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Ron Suskind and his surprisingly funny account of what went wrong with Obama.

November 18, 2011

Explaining what went wrong with the Obama administration, reporter Ron Suskind seemed to channel the spirit of Mort Sahl at the Miami Book Fair last night. (Hint: Think Wall Street.)

Who is Mort Sahl? Oh, I am sorry. Mort Sahl was a brainy topical comedian who had his heyday in the ’50s and ’60s, making stinging jokes about Eisenhower, Nixon, Kennedy.

Miami Book Fair International continues today with the opening of the weekend Street Fair, featuring more than 400 authors. Tonight: Nicole Krauss at 8. For a complete schedule visit the fair’s website.

That’s before even my time, but I have to reach so far back to find a comedic analogue for Suskind, a Pulitzer-prize winning investigative reporter, because almost all of today’s comedians play up their idiocy, not their smarts.

And Ron Suskind is very smart indeed.

Former senior national affairs reporter for the Wall Street Journal, Suskind is the author of several bestselling nonfiction books, including The Price of Loyalty, a scathing inside look at the workings of the Bush Administration.

But Suskind really “kicked the hornets’ nest,” he joked, when he wrote his latest book, Confidence Men, which does the same service for the presidency of Barack Obama.

What makes Confidence Men so controversial is its portrait of the way Wall Street has been able to co-opt Obama’s best intentions from the inside out, thwarting meaningful reform and keeping the nation mired in unemployment.

Suskind said Obama the candidate had an excellent and effective economic team, headed by former fed chairman Paul Volker, and including former SEC  chairman William Donaldson, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, and Robert Wolf, chairman and CEO of UBS Group Americas.

It was Wolf, Suskind said, who alerted candidate Obama to the impending economic calamity as early as Aug. 2007. The economic advisory team was advocating “a tough line” on restructuring Wall Street.

“What happens?” asked Suskind with a kind of sorrowful joy, delighted to bear the news even if it’s bad-verging-on-tragic. “Wall Street takes one look at Obama and says, if he gets elected with these guys then we are toast. They get busy and put together their own team with Larry Summers and Tim Geithner.”

According to Suskind, and as reported in Confidence Men, by the time Obama took office in January 2008, Summers and Geithner had infiltrated Obama’s economic team — Summers as director of the White House National Economic Council, Geithner as Secretary of the Treasury.

Once in power, not only did they urge caution on the president, blunting his reformist instincts. Geithner also, according to Suskind, simply refused to carry out Obama’s decisions.

For example, Obama wanted a financial transaction tax that, says Suskind, would have dampened reckless trading on Wall Street and raised $150 billion in revenue each year. Geithner simply refused to develop the plan.

“Geithner says the leader doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Suskind said, “and I’m not going to let it happen.”

There are heroes in the story Suskind tells, the chief of whom  is Volker. Suskind also praised the strong women in the administration, led by Elizabeth Warren.

In Washington, he said, some of the men “have a little bit of ….envy toward Wall Street,” Suskind said, a line that got a laugh. “But the women don’t.” He quoted a conversation between two women in the Administration: “Why are we the only ones with balls?”

Despite the mutinous subversion of some members of his Administration, Obama as president is solely responsible for the failures of the first two years of his time in office — years, Suskind says, when he could have forced compromise on weakened Republicans, mounted a large enough stimulus to make a difference, and reformed Wall Street to energize the economy and prevent something like the housing bubble from happening again.

Instead, Obama was undone by his lack of administrative experience — of which, Suskind says, he had none.

In reporting Confidence Men, Suskind interviewed every major administration official involved, including President Obama — “And I have the tapes!”

Suskind said, “It’s hard not to sympathize with Obama….It’s hard not to feel an ennui, a loss. He seemed to be a vessel for all our hopes.”

The question now, Suskind said, concerns Obama’s learning curve: Has the president learned enough in his first rough years in office to become an effective and forceful leader? With a year remaining before the 2012 election, the president has time to right his administration.

“The president is brilliant,” Suskind says, “but is it the kind of brilliance that results in a great presidency? When you are president, all the decisions are tough.”

Obama could begin, Suskind said, by refusing Wall Street campaign contributions.

“Why doesn’t he say, I don’t need that money,” Suskind demanded. “I have the bully pulpit! Because once you take that money you lose the right to moral indignation. Wall Street knows that.”

Between his opening remarks and the questions he took from the audience, Suskind spoke for nearly two information-rich, frequently hilarious hours. He began by lamenting the decline of newspapers, and near the end he delivered a pitch-perfect impersonation of Watergate-era Sen. Sam Irvin of North Carolina, a Democrat with a rich country drawl.

As far as I could tell, not one of the 400 or so members of his audience got up and left. They were too busy laughing, applauding — and thinking.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 18, 2011 2:20 pm

    Always liked Suskind. Wished I could have heard this one. Thanks for the report.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    November 19, 2011 9:46 am

    My pleasure.

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