Reviewing Ron Suskind's “Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President,” Hendrik Hertzberg (left) writes that it backs up a number of liberal criticisms (and a few conservative ones) of the president, including picking economic advisers who championed the deregulation that damaged the economy, backing a stimulus that was too small, and assuming that today's obstructionist Republicans would respond positively to his willingness to compromise. Obama’s more forceful stances over the past few weeks show that he’s learned from his experience; the question is whether he learned fast enough:
...For the highest economic posts Obama picked Geithner and Summers, who were implicated in the deregulatory status quo and wary of fundamental reform—Team B, Suskind calls them—while passing over Team A, the heterodox skeptics, such as Paul Volcker and Austan Goolsbee, who had guided him through the campaign, when his prescience about the coming crisis and his sureness when it struck had sealed his November victory. Team B underestimated the severity of the economic debacle. For that reason—and also to woo conservative congressional Democrats and, futilely, Republicans—Obama’s stimulus proposal was too small and too larded with relatively ineffectual tax cuts. Had he demanded more but still got only what he ended up with, he might have received more credit for forestalling a depression and less blame for the feebleness of the jobless “recovery.” Chronically, within the White House and on Capitol Hill, he sought consensus as a starting point—the tranquillity of resolution without the catharsis of conflict.
“On the way to his inauguration, Obama got word that Republicans in the House had committed, as a bloc, to oppose his stimulus plan,” Suskind writes. A few pages later, he describes the newly sworn-in President as “a man with little experience wielding power but the fastest of learners.” The fastest? Not always. Obama took the oath of office determined to change the way things were done in Washington, by which he meant a turn toward civility, comity, coöperation, and mutual respect—honest debate and earnest, public-spirited compromise. He did not grasp how profoundly the transformation of the Republican Party into a disciplined, nearly monolithic agent of radical reaction and ruthless obstruction—a transformation that has only accelerated since that day—had changed things already. Perhaps he did not wish to grasp it. In recent weeks, though, he has surprised disdainful opponents and dispirited supporters alike with the passion and firmness of his drive for urgent job spending, responsible debt reduction, and equitable taxation. A President may learn more from the frustrations of power than from the wielding of it. But in this President’s case the learning has been perilously slow.
Reviews by Michiko Kakutani and Joe Nocera make the further point that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers, former chief economic adviser, obstructed Obama’s economic decisions.