09.18.11

The Scared President

A new account of Obama’s White House alleges that the president’s staff ignored his orders—and got away with it. Michael Tomasky on Obama’s failed leadership, and how he can fix it.

This is just about the right time, according to recent history, for the appearance of inside-the-White-House accounts that show the president in an other-than-flattering light. For the first couple of years, while insiders are still trying to advance and curry favor, background quotes in such articles and books tend to show the POTUS as resolute, thinking of the big picture while those around him pursue their narrow agendas, and doing all those admirable things Kipling once advised.

By now, the ship is leaking, figuratively and literally. While news stories about Ron Suskind’s new book Confidence Men have emphasized Tim Geithner’s supposed betrayal of Barack Obama on the question of winding down Citigroup, we should all be more interested in what the book tells us about Obama. The early accounts suggest that we should worry what he’s learned in the job so far.

I should note that I haven’t read the book and will purchase it on the same schedule as regular mortals. I guess I should note also that I’m on record as taking Suskind at his word in such matters. In early 2004, when Suskind and Bush Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill produced The Price of Loyalty, I reviewed it for The New York Times and found it persuasive.That book was the first to confirm what everyone knew anyway: that the Bush White House was run according to politics, not policy. Confidence Men also confirms what we knew about Obama’s White House: that the president appointed the wrong economic team from the start, failed to crack down on the banks, and was Solomonic to a fault when formulating responses to the financial crisis (oh, and news flash: Larry Summers is hard to work with!).

That would be interesting without being shocking. But the indictment goes one mortifying step deeper: Geithner and Summers and Rahm Emanuel, and perhaps others, sometimes ignored Obama, refused to carry out his orders, and, in Summers’s case, mocked him, saying at one point to then-Budget Director Peter Orszag that “there’s no adult in charge” in the White House. And while I don’t yet know whether Suskind emphasizes this point, let’s carry the critique one step further: They did so, as far as we know, without suffering any consequences at all.

That’s why the concern here isn’t what the book tells us about Geithner. It’s not completely clear from press accounts whether Geithner directly countermanded an order about Citi. In its article from last week, the Associated Press called Obama’s directive an “order to consider.” I often order my 14-month-old daughter to consider making less of a mess while eating. So who knows what that even means. But it does seem clear that once he learned that Geithner ignored this option, Obama didn’t do much of anything about it. And, well, Geithner does still have his job.

What now? Fire the staff, as James Carville suggested last week? Actually, that couldn’t hurt.

That’s the problem the book reveals. Adam Moss and Frank Rich of New York magazine did get an early copy and read it, and in an online dialogue posted over the weekend, they home in on what Rich calls Obama’s “intellectual blind spot.” Obama even recognized it himself, telling Suskind he was too inclined to look for “the perfect technical answer” to problems; Rich quotes Suskind as writing that Obama always favored policies that were “respectfully acknowledging opponents' positions, even those with thin evidence behind them, that then get stitched together into some pragmatic conclusion—but hollow.”

That sounds awfully apt to me. Obama was afraid to be the president. He listened to a dozen viewpoints and tried to come up with something that made everyone happy. Unfortunately, “everyone” included people on his team who were looking out for the banks more than for the public (or for their own boss), and it included people on Capitol Hill whose clear agenda was Obama’s political destruction. It’s the central—and depending on how the next election turns out, possibly decisive—paradox of this president: In trying way too hard to look presidential in the sense of “statesmanlike,” he has repeatedly ended up looking unpresidential in the sense of not being a leader.

What now? Fire the staff, as James Carville suggested last week? Actually, that couldn’t hurt, especially in Geithner’s case, and probably in Bill Daley’s (the apparent real target of Carville’s arrow). A dramatic gesture can help push the reset button. But it’s important that if they be replaced, they be replaced with the right kinds of people. Obama needs people who will push him to go against his instincts toward consensus. Tell him everything he doesn’t want to hear.

Most of all, remind him, and impolitely if need be, that there are millions and millions of Americans who invested great hope in him, and he has let them down. Let them down terribly. I wonder if anyone has ever uttered this deeply sad and plainly true sentence to the president’s face. If not, it’s high time.