Ron Suskind on the Education of a President

Thursday, September 22, 2011

President Barack Obama speaks in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington on September 19, 2011. (Getty)

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer ShowRon Suskind discusses his new book Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President, which offers an inside look at how the Obama White House approached the economic challenges of the administration.

Ron Suskind thinks the president is over his head.

His new book immediately met criticism from within the White House and without, most recently around the way former communications director Anita Dunn described the White House boys' club atmosphere. That quote in Suskind's book was later revealed to have been edited in such a way as to leave out a key part -- Dunn's qualification that "if it wasn't for the president" the West Wing would have qualified as a "hostile workplace" under law.

But Suskind stands by his quote. He says that Dunn was given an opportunity before publication to review what he had written, and at that point had second thoughts out of concern for her husband’s job as legal council.

And I said to Anita, I said, that never made much sense. What do you mean, 'if it wasn’t for the president'? You know, if it wasn’t for a different guy you would feel differently about the actual workplace issues? She said no, no, no, that’s just us saying we love the president… so basically we agreed on the quote as it appeared in the book.

His new book on the administration seems to have deeply unnerved people in the White House, with claims that the progressive president lost his way by placing faith in relatively conservative economic advisors, whose sympathies ultimately lied with Wall St. banks. Suskind said President Obama missed his moment.

The damn thing is like an adventure story. It’s got ups and downs, you know, the bullets fly, the boulders roll. But Obama had clearly a crossroads opportunity... when you read it you’re like Jeez, what was he thinking? The bankers themselves were saying just do it to us.  Shove the spear in our chests.  We’re not good for America.

Or so Suskind claims the bankers told their spouses at home. He recalls one banker saying “I’m an American too”, and theorizes that some of them felt that Wall Street needed to be broken up, but could never say so publicly.

Suskind said the story of who the president chose and what those choices meant is what drove his narrative.

Early on, what’s so fascinating about it is what brings him to the party [[nomination]] is exactly the opposite [of conservative economic advisors Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers]. It was a real ecumenical bipartisan group who felt the crisis coming saw it off and early, and said to Obama, look, this is the one chance in a generation to change the architecture of the country…that drives not just the economy but much of American life and American culture.

By changing his course to align more with the more business-friendly advisers, Obama adopted a doctrine of caution, stressing frequently the imperative of doing no harm. Suskind said that Obama’s attempt to ramp up his economic strength was evident early on in his presidency, when the president followed a more Roosevelt-like course and it seemed possible that he might be able to take down the big banks. Standing in the way of that effort, said Suskind, was Geithner, who pushed for a stress-test instead.

That’s just a way to have government support the banks even more than through direct federal bail-out funds. And Obama’s not excited about this.

Obama pushed for the take down of Citibank, but Geithner resisted. The president acquiesced, Suskind said, because it was not in his nature to push back.

This goes to the core of some of the real issues of Obama’s character and personal architecture that you feel unfolding through out the narrative. He is brilliant, there’s no doubt about that, but is he brilliant in a way that makes for a great president? That’s something the reader needs to decide.

Elizabeth Warren appears as a hero in the book, trying to pull the administration in the other direction.

The kind of tough-love that Elizabeth is an avatar of, just like Paul Volker and others, you know, Obama heard that stuff but he just couldn’t manage the gumption to first get past “do no harm.”

Volker told the president that any government action big enough to change things for the better would do some harm, Suskind said, especially to those who profit from the current troubles. Volker told the president that moving the economy forward was far more important than protecting those special interests.

Suskind said he confronted President Obama about these charges in an oval-office interview:

He says, “Look this was a very difficult time and I learned very hard lessons, some against my will. I’m trying to evolve… I suffer from the policy wonks disease, a kind of technocratic affection, a belief that there’s a perfect technical solution to things if you get enough smart people with high IQs in the room and close the door.” And clearly in a very difficult two years, he learned that that wasn’t the case.

Suskind said the president clearly envied the personal charm and ease of Reagan and Clinton’s mastery of political debates. During the primary, he said, much of the debate focused on the relative merits of Hilary Clinton’s experience versus Obama’s judgment.

Obama says 'I’ve got judgment'. Whatever Hilary’s long experience is, my judgment will be more important. But what you have here is a situation where he arrives without experience for the most part and he makes errors of judgment even before he gets to the Oval Office.

That lack of experience, Suskind believes, led Obama to depend too heavily on the experience of Geithner and Summers, which ultimately ended up trapping him and leaving him out of the loop on his own policies. 

Obama has given a couple of big speeches, including that great Cairo speech on East-West relations in the Muslim world, and after that speech he was saying to the various guys “You know, we need a follow-up of policy, you know. This is the best thing I do, is give these speeches, but then they just vanish afterward because we’re not coming up with a plan for then what to do.” That’s a pretty smart thing to say.

Suskind says while Obama may not exude the warmth and approachability of Clinton, he does want to be liked.

He has trouble having people think ill of him because he’s being decisive. He is an essential actor of this era in American history, and for better or for worse, his evolution as an individual will also mirror or carry forward… the evolution of the country. He is the main guy.


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Comments [39]


Indeed, well written, Miguel.

Amd let us not forget that Obama also not only bought into these policies he actively rejected more Democratic, liberal solutions.

Sep. 22 2011 11:28 PM

Miguel from Manhattan

Very well said.

Sep. 22 2011 01:27 PM
Miguel from Manhattan

I have no problem with Suskind touring the radio and cable shows hawking his new book, as do all authors of new books (e.g., Jane Lynch on Lawrence O'Donnell). Brian's interview was by far the best I've seen/heard so far. It concentrated on the fundamental problems and spent a minimum of time on the disputed gotcha quotes.

But the lack of sensationalism made what Suskind was saying all the more depressing. Contra what some of the commenters assert or imply, Suskind is just giving inside confirmation of the fears many Progressives were expressing just after the Inauguration. Go back and read contemporary columns and blog postings by Krugman, Stiglitz. DeLong, Digby, Atrios, Greenwald, etc. The appointment of Summers and Geithner was the tell, as was the sidelining of Volcker when he advocated stronger measures.

Suskind is exactly right that there was a once in a generation opportunity to begin to turn back the disastrous policies instituted by the moneyed interests over the past 40 years. Free-market fundamentalism was clearly shown to be a sham. The rugged individualists of Wall Street were begging the rest of us to take their marshmallows out of the fire. Even Greenspan was forced to admit that he had put too much faith in the self-correcting power of free markets (by Congressman Waxman). The Lefty phrase "Privatize Profits, Socialize Costs" was being bandied about on popular cable shows.

Rahm Emanuel is reputed to have said something to the effect of: "A crisis is a terrible thing to waste." It was clear to anybody paying attention that Emanuel, Geithner, Summers, and others were working hard to ensure that the opportunity presented by this crisis would be squandered. What Suskind has done is to confirm what a lot of us suspected.

Sep. 22 2011 01:24 PM

God Bless Ron Suskind for his valuable book. Obama is a cowering, whimpering sissy and an empty suit who is in way over his head. He is neither respected nor feared and should do the honorable thing and not seek re-election.

Sep. 22 2011 12:59 PM

Comments have been moderated. Please remember to keep comments on topic, civil, and brief.

Sep. 22 2011 12:02 PM
The Truth from Becky

Agreed Fuva...Peter is spot on!

Sep. 22 2011 11:55 AM

The presumption - offered without a shred of proof - is that Geithner and Summers were wrong....That continuity in the Wall St community was more important than showing the banks who is the boss...Maybe, maybe not. It does nothing to explain why Democrats were so ho-hum during the 2010 election cycle as to let the GOP take back the House and pretend there was a mandate from the American people to blunt Obama's power.
Stop pre-supposing that there will be any substantive change under a GOP executive. There will not. Roll up your sleeves and make up your mind NOW which party better represents your interests.

Sep. 22 2011 11:50 AM
Fuva from Harlemworld

And Peter breaks it down.

Sep. 22 2011 11:50 AM
Fuva from Harlemworld

That's the truth, BECKY.
The UNPRECEDENTED complexity of Obama's presidency and what he has to deal with is lost on most, perhaps including Suskind.

Sep. 22 2011 11:48 AM
The Truth from Becky

Maybe he should approach the podium in tears all the time with absolutely NO confidence or personality like Boehner! Ir anything the President is envied, certainly not not buy this ridiculous book!

Sep. 22 2011 11:44 AM
Peter from Bronx

Very interesting discussion, but all the weight is put on personalities- Obama, Geithner, etc. Where is the role of the Wall Street wealth and the power it gives them to make or break a candidate, to finance their campaigns, their penetration of regulatory agencies, and the many other ways they make and break economic policy?

However: On the personality side, I have a speculation. In order for a Black man to succeed in a White world, he must evolve as a person to be non-threatening, non-confrontational. He can't do an FDR and welcome a battle with the (White) powers that be without evoking the conscious and unconscious prejudices and fears of the White majority. He would never have been elected unless he was a Rodney- why can't we all just get along- King; Martin Luther King, a fierce fighter for economic (along with racial) justice would have evoked even more immense fear and hatred than nice-guy Obama did. Just a psychosocial speculation.

Sep. 22 2011 11:41 AM
The Truth from Becky

You are correct Jerry below....President Obama should have waited and let another fall guy take the blame and then step in to ride out on the white horse the hero! and

Progress? What Progress? This President is treated with nothing but disrespect, and he is half one of them..Remember the white man who yelled "liar" from the floor of congress? Now there was an unprecedented event that should have been met with severe repercussions instead a lame apology was all that was offered, and it was pressured out of him. Only in America can you be legitimately bi-racial and still be Black in everyone's eyes.

Sep. 22 2011 11:40 AM
John from OFFICE


Sep. 22 2011 11:39 AM
Steve from NYC

@ dboy
Why don't you look at the record of the Dems in Congress. They have been fractured on every tough battle since Day 1. Every watered down policy can be traced back to trying to appease the Blue Dogs and the likes of Joe Lieberman.
And now they again seem to running away from the Job Bill like rats from a sinking ship.

Sep. 22 2011 11:38 AM

@The Truth from Becky

La, dee da...

The house is on FIRE!!

Sep. 22 2011 11:36 AM
The Truth from Becky

Spot on Mark!

Sep. 22 2011 11:35 AM

Lieberman should have been SLAPPED down on day one!!

"Joey, you're OUT!!! Adios, amigo!"

Sep. 22 2011 11:34 AM
aliveinnj from NJ

Works like Suskind are a great read; however, historians have to consider the long arc of history. I cannot think of a president who has not had to "learn" on the job. This is especially true of president's who have taken office in the middle of a crisis! ILet's not forget Kennedy, Roosevelt, Clinton. t is easy for Republican pols to be cavalier about the political and financial context and history. It is unfortunate that Suskind adopts a similar ahistorical voice!!

Sep. 22 2011 11:33 AM
The Truth from Becky

Sound like a damn fool with these grand sweeping you really believe women are swooning and wetting their pants for the President and that is the reason they are voting? Maybe my radio ears are playing tricks on me but you have really ticked me off this AM suskind!!!

Sep. 22 2011 11:33 AM
Amy from Manhattan

I thought Warren wasn't nominated because it was clear she couldn't be confirmed, & Suskind's "rockstar regulator" explanation doesn't support the idea that the decision was based on sexism either.

Sep. 22 2011 11:31 AM

Oh, and if you think having a black president is some kind of "progress", why don't you ask Troy Davis about "post-racial America"...oh wait, Troy Davis is DEAD!

Sep. 22 2011 11:31 AM
Not a Democrat from Harlemworld

Rather someone who is intelligent, competent and "learns on the job" or "experienced" opportunistic executives who pander to bottom feeders and moneyed interests?

Sep. 22 2011 11:30 AM

Obama rushed in, he has what it takes to be the president, but got in too early, impatient, should have waited 4, 8 years

Sep. 22 2011 11:30 AM
Edward from NJ

If the administration had tried to move forward with more aggressive action on the banks, how would it have actually come out of the Congress? You could have had the most brilliant plan in the world, and you'd still have needed to get Joe Lieberman to like it.

Sep. 22 2011 11:29 AM

@Steve from NYC

I've got an idea... let's all stick our heads in the sand!

This President has had nothing but support.

Sep. 22 2011 11:28 AM

Another garbage appointment under the radar is he put a former exec and chief lobbyist for Monsanto as "Senior Advisor to the FDA". What the hell man?

I can't believe there are still people who "believe" in Obama. Look at this policies, he's just Bush III.

Sep. 22 2011 11:28 AM
Steve from NYC

Let's all pile on Obama. It seems to be the trend.
Why not give the guy some support as he is the only reasonable man in Washington? I guess that wouldn't sell many books...

Sep. 22 2011 11:25 AM

How about the folks camped out on Wall St.™???

Why doesn't WNYC cover this??

Sep. 22 2011 11:25 AM
The Truth from Becky

There is ALWAYS hope and change in life..once you wade through and clear out all the previous BS created by the get to hope and change.

Sep. 22 2011 11:24 AM
The Truth from Becky

I am 100% sure President Obama does not "envy" Clinton nor Reagan sir. So insulting.

Sep. 22 2011 11:23 AM
Not a Democrat from Harlemworld

Don't all presidents "learn on the job"? This is not an Obama-specific phenomenon.
His "experts" have sold us out, though...

Sep. 22 2011 11:21 AM
ml from inwood

So now that this has become public knowledge, what's your take on Obama's character - will he finally get rid of Geithner?

Sep. 22 2011 11:21 AM
Ken from Little Neck

While I definitely get the sense that the guest has an angle, if his story is only partly accurate it's an incredibly sad indictment of Obama. To think that he wanted to do the right thing and wasn't strong enough or smart enough to overcome entrenched Wall St. interests. It's depressing.

Sep. 22 2011 11:20 AM

Where's LBJ when you need 'im?!?!

Sep. 22 2011 11:20 AM

Amerika's® criminal oligarchy is NOT being dismantled.



Sep. 22 2011 11:17 AM


Sep. 22 2011 11:11 AM

"they were saying put the spear in our heart"....
why does this guy have to start the interview by lying??? he has no credibility.

Sep. 22 2011 11:11 AM
Robert from NYC

Is anyone else sick of these writers appearing on EVERY radio and tv talk show regurgitating/spewing their spiel? I can't tell you how many of the shows I watch/listen to have had Mr. Suskind telling the same story over and over. No offense intended to him or his writing but to the ubiquitousness of not only him but anybody who seems to write anything. Oime! enough! basta! genuch already!

Sep. 22 2011 10:42 AM

Saw this fella on the Daily Show and it's pretty clear he's an apologist for the Administration, and trying to paint Obama as some ingenue who will try harder if reelected, and has definitely learned from experience. Well forgive my muffled laughter, but Lieberman's little apprentice, who actively courted Goldman Sachs dollars has not surprised me for one, and all the shrugging of shoulders and finger pointing does not convince those who pay attention. It may convince a few naive progressives who live on a diet of good intentions, and I'm sure that's who this book is intended for, but I doubt if that will be enough to get him relected in 2012. All he can count on at the moment is the GOP choosing someone scary enough to get people moving. It would have to be a pretty d. extreme candidate to get me voting for Obama next time though, because two-faced hypocritical flip-flopping lackeys like Perry or Romney wouldn't be significantly different enough to make it worthwhile.

Sep. 22 2011 09:05 AM

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