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Fall from grace

28 January 2012

5:00 PM

28 January 2012

5:00 PM

Confidence Men Ron Suskind

HarperCollins, pp.528, 19.99

The Obamas: A Mission, a Marriage Jodi Kantor

Allen Lane, pp.368, 14.99

Barack Obama is not up to the job. That is Ron Suskind’s oft-repeated contention. The President, he states, compromised with, rather than curbed, failing American financial institutions, and has surrounded himself with warring staffers who are either no more competent than he is or, if expert, disregard his wishes.

Following a picture caption that reads ‘Obama showed real weakness in managing his own White House,’ Suskind, a Pulitzer Prize winner, justifies his title:

The confidence of the nation rests on trust.Confidence is the immaterial residue of material actions: justly enforced laws, sound investments, solidly built structures . . . . Gaining the trust without earning it is the age-old work of the confidence men.

Suskind maintains that

just a month and a half into Barack Obama’s presidency, theWhite House was slipping into a kind of dysfunction. As the President tried to rise to the demands of his job, the White House was increasingly being directed by a back-channel union between two forceful men: Rahm Emanuel and Larry Summers.

(Neither is still in the President’s service.)

When Emanuel was Obama’s first chief of staff, American banks ‘were sitting on huge piles of toxic mortgage-related assets, according to the President, which put a drag on the flow of credit and created wider uncertainty in the economy.’ Nonetheless, Emanuel insisted that any news from the White House must be positive. Here he addresses his staff:

‘Everyone shut the fuck up. Let me be clear — taking down the banking system in a program that would cost $700 billion is a fantasy.’ He threw a hard glance at [Treasury Secretary] Geithner. ‘Listen; it’s not going to fucking happen. We have no fucking credibility. So give it up. The job of everyone in this room is to move the President, when he gets back, towards a solution that works.’

Lawrence Summers, ex-President of Harvard, appointed to run the National Economic Council, handled the economy. A bad Obama choice, writes Suskind: ‘This has been a pattern for Summers: to assume that his opinions in areas well outside his expertise are nonetheless sound.’ Speaking to a close associate, Summers said (and later denied): ‘You know, Peter, we’re really home alone. I mean it. There’s no adult in charge.’ Suskind agrees:

Decisions were left unmade; policies drifted without direction. The President seemed to grasp the nature of key policy dilemmas like a journalist, or narrator, or skilled observer. The problem was in guiding the analysis towards what the President is paid, and elected, to do: make tough decisions.

The President responded to the policy crisis with ‘improbable combinations, blended solutions, the integrating of opposites. This was the Obama method, in his life and in his work.’

The top women in the White House, Suskind relates, veterans of high-level public service, protested that Obama appeared to favour men, ‘especially Summers and Emanuel — and not the strong and accomplished women sitting nearby’. Although the President was ‘sceptical’, he held a dinner for a dozen of the senior women. In his ever-casual style he said: ‘I really want you guys to talk to me about this openly.’ They told him. Obama ‘listened awkwardly’. He observed that because certain men could walk into his office — where his guests knew true power lay — it didn’t mean he slighted the women’s opinions. Unconvinced, one of them said later: ‘After the dinner we all decided we’d rather have had dinner just by ourselves.’ The President dismissed their concerns — this is unsourced — as a ‘non-issue’, a ‘blip’.

If you don’t mind American argot like  ‘ace-time’, ‘pie-fight’ and ‘pulling an all-nighter’ you will sail right through this book. Suskind creates a ‘you are there’ atmosphere, while showing in his endnotes that his quotations from direct speech are drawn from interviews. But in the text the quoted words are accompanied by gestures. A Congresswoman and her staff ‘visibly rolled their eyes’. People nod, bang the table, frown and shrug. Do high officials in Washington carry tape recorders and concealed cameras? Paraphrasing would have convinced me more. Nevertheless, if a book like Confidence Men were published here — and libel lawyers vetted it — David Cameron would be lucky to survive.

Michelle Obama is nearly invisible in Suskind’s narrative. What we see in Jodi Kantor’s fluently written book, however, is an extra-intelligent determined black woman from a poor but striving family that propelled her to Princeton, Harvard Law School, top jobs at the Bar, and into public service. This is what she told a newspaper as her husband approached high office:

What I notice about men, all men, is that their order is me, my family — and God is in there somewhere. But me is first. And for women, me is fourth, and that’s not healthy. I’ve had to come to the point of figuring out what kind of life I want for myself beyond what Barack is and what he wants.

Once in the White House, Kantor contends, ‘Michelle Obama alternated between avoiding and trying to compensate for the mess her husband was in.’ Barack, a graduate of Columbia and Harvard Law — after Michelle graduated — had been primarily a community organiser when he entered the law firm where his wife-to-be mentored him. He had never run anything. Until 2004 they lived in a modest condominium in Chicago. The White House has ‘132 rooms, six levels, 35 bathrooms, 412 doors, and three elevators.’ Months after the inauguration ‘butlers were still emerging … they had no idea what had transpired’. Cleaners, valets, and butlers were everywhere. So was the Secret Service, with whom arrangements had to be made if Michelle or her children wanted to stroll on the White House lawn. She lived in fear that her family might be assassinated. For some time she had considered keeping herself and the girls in familiar Chicago and commuting to Washington.

Whatever his shortcomings, the President, ex officio, was first among non-equals. Michelle pointed to a picture of her husband in a magazine: ‘Look, I’m in the picture, too.That’s my elbow.’ Without seeming like a fly on the White House wall, Kantor shows us a woman in a familiar jam. In a recent obituary of Lady Runcie, the pretty, sexy, irreverent widow of the late archbishop is reported as saying of official occasions, ‘lots of times they do not really want me there. I’m only there as a decoration. I resent having to go there, smiling.’ All First Ladies, Kantor notes, have to learn, endure or work within this kind of arrangement.

Central to this double biography is the question of race. Over the years, many of the White House’s more menial staff have been black. ‘The racial history of the White House was baked into the very bricks, many of which had been fired and moulded by slaves. Several presidents brought their slaves with them while in office.’ Even the name, White House, came about after President Theodore Roosevelt caused a public outcry by inviting a famous black man, Booker T. Washington, to dinner in 1901. To placate the critics, Kantor writes, the President gave the building its present name. The Obamas believed that many Americans thought that they had undeservedly benefitted from years of Affirmative Action. Onto this racism were piled the related slurs about Barack Obama himself, still believed by many Americans to be a Muslim born in Kenya, who had either not graduated from Columbia or Harvard or had played the race card while there. By the end of their two years in Washington, the Obamas had narrowed their innermost circle to a handful of black old friends.

What Jodi Kantor has given us is the story of a brilliant woman with a less brilliant (as he admits) but talented husband who, like many past American presidents, may not be qualified for the world’s top job. In her first year as First Lady

Michelle continued to struggle. Her relationship with her chief-of-staff [a woman] was falling apart, because she felt Norris was not a forceful enough advocate for her with the West Wing. There was still no central project for her First Ladyhood, no major goals into which she could pour her natural intensity, years of professional experience and desire to contribute.

Kantor contends convincingly that Michelle ‘had entered the White House with her expectations low and then exceeded them; Barack had entered on top of the world and has been descending to earth ever since.’

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