Obama wasn’t always in control of feuding aides, author says

Posted Sept. 18, 2011, at 7:09 a.m.
National Economic Council Director Lawrence Summers nods off at a meeting with representatives of credit card companies in 2009.
AP file
National Economic Council Director Lawrence Summers nods off at a meeting with representatives of credit card companies in 2009.

WASHINGTON — Obama administration officials scrambled Friday to hunt down copies of a book due out this week that paints an unflattering portrait of a dysfunctional and acrimonious White House that sometimes stymied President Barack Obama’s effort to rescue the country’s economy.

The book, “Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President,” by journalist Ron Suskind, comes at an inconvenient time for an administration that increasingly finds itself on the defensive, facing questions about its effectiveness and efficiency.

This week, one prominent Democratic strategist, James Carville, said Obama should “panic” and fire much of his staff, and a Republican victory in a special House election in a heavily Democratic, Jewish district in New York raised concerns among Democrats about Obama’s ability to win strong support from core party voters in next year’s re-election campaign.

Moreover, some associates of William Daley, the chief of staff who arrived in January charged with whipping the White House into shape following devastating midterm election losses, say he is growing frustrated with a West Wing strategy that allowed House Republicans to outmaneuver the president during the summer’s debt-ceiling talks.

The challenges have mounted as Obama and his advisers try to go the offensive and pull the president up from the lowest approval ratings of his tenure.

But as copies of the new book began circulating around town Friday, Obama’s aides and allies were forced to defend his management style against the portrayal conveyed by Suskind, who secured White House cooperation for much of his work. Suskind interviewed many top officials and was granted a White House interview with Obama himself.

Some of that defense came from former senior officials who were quoted making some of the most provocative allegations in the book.

Anita Dunn, a former communications director, is quoted as saying that “looking back, this place would be in court for a hostile workplace. . . because it actually fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace for women.”

Dunn said on Friday that she told Suskind “point blank” that the White House “was not a hostile environment.”

Christina Romer, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, is quoted as saying, after being excluded by top economic adviser Lawrence Summers at a meeting, “I felt like a piece of meat.”

On Friday, Romer said, “I can’t imagine that I ever said this.”

According the book, Romer shared her thoughts with Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren, a potential candidate to lead the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

“Why is it always the women?” Romer asked. “Why are we the only ones with the balls around here?”

“I was told before I went to Washington that there has always been a lot of testosterone in the West Wing,” Romer said Friday. “What was different in the Obama administration is that there were so many women in important positions, and when problems arose, the president worked hard to fix them. I felt respected, included, and useful to the team.”

The book, which covers Obama’s presidency through February of this year, suggests the president was not always the dominant figure in his White House.

Suskind cites a series of memos from top aide Pete Rouse sharply critical of the White House’s operations, including one cautioning that an ongoing “rolling dialogue” by Summers and others on the economics team with Obama “strengthens Larry’s power to shape policy.”

The book portrays discord within the economic team, with Summers, then director of National Economic Council, attempting to shut out the views of Romer and budget director Peter Orszag.

According to the book, Summers sought to derail Obama’s push on several policies, including a a financial transactions tax.

At one point, Orszag delivered a private report to the president, at his request, about what might happen if the government did act to rein in the longer-term federal budget deficit. Summers was outraged that Orszag would communicate with the president without going through the National Economic Council.

“What you’ve done is immoral!” Summers shouted.

Orszag told Suskind, according to the book: “Larry just didn’t think the president knew what he was deciding.”

Meeting over dinner at the Bombay Club one night, Summers told Orszag that “we’re really home alone,” according to the book.

“I mean it,” Summers told him. “We’re home alone. There’s no adult in charge. Clinton would never have made these mistakes.”

Suskind asked Summers about the comment. “What I’m happy to say is, the problems were immense, they came from a number of very different sources, they were all coming at once, and there were not very many of us,” Summers replied.

An aide said Summers, now back at Harvard, was in Europe and could not be reached for comment.

The book also claims that Geithner essentially ignored a key request by Obama to come up with a plan to restructure the mega-bank Citigroup, which had been bailed out by the government.

In early 2009, Obama had decided to authorize a series of Geithner-designed stress tests for the banks to determine if they were likely to survive the financial crisis without additional funds. According to the book, Obama saw this moment as one when he could begin to overhaul Wall Street and told the Treasury secretary to develop a plan to restructure Citi.

A month later, at a meeting Geithner didn’t attend, Obama asked about the plan.

“I’m sorry, Mr. President,” Romer said, “but there is no resolution plan for Citi.”

The book says Obama was stunned. “Well, there better be,” he said.

Suskind alleges that Geithner, who disagreed with immediately pressing a plan to overhaul Citi, simply did not produce the plan.

In an interview with Suskind, Geithner denied that he ignored the president’s request. “I don’t slow-walk the president on anything,” he told him.

When Suskind interviewed Obama, the president would not say how he felt when he learned that there was no plan. But he says “agitated” might be too strong a word.

On Friday, the Treasury Department called the book’s account “untrue.”

The Treasury said the president asked Geithner to develop backup plans to overhaul banks if the government was forced to maintain a big ownership stake in the companies.

“While Treasury began work on those contingency plans, there was fortunately never a need to put them in place,” the department said.

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