Barack Obama, In The Vise

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Ezra Klein says Ron Suskind didn't prove his anti-Larry Summers thesis in Confidence Men. The real confidence man: Barack Obama.

Klein's essay for The New York Review of Books is a review of Suskind's blockbuster insider account of the Obama administration's debates about economic policy. Klein says Suskind doesn't entirely prove the villainy of the insiders he trashes in the book, including Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and former adviser Lawrence Summers.

The harsh judgment of Suskind's book about the administration's failure to more vigorously confront the recession ignores key factors, most notably political possibility. He couldn't have wangled more stimulus out of the Congress if he wanted to, Klein argues, and the steadfast opposition of Republicans (and some Democrats) tied the hands of the administration.

The problem is political. Having very publicly passed a very big policy that you promised would revive the economy, the country blames you when the economy does not, in fact, revive. Your policies are discredited and your opponents are emboldened. You lose seats in the next election and your leverage over lawmakers. So you can’t, with any prospect of success, go back to the well and ask for a bigger stimulus or more money to buy up bad mortgages. And then, when the economy gets worse, you’re simultaneously in charge and out of options. You came to Washington promising change and now you’re begging for patience. It’s a crummy situation, and there’s no combination of policy proposals or speeches that can get you out of it. But this is the vise that has tightened around Barack Obama’s presidency.

And Obama sowed the seeds for dissatisfaction himself. "Being a confidence man is almost in the job description of the insurgent presidential candidate," Klein writes. "Having not been president before, you must, by definition, ask the American people for a trust you have not earned."

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That dynamic has meant Obama's accomplishments seem underwhelming, while his failures and requests for understanding fall on unforgiving ears.

He gave America hope. He made America believe he could deliver change. And, by the standards of Washington, he has probably done more than anyone could rightly have expected. Stimulus, health care reform, the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the payroll tax cut, new tobacco regulation—this is much more than your average first-term president achieves. But by the standards of the speeches and spirit that animated Obama’s campaign, he has not done nearly enough.

No wonder that the answer to Nate Silver's question in The New York Times MagazineIs Obama Toast? — very plausibly could be: Yes.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.