September 25, 2011 9:42 pm

Confidence Men

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Ron Suskind’s insider’s account of the Obama administration contains all the seductive scenes, and irritating tics, of the now well-established genre of Beltway books.

Written in sharp, cinematic scenes, in which just about all the main players in the administration from the president down, are captured in full-blooded, uncensored conversation, Confidence Men sprawls across the multiple crises, inherited and self-inflicted, of the opening two years of the Obama presidency.

We learn what the president says when he whispers in his wife’s ear on stage; the thoughts that flash through the minds of key advisers at critical junctures or when they are strolling back to the office from lunch; and what Mr Obama thinks in the morning when he is shaving.

Actually, I made the last one up but I am not sure that it was not in the 500-page book somewhere. Such faux intimacies, of course, are both the strength and weakness of the instant histories that now routinely chronicle White House affairs.

The genre can be doubly problematic because the tendency for authors is to flatter the officials who have given them the most co-operation, inevitably dividing the cast of characters into heroes and villains.

Still, Suskind’s book cannot be dismissed as mere high-grade tittle-tattle, as he was given extensive access to White House officials, including an interview with Mr Obama himself. The White House criticism of the book in the week since it was released has a touch of buyer’s remorse about it.

Leaving aside Suskind’s florid overwriting and the numerous tangential tales that fill out his book, his central thesis deserves to be taken seriously.

Brilliant and inspiring on the one hand, Mr Obama is portrayed as a poor manager who too often falls back on refereeing disputes, be they within the White House or with Congress, rather than taking the lead himself.

When he set out on ambitious policy journeys, such as with healthcare and financial reform, the book contends he allowed disagreement among his staff to slide into dysfunction.

Much of what Suskind examines, like the deep tensions within the economic team, have been extensively covered in the press. But Mr Suskind provides grit and ballast to the tale, and even official confirmation in the form of an internal memo from one adviser, Peter Rouse, who describes in detail the policymaking mess.

There is no doubt, however, who is the biggest villain of Suskind’s tale. Larry Summers, the former Treasury secretary who headed the National Economic Council, is invariably described as intelligent, followed by countervailing adjectives, depicting him variously as childish, bullying, short-tempered, controlling, Kissingerian (as in manipulative), polluting and imperious.

Peter Orszag, the now departed budget director, complains that Summers behaved like someone “stealing gas from your gas tank and then criticising you for not being able to drive your car”.

It is not a flattering picture and one wonders whether it is all the worse because Summers did not co-operate sufficiently with the author.

Suskind also portrays the West Wing as a kind of man-cave, in which women advisers are excluded or ignored. “I felt like a piece of meat,” says Christina Romer, one of the economic advisers after one meeting.

Any harsh judgments about Mr Obama have to be tempered by the mess he inherited, of an economy in freefall and weighed down by financial overleveraging that will take years to unwind.

The general criticism of Mr Obama’s leadership style, however, still resonates in Washington. Indeed, many Obama supporters think that it is only over the last month, with his countrywide campaign to launch his jobs package, that he has managed to give himself a platform with which to relaunch his presidency.

Suskind describes a telling White House meeting in the early stages of the healthcare debate, when the industry’s providers and insurers, panicking about the impending reforms, feel they get Mr Obama’s measure. Once quaking in fear about what his plans for cost cutting could do to their profits, they sense the president’s “human frailities”, and the fact that his words were not being transmitted into action by his staff.

Certainly Republicans have lost their fear of the formidable candidate who swept them aside in the 2008 election. Since winning the November mid-term elections, they have seen less incentive to co-operate with him on even the most minor matters.

For all the book’s flaws, this part of it rings true. Mr Obama needs to get his authority back fast and his enemies need to fear him. If they do not, there may be no second-term books to write.

The writer is the FT’s Washington bureau chief

Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President, HarperColllins, RRP $29.99

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