What Suskind’s Book Really Says About Obama’s Presidency — and America

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Readers often find in texts the meaning they bring to them. That dynamic is well under way in early reviews of veteran journalist Ron Suskind’s Confidence Men, which goes on sale Tuesday.

The dominant story in the political world this September is that Barack Obama’s presidency is on the ropes: his poll numbers are down, the economy is stagnant and his political maneuvering room has been severely curtailed. His potential 2012 presidential opponents, especially Mitt Romney, have built their campaigns around the idea that Obama is too inexperienced in leadership and economics to handle the crisis he inherited upon taking office.

Not surprisingly, political observers at places like the Washington Post and Politico, among others, have read Suskind’s new book as being fundamentally about Obama’s managerial and leadership weaknesses. To be sure, there’s material to work with in Confidence Men. In a momentary attempt at burying the hatchet, former National Economic Council chief Larry Summers supposedly told his nemesis, OMB chief Peter Orszag, that there was “no adult in charge” at the White House during the first years of the crisis. Obama admits to Suskind in an interview that he had communications problems early on. And the overall picture Suskind presents is one of fierce debates over how to respond to the massive financial crisis, with Obama entering the picture sometimes belatedly or not at all.

Naturally, the White House has felt a need to push back against this narrative, alleging misquotes and errors by Suskind. Obama’s communications team and several people quoted in the book, including Summers, have launched a full-bore attempt to undermine Confidence Men and its assertions. The result, of course, is that the discussion of the book has become even more focused on Obama and the shortcomings of his presidency.

In fact, the stories Suskind reports, even if universally accurate in letter and spirit, don’t present an abnormally dysfunctional White House. If Obama doesn’t look to be in complete control, the question is, Compared to whom? When viewed next to the chaos of the Clinton White House, the management struggles laid out in Confidence Men are hardly shocking. As for personnel strife, the clashes between Summers and Orszag look like kindergarten spats next to those between Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell. Most important is the context of these debates: the players were trying to save the financial system of the U.S., save its auto industry, pass a massive health care reform bill and a financial-reform act, and push through a huge Keynesian stimulus in an attempt to make up for a catastrophic drop in GDP.

What is obscured in all the focus on Obama’s management style is the book’s larger message about the dangerous problems with America’s political system. Part of the blame for this rests with Suskind. He has done a huge amount of reporting: some 746 hours of interviews with more than 200 people went into the making of the book, he says. But while it pushes its way through in-the-weeds accounts that are fascinating to those of us who follow this stuff closely, it lacks a clearly defined chronological or thematic structure. Part of the blame also rests with the publisher, who, naturally enough, has been touting the elements of the book most likely to catch the attention of political reporters.

But at the heart of Confidence Men, on page 292, one eventually finds what it is all about — and it’s not Obama:

“The confidence of a nation rests on trust and can endure for years after this trust has been broken. But it cannot endure indefinitely if the foundation of trust is not at some point earned. Confidence is the immaterial residue of material actions; justly enforced laws, sound investments, solidly built structures, the well-considered decisions of experts and professionals. Confidence is the public face of competence. Separating the two—gaining the trust without earning it—is the age-old work of confidence men.”

Suskind is not calling Obama a confidence man here. Rather, he presents a President who is not up to the task of outmaneuvering a political and economic system that is packed full of confidence men. What the book is trying to show is that Obama — and indeed, the American presidency — is just one player in the larger U.S. political and economic system that has abandoned its values and may only be beginning to pay the price.