For a White House seeking to regain footing on the economy, this book hurts.
Journalist Ron Suskind, granted extraordinary access to President Obama and his inner circle, has delivered a vicious take on the Obama White House’s economic team in the new book “Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President.”
Suskind depicts rivalries that led to dysfunction and even insubordination in the young months of a new presidency. At the middle of all of it, by Suskind’s account, was a president whose top aides were feuding and bitter as they sought to cope with the worst financial crisis in generations.
“We’re home alone,” Larry Summers, who was director of the White House National Economic Council until last year, is quoted as griping to a colleague, Peter Orszag. “There’s no adult in charge. Clinton would never have made these mistakes.”
The White House is fiercely disputing the accounts of the Suskind book, calling it a combination of half-truths and old news, dramatized for effect. Several of those quoted in the book are already claiming they were misquoted, or had their words taken out of context by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author.
“It doesn’t sound at all accurate to me,” Jared Bernstein, who served as Vice President Joe Biden’s chief economist until earlier this year, told ABC News. Bernstein was in many of the meetings referenced in the book, and was among the White House aides interviewed by Suskind for the project.
“You put a bunch of economists in a room, you are going to argue and squabble,” Bernstein added. “We have disagreements. But the team worked well together and actually came up with unified decisions at the end of most of those arguments.”
Yet Summers’ comparison to former President Bill Clinton — coming from someone who worked closely with both men — is a particular slight to a Democratic president whose reelection hopes hinge on the ability to sell an economic plan to a skeptical public.
Obama’s standing with the public is at or near low points in several measurements, from general approval rating to specific faith in his ability to revive the economy. His support among independents and core Democrats is eroding, just as the Republican presidential field begins to take shape.
Warning signs for the president abound after last week’s special-election losses, including the loss of a New York City House race in a district that hasn’t sent a Republican to Congress in nearly 90 years.
Also last week, former Clinton hand James Carville made headlines by calling on the president to “panic.” His recipe included firing “a lot of people,” so the president is no longer relying on the “same political and economic advisers that got us into this mess.”
As for those advisers, many have moved out of formal roles in the White House. But their memories will linger on in Suskind’s book.
Two female members of the president’s senior team sound off about a White House they depict as a boys’ club — reminiscent of the criticism the president received in 2009 for golfing and playing basketball exclusively with men.
“This place would be in court for a hostile workplace,” former White House communications director Anita Dunn is quoted as saying. “Because it actually fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace to women.”
Christina Romer, Obama chair of the Council of Economic Advisers until last year, suggests in the book that her views weren’t taken seriously. According to Suskind, she said of being excluded from a meeting arranged by Summers: “I felt like a piece of meat.”
Romer denies having said that. Dunn also says she was badly misquoted by Suskind, and Summers has released a statement calling the descriptions of him “hearsay” and “a combination of fiction, distortion, and words taken out of context.”
ABC News contacted Suskind over the weekend, but the author said he is not speaking publicly about the book until its release.
Suskind’s previous books made big splashes in Washington, and his accuracy has been called into question before. But the author bases his reporting on more than mere gossip: He claims 746 hours of interviews with more than 200 individuals, including several White House aides who cooperated with the book.
President Obama himself sat down for 50 minutes with Suskind, in a session that included an unfavorable comparison to two of his predecessors.
“Carter, Clinton and I all have sort of the disease of being policy wonks,” Obama told Suskind.
The next few days will be critical for perceptions around the book. Which damaging quotes were on taped conversations with Suskind, and which were based on recollections that came months later — and from aides with complicated motivations — will in part dictate the success of White House efforts to squelch the book’s impact.
White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer said he isn’t concerned about books that include “salacious details based on anonymous accounts.”
“The truth is simple and well known: President Obama and his economic team walked into office during the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and took bold, decisive action that prevented the collapse of the financial system, saving millions of jobs and putting the economy back in a place where it is creating jobs and growing again,” Pfeiffer said. “The president made very tough decisions in the most difficult of circumstances and his team executed those decisions faithfully and tirelessly.
Such insider accounts tend not to fascinate the public, or change the narratives that define a presidency. But it’s yet another obstacle for a White House that’s been scrambling to stay ahead of the news, particularly the grim economic forecast that’s shaping the run-up to the 2012 eleciton.
Bernstein said the book, while clearly not helpful, will quickly be overtaken by Washington events.
“It feels to me like a Washington blip that will last a half of a news cycle,” he said.