The Confidence Crumbles
Posted on Nov 9, 2011
To compare Geithner and Summers to Joe Kennedy is a reach. Kennedy was so instrumental for Roosevelt in setting up the Securities and Exchange Commission because he knew Wall Street from the inside as a master operator, had made all the money he could ever need, and, crucially, was bursting with zeal to move into the public sector and never look back, even if it meant that his old colleagues from Wall Street wouldn’t invite him to dinner ever again. There has been no one remotely like this in a position of real power under Obama—especially not Summers or Geithner. The irony of Obama’s Joe Kennedy reference is that a comparable figure, in equal measures expert and unencumbered, is precisely what he has needed, and lacked. This is something Obama surely knows at this point.
There are more answers of this sort going forward: clever—respectfully acknowledging opponents’ positions, even those with thin evidence behind them, that then get stitched together into some pragmatic conclusion—but hollow. With today’s Warren announcement also part of the broader counterattack on progressives’ criticisms, the president then unabashedly champions Warren, speaking as though he has named her head of the bureau. A light bit of chat about Paul McCartney and the Obama girls closes out the lengthy (hour-and-change) interview. Obama bids the visiting journalists adieu and leaves to confer with aides outside the office.
Then suddenly he’s back, enlivened and ready to say something—as if the person the journalists had sat with for the last hour in the Oval Office was not the person he’d intended for them to meet.
“One closing remark that I want to make: It is inexcusable for any Democrat or progressive right now to stand on the sidelines in this midterm election. There may be complaints about us not having certain things done, not fast enough, making certain legislative compromises. But right now, we’ve got a choice between a Republican Party that has moved to the right of George Bush and is looking to lock in the same policies that got us into these disasters in the first place, versus an administration that, with some admitted warts, has been the most successful administration in a generation in moving progressive agendas forward. The idea that we’ve got a lack of enthusiasm in the Democratic base, that people are sitting on their hands complaining, is just irresponsible.”
Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President
By Ron Suskind
Harper, 528 pages
He continues, passionate, punching the air, throwing some jabs at 527s and the Roberts Court, which had freed companies to spend at will, without disclosure, as political actors, leaving Democrats heavily outspent in the current midterm campaign. Then he brings it to a crescendo.
“We have to get folks off the sidelines. People need to shake off this lethargy, people need to buck up. Bringing about change is hard—that’s what I said during the campaign. It has been hard, and we’ve got some lumps to show for it. But if people now want to take their ball and go home, that tells me folks weren’t serious in the first place.”
The speech he’s referring to “during the campaign” was witnessed by only a few hundred people. It was the darkest moment of his run, in early October 2007, after an American Research Group poll put him 33 points behind Hillary Clinton, with only three months to go until the all-important Iowa Caucus. Obama gathered his National Finance Committee, the campaign’s top givers, in the auditorium of a Des Moines hotel for a do-or-die meeting. He explained to them that they were running a different kind of campaign, a genuine from-the-bottom-up, grassroots effort, that it had never been done before, not like this, and that it took time for those roots to take hold. The heavy hitters nodded: fine, they understood the concept. But it wasn’t working. The dispiriting national polls were one thing, but a recent Des Moines Register piece had Obama running third in Iowa.
Obama listened to them air their doubts for an hour or so before responding. Then his gaze, filled with the flinty resolve of tough love, swept over the crowd.
“Did you think I was kidding when I said this was the unlikely journey? I never said this was going to be simple or easy. You thought this would be simple? Change is never simple. Change is hard.” He dug deep, his voice dropping to a whisper. “Listen, I know you’re nervous. I understand. But if you’re nervous, I’ll hold your hand. We’re going to get through this together. I promise we will. And if we can win Iowa, we’ll win this country.” Many of those in the room, among them not a few Wall Street financiers, cheered, moisture creeping into their eyes. They opened their wallets, one last time, giving a campaign on life support a final transfusion. Of course, he did go on to win Iowa and “win this country.”
Now Obama is in the depths again, but there’s no one’s hand to hold. No one, outside of a few people in this iconic building, understands what the past two years have held, or what they’ve revealed to this man and those gathered tightly around him.
By being himself—an alluring and inspiring self, supremely confident yet expressing humility, speaking powerfully of grabbing history’s arc and bending it toward justice—Obama became the first black president. But more and more, walking the halls of this building, he doesn’t feel like himself—someone who could bring people together, who could map common ground and, upon it, build a future.
Disputes among his top advisers have become so acute, so fierce, that the president has had to step in and mediate many of them himself. He’s not getting what he needs to manage this daunting job, and some advisers have become convinced that his lack of experience, especially managerial experience, may be his undoing; that, at a time of peril, the president may simply not be up to the demands of this moment. But his gratitude for those who’ve ushered him to power, and have walked with him through battle, gets in the way of tough love, at least with those closest to him. There are top aides he’s wanted to remove for months or even longer, but can’t seem to. He knows he should, that no organization can run without accountability.
But today, as he runs between events and interviews—struggling to square the circle between pitiless reality and high ideals that, on Election Day, allowed him to claim kinship with FDR—President Obama is feeling oddly buoyant.
In the past few days, he’s caught a break. The mayor of Chicago decided not to run for reelection. That means his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, will be seeking “other opportunities” and the president won’t have to worry about firing him.
All taken care of. Emanuel will be out by month’s end to resume his political career. Many other top advisers are now planning their exits.
After that, maybe Obama can at least attempt a fresh start, a next chapter. There’s no perch, anywhere, like the presidency, with the daily burdens of office, the weight of history—and all in a fishbowl, with the world, some of it malevolent, watching every move. Which is why a president who doesn’t feel quite like himself often portends a crisis of leadership. But change presents opportunity—always—and the ground is now shifting beneath Obama’s feet. And soon enough, the president of the United States may get a chance to resume his conversation with the men whose busts stare from the cabinet behind his favorite wing chair, looking, with icy grandeur, over his narrow shoulders.
Excerpted with permission from “Confidence Men” by Ron Suskind. HarperCollins Publishers 2011.
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