'Confidence Men'

From Ron Suskind's new book:


The most withering assessments of Mr. Obama in this volume come from bickering former members of his economic team, a team that Richard Wolffe, the author of two books about Mr. Obama, has described as "the most dysfunctional group of the president's advisers." Mr. Suskind quotes a former chairman of the National Economic Council under Mr. Obama, Lawrence H. Summers -- who is himself characterized by colleagues in these pages as a bullying know-it-all who acted as a kind of gatekeeper to the Oval Office on things economic -- as saying to the budget director, Peter Orszag: "We're home alone. There's no adult in charge. Clinton would never have made these mistakes." 

Mr. Summers told The Washington Post in an e-mail on Friday that "the hearsay attributed to me" in the Suskind book "is a combination of fiction, distortion, and words taken out of context." Also quoted in "Confidence Men" is Paul A. Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman who headed the President's Economic Recovery Advisory Board, who describes the president as both "too self-confident" and too reliant on Mr. Summers: "Obama is smart, but smart is not enough. Leadership is another thing entirely, about knowing your mind enough to make real decisions, ones that last." 

 As for how women fared within the White House, Christina D. Romer, the former chairwoman of the Council of Economic Advisers, is quoted saying she "felt like a piece of meat" after being boxed out of a meeting by Mr. Summers. And the former communications director Anita Dunn is quoted saying the Obama White House "fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace to women." 

Questioned by reporters last week about these remarks, both women have said they were misquoted or that their comments had been misconstrued.


Dunn said Friday that she told Suskind "point-blank" that the White House "was not a hostile environment." Christina Romer, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, is quoted as saying, after being excluded by top economic adviser Lawrence H. Summers at a meeting, "I felt like a piece of meat." 

On Friday, Romer said, "I can't imagine that I ever said this." The book says Romer shared her thoughts with Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren, then a candidate to lead the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. "Why is it always the women?" Romer asked. "Why are we the only ones with the balls around here?" "I was told before I went to Washington that there has always been a lot of testosterone in the West Wing," 

Romer said Friday. "What was different in the Obama administration is that there were so many women in important positions and, when problems arose, the president worked hard to fix them. I felt respected, included and useful to the team."

It's really hard to believe that Suskind would simply manufacture quotes--almost as hard as it is to believe that high ranking public officials would give quotes like that to a journalist, and then turn around and lie about doing so.

Initially, reading the Times piece, I had flashbacks of 2008--the sexism, the experience question. Moreover, Suskind's reporting fits my worst gut-level impressions of the White House--the stuff that I might say over morning coffee, but not here. But all the damning portions are disputed by the people quoted. Make of it what you will.

This portion seems to stand up as true:

The president's own assessment of his first two years in office? Mr. Suskind says Mr. Obama told him that he, along with Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, shared "the disease of being policy wonks," that he had been "very comfortable with a technocratic approach to government," and that he needed to focus on the bigger picture. "Going forward as president," he said in the February 2011 interview, "the symbols and gestures -- what people are seeing coming out of this office -- are at least as important as the policies we put forward."

Those "symbols and gestures" are part and parcel to politics. And yeah, in a democracy, they're kind of important. I wasn't around for Carter, but I think Bill Clinton knew that. Obama knew that during the campaign. I don't know how he forgot it in the White House,
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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