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Bare Bones Obama

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Ron Suskind's account of the Obama administration is a marker of our times. It reveals a President of the United States unable to perform responsibly the duties of his high office and the costly consequences. Those consequences go beyond a failure to deal effectively with multiple crises. The probity of the American government itself has been put in jeopardy. They include the destructive behavior of officials who are allowed the tacit license to act as privateers to the point of insubordination. They include the cavalier betrayal of ideas, persons, interests and voters which won Mr. Obama the White House, a flight from accountability that led to an historic political defeat. This tragic saga features a President who in his own words, as recorded in the book's last paragraphs, hails his brilliant insight that what really counts is not what he does or does not do, but rather that most of the American people feel pretty good about their country. The Reagan ethos advanced as the finest pearl of wisdom on stewarding of the nation. Reagan, let us remember, has been cited often as Obama's model leader.

In normal circumstance, such a soberly written book by a Pulitzer Prize winner that is based on extensive interviews with most principals (many of whom are quoted extensively), free of partisanship, could be expected to create a sensation. Not a sensation in the celebrity news vein. Rather, a soul searching as to how and why we have fallen into so feckless a state. Quite the opposite. The reaction to Suskind's "Confidence Men" in the mainstream media and among the political class has been to disparage Suskind the man while sloughing over the deeply troubling picture he presents of life at the top of the Republic. From the Washington Post to the New York Review of Books, reviewers reach for every device to distract from the stunning truth while harping on minutia of journalistic method. For liberals, the evident imperative is to justify their own credulity and naivete, and to do so by rallying around America's first 'black' president whose education and vocabulary makes him one of them. For the radical right, it's just business as usual in picking and choosing whatever is at hand for whacking Obama and the Democrats. Exposure of how he sold out to conservative interests wholesale is ignored for interfering with their absurd story line. From economists, there is the reflexive rationalization of the dogmatic market fundamentalist ideas that then and down have brought the American economy to its knees. It is accompanied by patronizing, self-serving criticism that Suskind doesn't prove that anything could have been done better. For students of the presidency, this remarkable work of a credible journalist is devalued as material on which to make sound judgments or reach fair conclusions on the Obama presidency or the current state of American public life. It follows that intellectuals disengage from a reality that obliges them to face up to how the deformation of our institutions is so sharply at variance with deeply entrenched convictions about what the United States government is. For what remains of our conscientious citizenry, the harsh truth is lost amidst the omnipresent noise and clutter that leaves the meaningful indistinguishable from the meaningless. Moreover, the full import of what is revealed requires actually reading the book rather relying on the tendentious pseudo-reviews whose intention is to obscure its significance.

The most telling episodes concern the mishandling of the financial crisis in the administration's first six months. Much of the story is known: the selection of Wall Street insiders Tim Geithner and Larry Summers, among others, to design and run the rescue efforts; the supreme importance given to making the mega-banks whole; the diffusion of blame for the disaster across American society so as to dissipate anger at the financial barons. Suskind's contribution to this tale of woe is to give us a fine grained picture of Obama's passive place in the deliberations - some formal, the most important in corridors where the Chief Executive was not present - that led to a subordination of the public interest to the wants of the bankers and their associates. At no time, did the President exercise either intellectual or political control. Presiding rather than leading, he followed the now recognizable script in casting himself the above-the-fray conciliator more interested in maintaining good will than making hard decisions. Content in the belief that he was always the smartest person in the room, Obama was more concerned with the appearance of authority than in actually commanding his government. As a consequence, there was no direction set by the White house along with an absence of policy coordination and monitoring. The other parties, by contrast, knew what they wanted and were ruthless in bypassing the President in going after it.

Most stunning was the presumption of Tim Geithner. The Treasury Secretary had spent his professional life as an obedient servant of the financial powerhouses who ruled American finance. He aided and abetted the deregulation craze, he performed his duties as President of the New York fed accordingly. Once ensconced in Washington by Obama, he set out to do their bidding in assuring Wall Street that they would come through the financial debacle with power and pocketbook intact. He succeeded beyond their expectations. Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein met with Geithner 39 times in the course 2009. The Treasury Secretary's office became his home away from home. The most stunning case in point was his insistence on paying off their AIG insurance contracts at 100% on the dollar (with taxpayer money) - despite legal advice and counsel that he had no obligation to do so. A payment of $13 billion went to Goldman Sachs whose claims were among the most dubious. When this unseemly transaction was reported by Gretchen Morgenson in The New York Times, Geithner personally called her at Goldman's behest to transmit their assertion that other risk coverage would have protected from loss had AIG/USA not paid up and to insist on a public correction. When Morgenson asked whether he had seen the documentation, Geithner admitted 'no' but he thought Goldman Sachs trustworthy. During these critical months GS head Lloyd Blankfein spoke in person to Geithner 39 times, i.e. more frequently than the Secretary's conversations with the President. The kicker is that this Wall Street errand boy had no compunction about disobeying a command of the President of the United states to prepare a contingency plan for the nationalization of CITI bank. Queried by his aides, Geithner blithely replied that it wasn't necessary since there was no chance that Obama would ever return to the matter. He, like several others, had read Obama correctly: a man averse to taking of clear positions, and ambivalent about outcomes, who gives tacit license to his officials to act unaccountably themselves. Similar contempt for the occupant of the Oval office was shown by Chief Economic adviser Summers who habitually assumed that decisions reached in the cabinet room under the President's aegis were malleable. He then set about reformulating them, ignoring them or undercutting them. The fundamental elements of executive competence are a coherent process of deliberation, absolute clarity in affirming what is decided, and having mechanism in place for scrupulous monitoring to ensure that implementation conforms to what was intended. These traits are notable by their absence in the Obama White House. The president is away travelling more days than he is in the Oval Office. What does and does not happen during these periods is problematic given the loose and highly individualized style that pervades the White House. The president is absent even when present.

Larry Summers is quoted as saying, "We're home alone. There's no adult in charge." Like juveniles, he and the others ran amok as policy making became a shambles.

As Suskind's narrative shows, it is not only Obama's subordinates who exploit the leadership void. The same cavalier attitude toward the office and person of the President was shown by the health care industry and Big Pharma as they repeatedly took Obama to the cleaners through sheer force of will. Within weeks of the transparency president's taking office, he made clandestine deals to forego the 'public option' and any legislation to curb the cost of drugs to Medicare and Medicaid. They judged that they were dealing with a man who neither knew his mind nor would fight aggressively in the rare event that he did in fact have any solid conviction. In short, they played Obama for a fool - and never had reason to regret doing so.

What has President Obama learned from all this? "Going forward as president, the symbols and gestures... are at least as important as the policies we put forward." On the surrender in December 2010 on extending the Bush tax cuts: "the country will feel better about itself and that will have important ramifications, if they see Democrats and Republicans agreeing on anything."

Weep, my beloved country.