Ron Suskind on the Education of a President

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

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.