I’m a little bit worried. Suskind, former national affairs writer for the Wall Street Journal, paints a picture of a president in well over his head in terms of managing affairs at the White House. Suskind’s analysis suggests that the once-in-a-lifetime sweep that took president Obama to the peak of the American political system did little to prepare him for the challenges of managing this most complex of bureaucracies through two years of systemic crisis. Fortunately, there is a glimmer of that vaunted “hope” by the end.

Confidence Men traces the Obama experience from the campaign of 2007/8 through to the early days of 2011 following last November’s midterm elections. The reader sees an Obama who can move people with words, but is generally unable to translate those words into actionable policy. In fact, that’s the most pointed critique. Often times, Suskind blames the Obama team “near insubordination” to the president. For instance, Suskind notes that many of Obama’s policies, especially those dealing with the Treasury Department in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis were “slow walked.” That is, Obama had made a decision (in this case to begin the breakup of CitiGroup), but the Treasury Department under Secretary Tim Geithner simply didn’t take action to implement the policy. This is a charge that Geithner denies in the book (pg. 280). In other cases, whether it was with Wall Street CEOs or the healthcare providers, Obama’s lack of clear policy guidance seems to have allowed him to get rolled by powerful and vested interests. Take the example of his signature issue, healthcare reform. By the time a bill had made it through Congress it amounted to little more than a mandate that all Americans buy health insurance with little regard to what that would cost. It was a major step-back from the earlier attempts at healthcare reform based upon Dartmouth “best care” practices. As Suskind put it, “Health care reform had officially become health insurance reform. The providers were no longer up at nights worrying” (pg. 377). Obama had been beaten by another industry. The policy implications of Suskind’s attack are withering.

In essence, the Obama administration accomplished very little of the promised agenda from the 2008 campaign. Really, what was accomplished might be called mildly conservative. In the wake of disastrous trading policies (well laid out by Suskind), bank managers faced no reform in the ludicrous amounts of money they could be paid for making their firms too-big-too-fail despite Obama’s clear opportunity, and wide public support (pg. 438). Regulatory reforms that could have restored order to the financial industry and limit systemic risk were derailed by Larry Summers’, at the NEC, and Tim Geithner’s Hippocratic “do no harm” policy of continuity of business service (pg. 493). In essence, no substantial changes have bee put in place to avoid another bubble created disaster. As a result of health insurance reform replacing healthcare reform costs will likely continue to rise. Candidate Obama maligned deficits in 2008 but President Obama’s deficits have continued to rise, while the Bush tax cuts continue (pg. 514) as part of an Obama compromise on very limited stimulus policies. Good intentions mark all of the initiatives in the book, but a road could be paved with Obama’s failed good intentions. That road leads only one place. All in all, the policies and compromises that President Obama has managed to enact have been problematic for the middle class at best despite his campaign promises to the contrary.

Suskind appears to have found the real weakness of President Obama. He suggests that the president’s strong desire for compromise causes him to be led. All an opponent had to do to win was “start with an audacious stance, and see if Obama bent toward you, searching for middle ground” (pg. 481). Such goals usually worked, and made both sides seem reasonable in spite of the dangerous negotiation position taken by Obama’s opponent. It’s an astute observation and borne out by any number of negotiations (the summer’s debt ceiling debate for instance). That’s no way to lead. That’s no way to accomplish the goals of the campaign.

Despite push back from the administration upon its release, Confidence Men seems to pain an accurate picture. It was an administration ideologically divided, as Obama has admitted, like that of the president’s hero President Lincoln. Unfortunately, either through personal failings, or the demands of the modern presidency, the outcome of that division was inaction, paralysis, and outmaneuvering by nearly every opponent. By the last chapter, Obama has traded most of his early staff for new players who he felt more comfortable with. In so doing, Suskind, and the president, suggest that the management style would change. Pick up a copy of Confidence Men sometime this year to see if that kind of change is really possible.

Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President
Ron Suskind
Harper Collins, September 2011


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