In excerpts below from their discussion, Frank Rich and Adam Moss talk about Ron Susskind’s new book Confidence Men — published tomorrow — about president-elect Obama’s choice of his economic team in 2008, and how it became dysfunctional.
“Adam: Hi, Frank. So there’s a little commotion about this new book Confidence Men, by Ron Suskind, which is being published on Tuesday. And as it happens, you and I have actually read it! So let’s talk about that this week. To give readers a super-fast overview, it’s a book, essentially, about Obama’s economic team during his first two years in office. The news of the book, according to some reports, is that Tim Geithner was insubordinate to the president, pursuing his own pro-banker agenda. Or, according to other reports, that Larry Summers was insubordinate to the president, pursuing his own — well, monomaniacal agenda. I’d add that it’s also about Rahm Emanuel being insubordinate to the president, just because. Basically, it’s about the presidency being hijacked by these three guys. And the guys thing is important because they’re pretty awful to women. Anyway, they’re the villains. Paul Volcker, Christina Romer, and Elizabeth Warren are the heroes. Bankers win, America loses. Did I get that right?
“Frank: Hi, Adam, and yes, you did! I would point out that among the other heroes are more women (Sheila Bair, Brooksley Born, Maria Cantwell) and at least one man, the Princeton economist Alan Krueger, who also seems to be a serious Suskind source and who has now returned to the White House to succeed Austan Goolsbee and Romer as head of the Council of Economic Advisers. Not that that will do any good. I think the portrait of Geithner is devastating — his countermanding of the president’s wishes to make a Wall Street object lesson of Citigroup, his nasty “Elizabeth Warren strategy” to silence and neuter the administration’s rare genuine reformer. And yet Geithner is the only member of the original economic team still standing in the White House, poised to countermand any other rare independent voice that might yet speak up, like Krueger’s.
“A: You think the portrait of Geithner is more devastating than the one of Summers? I guess. In that instance you cite, Obama asks to put the dissolving of Citibank on the table, and Geithner simply ignores him, “walking back” the decision, in political parlance. More insidiously, he creates the framework, borrowed from Hippocrates, of “first, do no harm,” which effectively cuts off any bold reforms for fear of their potential effects on the market. But Summers is portrayed as an egotistical nut job, single-mindedly determined to get Bernanke’s job; when he doesn’t get it, he goes bananas. He is supposed to be a conduit for the collective advice of the team, but undermines his colleagues, only passing along advice and information that supports his positions. I was kind of stunned how many officials were willing to go on the record against him.
“Peter Orszag relays this eviscerating quote that Summers said to him about Obama during the worst of the economic distress. According to Orszag, Summers says, “You know, Peter we’re really home alone. There’s no adult in charge. Clinton would never have made these mistakes.” Later, Orszag says to Suskind, “Larry just didn’t think the president knew what he was deciding. Was this [obstruction of the president’s wishes] outright and willful?” In other words, asks Orszag, was Summers saying, “I know more than the president flat-out? That strikes me as … likely.” In an amazing memo, Pete Rouse, who would replace Emanuel temporarily as chief of staff, recommends firing Summers for “Larry’s imperious and heavy-handed direction of the economic policy process.” Romer says Summers made her feel “like a piece of meat.”
Read the full discussion in New York Magazine, here.