A new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind paints an unflattering picture of rivalries and dysfunction within President Obama's first economic team — rivalries that Suskind says then slowed the administration's response to the financial crisis.
The book Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President is based on interviews with more than 200 people, including the president, and quotes internal documents from the White House, which indicate that some of Obama's decisions were either not enforced or redirected by members of his administration.
Suskind joins Terry Gross for a discussion about Obama, whom he calls "a victim of very difficult and circumstances ... by virtue of being a brilliant amateur," as well as Obama's first economic team, led by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and National Economic Council chief Larry Summers.
Suskind also comments on the growing controversy surrounding the publication of Confidence Men. Some of the officials quoted in the book, including Summers, are now saying they were misquoted by Suskind or their comments were taken out of context.
Summers served as the secretary of the Treasury under President Clinton and was the Director of the National Economic Council for Obama from the start of his administration until November 2010, when he left to rejoin the faculty at Harvard University.
Suskind says Summers' style of leadership at the White House was to "control the show" and "lead by fiat."
"A young economist ... [once told me that Larry once said] 'Here's the way it works. ... I can win either side of the argument. That's my genius. That's what I do. And then I win both sides and I think about which side I won more fairly when deciding which is right. Sometimes I decide otherwise,' " says Suskind. "The young economist who recounts the story says, 'Jeez, Larry, that gives you an awful lot of power to shape everything,' and Larry sort of says, 'Yeah, that's the point.' And that's kind of how Larry sees it — the economic policy will be what Larry decides in consultation with a president who has very, very little in the way of training in economic theory or practice."
But, Suskind says, Summers didn't believe a complete overhaul of the economy was necessary.
"Larry is of the belief of 'first do no harm,' " he says. "He is very much a believer in the markets and the way the markets work and he is respectful of them. ... Tim Geithner was of a similar position. Tim used to work under Larry in the Clinton administration. And Tim calls this 'Hippocratic risk.' Larry and Tim were almost always in [agreement] on these issues of Hippocratic risk."
In his book, Suskind quotes Summers as saying, on record, that "Clinton would never have made these mistakes" that the Obama administration made. Summers has denied making those comments. He told The Washington Post last week that "the hearsay attributed to me is a combination of fiction, distortion and words taken out of context. I can't speak to what others have told Mr. Suskind but I have always believed that the president has always led this country with determined, steady and practical leadership."
Suskind tells Terry Gross that he talked to Summers as the book was going to press about his statements in the book, including the one where he said "Clinton would never have made these mistakes."
"At first Larry blurted out, 'I deny it,' and then I said, 'Look, Larry, lots of people heard you talk about this and say this. This is not something you uttered once to one person. Lots of people remember where they were when they heard it.' ... Then after a few minutes, he came back with his response. He said, 'Look, we had five times as many problems, we didn't have five times as many people. It was an overwhelming time, very difficult for everyone involved.' He lays it on the door of circumstances. ... The Washington walk back has a long history, as anyone who works in this town knows."
On Wall Street and President Obama
"Wall Street helped him as a candidate, but he needed to turn on his heel once it was clear he was going to win the presidency and say, 'Thank you guys, but I need people who will give Wall Street medicine and give Wall Street very Rooseveltian medicine.' He didn't do that. Instead he brought in Tim [Geithner] and Larry [Summers], who are not Wall Street guys but who are affectionate and attentive toward Wall Street. That was a key moment where the president lost his way."
On Timothy Geithner not shutting down and reopening some of the too-big-to-fail banks, as President Obama had suggested
"It can be summed up in something [economist and President Obama's former Director of the Office of Management and Budget] Peter Orszag says about Larry Summers but others said it about Geithner. He felt he knew more than the president. The president didn't understand what he was proffering or suggesting, and the president needed to be protected against himself."
On the women in the White House
"What I found, especially after many of them had left the White House, that it was much more virulent and much more contested and angry — emotional — than had been reported. I was surprised, but the folks I talked with, the women were really quite upset. ... I think it was a combination of two things. One of them was the managerial chaos with Rahm Emmanuel, who was not an actual manager — he's very impulsive, he's tactical, but he's not the kind of guy that most presidents put in that job. There was chaos where people weren't aware of who was supposed to be invited to what meeting. In many cases, the women were excluded. The guys banded together. The president was not monitoring it. The women were excluded. They felt, 'Hey. What about me?' "
TERRY GROSS, host: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Some political experts say President Obama started a new chapter in his presidency yesterday when said he'd veto any debt reduction plan that cut Medicare benefits without also raising taxes for the wealthiest Americans or corporations.
This uncompromising approach contrasts with the presidential portrait in the new book "Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President" by Pulitzer Prize-winner reporter Ron Suskind. The book starts during the presidential campaign, when Obama first learns a financial crisis is looming and ends in early 2011.
The focus is on the president and his economic team, disagreements within that team and how the president's efforts to find consensus sometimes delayed or avoided decision-making. Several of the people quoted in the book say they were misquoted or quoted out of context.
Suskind's other books include "The One Percent Doctrine," a critical look at how the Bush administration waged the war on terrorism, and "The Price of Loyalty," a critical look at the Bush White House from the point of view of its departed Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill.
Ron Suskind, welcome to FRESH AIR. Your book, "Confidence Men," is getting a lot of attention. Some of the people quoted in it say they didn't really say what you say they said. So before we get to some of the controversies that the book is creating, I want you to give an overview of what you think the book is about. Like, what's the framing issue of your book?
RON SUSKIND: This is a book about a four-year arc. It's the rise of Barack Obama and the collapse of the American economy, driven largely or significantly by Wall Street, and then two, two-and-a-half years in which our two capitals, New York and Washington; one of private endeavor, other of public purpose, kind of fight it out as to who's going to really own and guide America.
As you see Obama rising, obviously his rise is connected to the financial collapse, and as well, he gets schooled - he's so tight with Wall Street and many contributors there, the irony here is that his connections to Wall Street helped him as a candidate, but he needed to turn on his heel once it was clear he was going to win the presidency and say thank you, guys, but I need right now people who are going to give Wall Street the tough medicine and do very dramatic Rooseveltian things.
He didn't do that. Instead he brought in Tim and Larry, who are not Wall Street guys but are enormously affectionate and attentive to Wall Street. That was a key moment where I think the president lost his way.
GROSS: Now, you write about internal rivalries within Obama's economic team, the team that he initially appointed. Now, Obama said that what he wanted to do was create a team of rivals like Lincoln did and have people in his cabinet who would have different points of view, who would argue with each other, and out of that, something, you know, important and interesting would emerge.
So did the rivalries within the earlier part of the Obama administration live up to the team of rivals, or do you think it was more of a problem than a creative process?
SUSKIND: I think that certainly in the first year, into 2010, it is indisputably not working, the kind of tension that reveals or yields creative outcome. I think it was more than a team of rivals; it was a sort of rise of various power centers of very significant lieutenants who were in close conversation with one another as to what to do, often what the president should do, what the president knows or doesn't know, what he shouldn't decide because he'll make a mistake in some cases.
And they were ever more guiding what we call policy, and I think that was, you know, something that the book shows with some force but also something that I contextualize. You know, presidents often take a while to learn the job, even if they're folks with some experience, even executive experience, like a governor. You know, that sometimes takes a year.
Obama was sort of a victim of very difficult and pernicious circumstances by virtue of being kind of a brilliant amateur, a guy with very little experience. And he steps at a time of extraordinary crisis atop the most complex managerial organism on the planet.
Some readers will say, well, the White House is making a point that he has evolved through these very difficult times and has gotten rid of most of those folks in that first round, that first group of staffers. That's the point the White House makes. But of course, everyone focuses, understandably, in the deep well of the middle; those first two years, especially the first year but well into the second year.
GROSS: Well, that's the focus of your book.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SUSKIND: Well, that's the main...
GROSS: It is the focus of your book.
SUSKIND: It's the core of it. It's the core of it. The last part is important, too, there's no doubt about it, you know, Obama's response and after the midterms, and, you know, he seems to get his balance. And he says it in the interview, you know, I now have what I need. I now have the staff I need to be essentially the president people hoped I would be.
And in the spring and early summer of this year, lots of folks felt that had actually occurred, but now let's just say some people are looking back at that period, you know, when he done the midterm deal on the Bush tax cuts and the payroll tax on the stimulus, and, you know, he had given that extraordinary speech in Tucson in and around the tragedy of Gabby Giffords.
And right around the time I'm interviewing him, he has bin Laden in the crosshairs. That was the view of folks then. But I think after the debt ceiling debacle and where he stands now, there are lots of folks who will look at that period as something of a false spring.
GROSS: So in looking at Obama's economic team, his first economic team as president, you say Larry Summers took charge of that team, and Summers was head of the National Economic Council. What direction did he push the team in?
SUSKIND: It was complex, as Obama brought what I call Team B in. He gets rid of the team, which is a sort of fascinating, fairly ecumenical bipartisan team he has during the campaign: Paul Volcker; Laura Tyson, advisor to Bill Clinton; he's got Austan Goolsbee in it, a very sort of edgy and brilliant economist from University of Chicago; Robert Wolf, a Wall Street guy, is sort of key and helpful.
It's the team that brings him here, but he brings in Team B, which is led by Larry, and Larry, you know, mostly wants to lead it by fiat. He'd like to control the show. The economic policy will be what Larry decides in consultation with the president, who has very, very little in the way of training on either economic theory or practice.
GROSS: So, you know, you describe Larry Summers as really having the president's ear on economic issues, perhaps more than anyone else on the team. And at the same time, you quote Lawrence Summers as saying about the Obama administration, the Obama presidency, we're home alone, there's no adult in charge. Clinton would never have made these mistakes. And Summers had served in the Clinton administration.
Now, Summers has denied that he said these things. He told the Washington Post in an email Friday that the hearsay attributed to me is a combination of fiction, distortion and words taken out of context. I can't speak to what others have told Mr. Suskind, but I have always believed that the president has led this country with determined, steady and practical leadership.
So Summers is on the record as saying this is not what he said, but you say he did do this whole we're home alone quote. You stand by that?
SUSKIND: Oh, absolutely. And we talked, Larry and I talked about it. You know, I tend to go back at the end of the process and talk to all the key actors and tell them for the most part what's going in the book next to their name. And Larry and I had a conversation about this not too long ago, when the book was coming to finale.
And I said look, here's a quote. You're going to need to respond to this on the record at the end of this interview. And I laid it out: We're home alone. There's no adult in charge. Clinton would never make these mistakes. First, Larry said I deny it, you know, just sort of blurted this out, you know, rather dramatically.
And then I said look, Larry, lots of people heard you talk about this and say this. This was not something you uttered once to one person. In fact, some folks even remember when they heard it, not only how they felt but what you said when you said it, what they responded. So I laid a few of those things out for him.
And after a few minutes, he came back with his response, as he says look, we had five times as many problems, and we didn't have five times as many people. It was an overwhelming time, very difficult for everyone involved. He lays it on the door, circumstances. You know, and I sent the response to him prior to publication, which I said I would.
He said would you send this to me, what I said? I said sure, easy as pie, and I emailed to him. And now, of course, after the book comes out, this is not something that - the Washington walk-back has a long history, as anyone who has worked in this town knows.
GROSS: It's hasn't been a lot with your books. Does it - how does that affect how you go about quoting people, and then how does it affect how you deal with it after the book is published, and then the controversy really begins, and the public denials really begin?
SUSKIND: Well, I think over the history of this, I mean, this is my fourth major book on Washington since the three books on George Bush. You know, they have a pattern, and it's a pattern that's not new to me. You know, look, I'm an old reporter. I've been at this a long time. I'm north of 50 now, and, you know, I come from an era and an ethic, maybe, that's a little different.
When they come after you, know you did it right. I think what's interesting is the media model that, again, people are becoming more sophisticated about is, it's essentially to get everyone to say whatever they can - I wasn't here, that was misquoted, I didn't mean that, I mean the opposite, whatever is possible - to kick up dust in the first week of the launch of a book and win four or five news cycles in a row, or attempt to.
I think all of the Bush books, where they came after me vituperatively have indicated that that ultimately doesn't work. Once people read the book, and once other people report almost identical things, you know, that becomes the record.
GROSS: My guest is Ron Suskind, author of the new book "Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Ron Suskind, author of the new book "Confidence Men," about President Obama's first two years in office, his decision-making style, his first economics team and the relationships with Wall Street.
Let's talk about Timothy Geithner, this secretary of the treasury. He's the only person from President Obama's original economic team that is still in place. And you tell a story about how the president wanted Timothy Geithner to shut down and then reopen some of the, you know, too-big-to-fail banks that had helped create the financial meltdown and that were also collapsing as a result of it.
And Geithner just didn't move on it. You say it's kind of the equivalent of insubordination. Why do you think Geithner didn't move in the direction that he was directed to by the president?
SUSKIND: I think it's summed up in something Peter Orszag says, and specifically about Larry Summers, but others said it about Geithner. He felt like he knew more than the president. The president didn't understand what he was proffering and suggesting, and the president needed to be protected against himself. That's basically the bottom line.
GROSS: And what was President Obama's reaction to having what someone would describe as Timothy Geithner's slow-walking or ignoring the president's suggestion or order, directive, I'm not sure exactly what word to use there?
SUSKIND: Well, you know, I think all of them would apply. The president in April, when he finds out that there's no plan, he says, my God, what do you mean there's no plan? You know, there better be. You know, he's quite agitated. And so I talked to the president about it, laid out the whole story.
I said, you know, you were agitated. What'd you say to Tim when you saw him next? And he says I'm not sure if agitated would be exactly the word, but, you know, clearly they had a discussion. I talked to Tim about what the president said. He said, well, it was part of a rolling discussion. He was not specific about it.
But at the end of the day, the conversation with Tim, you know, affirms the essence of that story and its flow of events. You know, that's between Tim and the president.
GROSS: And I should say here that in response to the story, Timothy Geithner has been quoted as saying that he would never slow-walk the president.
SUSKIND: That's in my book.
GROSS: Oh, OK. I knew I read it.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SUSKIND: Correct. Tim has a long response in the book. We talked about this for a good 35 minutes. I said, look, Tim, you're going to need to respond to this. And he did. The president does talk about the bureaucracy, so-called, not responding to him. This is not the bureaucracy. This is his treasury secretary.
This is the kind of thing, to be fair, that might result in either a real scolding, and if you ever do it again, pack your bags, and even with some presidents, like Richard Nixon, let's say, you pack them up today.
GROSS: So why do you think President Obama has stayed with Timothy Geithner?
SUSKIND: You know, the president is a fascinating and brilliant guy. No one disputes that. He also in this portrait is one of a real loyalty. He has real loyalty to his folks. And he's very reluctant to let people go, even folks who really need to go. And this gets reflected, Terry, in memos in February of 2010 of how the president needs to get control of his White House from Pete Rouse, who's really his right-hand man in a lot of ways, his kind of quiet advisor.
You know, it's basically you've got to get rid of almost everybody is what those memos indicate, from Rahm Emanuel on down. The president, you know, still is reluctant. You know, he - you know, you've been good to me, and we've been good together, and keep in touch, and when's a good time for you to leave.
And it drags on. The moment where Rahm Emanuel gets the nod that the mayor of Chicago's not going to be running for re-election, and he can make his run for mayor of Chicago, something he said he's wanted to do, at that point, from the memos, the president almost fired Rahm in February.
He was very angry at him, but Rahm stayed on, and then come September, when this happens, it's dragged on for months, the president hasn't stepped up, and the joy both in the president and around the White House that this is an elegant exit for Rahm, you know, it's palpable.
GROSS: Let me talk about another part of your book that I think is surprising a lot of people. So you say in spite of the fact that President Obama has surrounded himself with very smart women in the White House, and although President Obama seems to be very enlightened when it comes to women's issues, that the White House early on in the presidency was not a very hospitable place for women who work there.
And outline what you see as the problem from what you were told.
SUSKIND: Well, this had been reported. Mark Liebovitch of the New York Times wrote a story in the fall of 2009. Jonathan Alter dealt with it some in his book. I went at it, and I talked to the various folks, and what I found, especially after many of them had left the White House, it was much more virulent and much more contested and angry, emotional, than had been reported.
I was surprised, but the folks I talked with, you know, they were - the women were really quite upset. And what the reporting shows is that I think it was a combination of two things.
One of them was the managerial chaos. With Rahm Emanuel, who is not a natural manager; the president was warned about this. He's very impulsive, he's tactical, but he's not the kind of guy most presidents put in that chief of staff job. There was chaos, where people weren't sure who's supposed to be invited to what meeting.
In many cases, the women were excluded. The guys banded together, the president was sort of not monitoring it, the women were excluded, they felt like, hey, what about me? And in meetings, as well. This is a bit more troubling...
GROSS: And this is the economic team that you're talking about.
SUSKIND: And all throughout the - it's not just the economic team. It's the women throughout the government, you know, in health care, in all parts. There was a woman's group that gathered together, and they were women spread across senior positions.
I think many of them felt, you know, here they are a murderer's row of accomplished women. They were briefed up to the gills for big meetings, and they would sit there, and the president would mostly talk to the guys. And after several of these meetings, they started to come to Valerie Jarrett, who was the president's, you know, kind of mother, sister, friend and advisor, you know - and the most senior woman and of course the one who's known Obama longest - and complained.
And a woman's group formed, and it grew from the early spring all the way through to November when they met with Obama in a dinner, which is recounted in the book. It was very edgy, and of course there's a quote that is out there from Anita Dunn, which was said in the White House, and other people said the same thing in various ways and sometimes almost using these words, that this is a hostile environment for women during this period, that since the...
GROSS: Well, what you say she said is that this fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace for women.
SUSKIND: That's right, that's right.
GROSS: And she also said she was misquoted or misconstrued.
SUSKIND: Well, that's ridiculous. She said it to people in the White House. She said it to me. We talked about the quote. There's nothing nuanced here. Other people were saying similar things in the White House. Anita was saying it. She was forceful. She's a very bright woman and somewhat outspoken, but that was the fact of it. That's the reporting.
You know, and some of it I think was shrouded over this period and has become clear as women are out of the building.
GROSS: So, you know, you did this book, and some people are saying I didn't say that. When you record an interview with somebody, do you - when you do an interview with somebody, do you record it so you have some evidence of what was said?
SUSKIND: Generally I do. I mean, at the beginning of the process, we sit down, I say, look, I record most of what I do, much of it. Sometimes I don't. But, you know, it creates a lot of recording. We sit for hour after hour. I mean, some of these sources I've spent 20, 30 hours with over this period, stretched across two years.
And the key to it is at the end of the day, everything gets cross-referenced with other people, and the sources are mostly sat down to say here's pretty much the important stuff that is attached to your name, here are the scenes where you're one of the actors, here's the way it's rendered. And I felt that was important to do.
I tried to do in the Bush books, and I certainly do it forcefully here, and...
GROSS: Just a question about the technique you use in telling the story, there's a lot of dialogue in the book. When something is in quotes, does that mean that it actually came from a transcript, a recording, or that's something that somebody directly told you?
SUSKIND: Yes, it's something someone directly told me, and the fact is almost all the quotes in the book are things that were directly told to me, and others in the room affirm. Yeah, that's pretty much exactly it. That's pretty much what I remember, too. And that's the way this reporting goes.
I have more than 200 sources here, more than 700 hours of interviews. I've been doing this, Terry, for 25 years. What's in the book is solid as a brick, and ultimately the White House will have to deal with it, whether internally or externally, in some way because this is really the history of this period.
GROSS: Well, Ron Suskind, thank you very much for talking with us.
SUSKIND: Oh, thank you, Terry, it's been fun.
GROSS: Ron Suskind is the author of the new book "Confidence Men." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.