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Confidence Men

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Arab Today, arab today Confidence Men

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The portrait of the Obama White House that the veteran journalist Ron Suskind draws in his searing new book, “Confidence Men,” is that of a young, inexperienced president lacking the leadership and managerial skills to deal effectively with the cascading economic problems he inherited; a brainy but detached executive with a tendency to frame policy matters intellectually “like a journalist, or narrator, or skilled observer”; an oddly passive C.E.O. whose directive on restructuring the banks in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis was, the author says, ignored or slow-walked by his own economic team.“Confidence Men,” Mr. Suskind says, was based on interviews with more than 200 people, including former and current members of the Obama administration, as well as the president himself. Because the book essentially begins with Mr. Obama’s crash course in economics as a candidate and ends in early 2011, Mr. Suskind does not place the mismanagement and indecisiveness he describes in these pages in perspective with the tough-minded decision by Mr. Obama to sign off on the high-risk mission that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden in May. Given the country’s continuing economic woes, high unemployment and worries among Democrats about Mr. Obama’s re-election prospects, the book makes for timely reading, though its truncated scope means that it does not deal with the debt ceiling fight or Mr. Obama’s more recent efforts to address the jobs crisis.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.Given these denials, how is the reader to evaluate the accuracy of the accounts here? Why have so many people in the Obama administration vented to Mr. Suskind in the first place, when the president was only partway through his first term? Like many of Bob Woodward’s sources a lot of them are motivated by spin, score settling and second-guessing. Given the stalled economy and the president’s sliding poll numbers, some former staff members are playing the blame game early, while others seem to be hoping to goad the president into a reboot and a more aggressive stance before the 2012 election.Mr. Suskind — a Pulitzer Prize winner and former reporter at The Wall Street Journal — has a flair for taking material he’s harvested to create narratives with a novelistic sense of drama. With Mr. Obama, who is depicted here as having lost the thread of his own story line, Mr. Suskind supplies a story line of his own: that of “a brilliant amateur” whose early tenure in office was marked by drift, hesitancy and an inability “to translate his will into policy on the occasions when he could decide on a coherent path.”Mr. Obama emerges in this volume as an oddly passive chief executive whose modus operandi was to sketch out overarching principles, “wait until others had painted in those outlines with hard proposals” and then “step down from his above-the-fray perch to close the deal.” In “Confidence Men” Mr. Suskind suggests that this approach ceded oversight of the hard details of policy to others (Congress in the case of health care; the Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, and his deputies in the case of fiscal reform), leading to a loss of control and momentum.

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