July
27th 2010
Why has The One fallen short?

Posted under: American history, book reviews, unhappy endings

Frank Rich (of all people) has an interesting review of Jonathan Alter’s The Promise:  President Obama, Year One (of all books!) in the New York Review of Books called “Why Has He Fallen Short?”  Rich has penned some astonishingly stupid op-eds over the past few years and has been a cheerleader for Barack Obama from the start.  Although he’s still clearly rooting for Obama, Rich’s read of Alter’s book offers some interesting insights into why Obama’s approval ratings tanked as of last summer, and why they’re now below his disapproval ratings.

Short answer:  it’s Wall Street, babies!  (But you can’t say I didn’t warn you!) 

Actually, Rich’s answer (through Alter’s analysis) is more complex.  First, we have Obama’s overweening faith in the American “meritocracy:”

Alter’s chronicle confirms that the biggest flaw in Obama’s leadership has to do with his own team, not his opponents, and it’s a flaw that’s been visible from the start. He is simply too infatuated with the virtues of the American meritocracy that helped facilitate his own rise. “Obama’s faith lay in cream rising to the top,” Alter writes. “Because he himself was a product of the great American postwar meritocracy, he could never fully escape seeing the world from the status ladder he had ascended.” This led Obama to hire “broad-gauged, integrative thinkers who could both absorb huge loads of complex material and apply it practically and lucidly without resorting to off-putting jargon”—and well, why not? Alter adds:

Almost all had advanced degrees from Ivy League schools, proof that they had aced standardized tests and knew the shortcuts to success exploited by American elites. A few were bombastic, but most had learned to cover their faith in their own powers of analysis with a thin veneer of humility; it made their arguments more effective. But their faith in the power of analysis remained unshaken.

This was a vast improvement over the ideologues and hacks favored by the Bush White House, but the potential for best-and-brightest arrogance was apparent as soon as Obama started assembling his team during the transition. The Promise leaves no doubt that his White House has not only fallen right into this trap but, for all its sophistication and smarts, was and apparently still is unaware that the trap exists. During the oil spill crisis, Obama and his surrogates kept reminding the public that the energy secretary, Steven Chu, was a Nobel laureate—as if that credential were so impressive in itself that it could override any debate about the administration’s performance in the gulf.

But but but–he’s got a Nobel Prize!  Actually, this insularity was apparent to many of us during the campaign–we didn’t need to wait until the transition, but whatever.  Rich continues:

This misplaced faith in the best and the brightest has not coalesced around national security, as in the JFK-LBJ urtext, but around domestic policy—especially in the economic team, whose high-handed machinations Alter chronicles in vivid detail. Contrary to some understandable suspicions on the left, Obama’s faith in that team has nothing to do with any particular affection for captains of finance (his own campaign donors included), or their financial institutions, or wealth. “Over and over in his career, often to Michelle’s chagrin, he had turned down chances to make more money,” Alter writes. Obama is if anything annoyed by Wall Street’s hypocrisy and tone-deaf behavior. “Let me get this straight,” he said at one meeting about TARP and its discontents. “They’re now saying that they deserve big bonuses because they’re making money again. But they’re making money because they’ve got government guarantees.” Obama’s angriest moment in his first year of office came when he heard that Lloyd Blankfein had claimed that Goldman was never in danger of collapse during the fall 2008 financial meltdown—an assertion the President knew was flatly untrue.

But if Obama is not blinded by dollar signs, he suffers from a cultural class myopia. He’s a patsy for “glittering institutions that signified great achievement for a certain class of ambitious Americans.” In his books, he downplayed the more elite parts of his own resume—the prep school Punahou in Hawaii, Columbia, and Harvard—but he is nonetheless a true believer in “the idea that top-drawer professionals had gone through a fair sorting process” as he had. And so, Alter writes, he “surrounded himself with the best credentialed, most brilliant policy mandarins he could find, even if almost none of them knew anything about what it was like to work in small business, manufacturing, real estate, or other parts of the real economy.”

CoughGEITHNERcough, and Larry “Maybe the World Is the Way It Is Because It Should Be” Summers are the villains in Alter’s tale.

[I]t’s hard not to wonder if much more would have been accomplished, both substantively and politically, had Obama’s economic principals, Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers, been more open to ideas not of their own authorship and more capable of playing with others, including a public that still hardly knows either of them. Obama “apparently never considered appointing a banker or Fed governor from outside the East Coast who knew finance but was less connected to the policies that caused the crisis,” Alter writes. The homogenous team he chose “all knew one another and all looked at the world through nearly identical eyes.” Once in place in Washington, they would all underestimate the threat of rising unemployment, be blindsided by the populist anger rising outside the capital, and even fail to predict the no-brainer popularity of the “cash for clunkers” program. Their paramount group-think lapse—their inability “to think more boldly about creating jobs fast”—still haunts the administration. A White House job summit didn’t materialize until December 2009, nearly a year too late.

The Promise depicts a carelessness and dysfunctionality in the economic team that at times matches that revealed by Rolling Stonein the military and civilian leadership of the team managing the Afghanistan war. Geithner’s inexplicable serial income tax delinquencies, as elucidated by Alter, should have disqualified him for Treasury secretary just as Stanley McChrystal’s role in the Pentagon’s political coverup of Pat Tillman’s friendly fire death should have barred him from the top military job in Afghanistan. Summers’s Machiavellian efforts to minimize or outright exclude the input of ostensible administration economic players like Paul Volcker, Austan Goolsbee, and Christina Romer seem to have engaged his energies as much as the policy issues at hand.

Considering the fact that Obama didn’t pull ahead of John McCain decisively until mid-September 2008, when the scope of the global financial crisis became apparent, his choice of Geithner and Summers (and the fact that he’s still dancing with the ones that brung ‘im) speaks volumes.  Obama has exactly the team he wants.

I’ll close with just a few thoughts about leadership and experience.  Dems laughed and sneered at Ronald Reagan throughout his political career  although he was a successful two-term Governor of California before becoming President.  Twenty years later, Dems whined and complained for eight years about George W. Bush’s lack of experience as the one-and-a-half-term part-time Governor of Texas.  Few historians would argue that either Reagan or Bush II were ineffective Presidents, yet the Dems went ahead and nominated the candidate in 2008 with the least experience of all, and someone who had never served in an executive office or in the Executive branch of another presidential administration. 

Historians have repeatedly pointed to executive experience as crucial to the success of modern presidencies.  You all know what I think most of those rankings of the presidents are worth–but there appears to be little doubt that having served as a state governor (or in another powerful executive office, like Dwight D. Eisenhower’s service as Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe during World War II), appears to be good preparation for serving as an effective U.S. President.  There are exceptions to this rule–few historians would rate Jimmy Carter as a very effective President, in spite of his having been Governor of Georgia, and Harry S Truman rates very well with historians in spite of his thin resume before becoming President in 1945.  Lyndon Johnson may have been a Master of the Senate, which undoubtedly was key to his string of domestic policy victories in an astonishingly short timespan, but I wonder what role his lack of executive experience played in his deference to the “best and the brightest” advisors he inherited from the Kennedy administration and to the Pentagon.

What’s your best guess?

18 Comments »

18 Responses to “Why has The One fallen short?”

  1. koshem Bos on 27 Jul 2010 at 10:58 am #

    Before my guess come my certainties. Obama, despite the consensus otherwise, has only average intelligence and absolutely no experience. The meritocratic rise in his case is limited to schools and that’s not much. My guess is that he chose Geithner to reward his Wall Street backers. Obama’s main failure is his total neglect of unemployment. That is a monumental blunder that will bring us a Republican house. The list of Obama’s flaws and inadequacies is long and painful.

    Alter simply has no clue. He lives with an idol, Obama, is his mind with no ability to observe reality. Can you be more pathetic than to say the we should blame Geithner?

    Can we get Bill Clinton back? Even the sex was better than.

  2. Emma on 27 Jul 2010 at 11:30 am #

    I think Obama hasn’t fallen short. He’s gotten exactly what he wanted. However, what he wants is clearly circumscribed by something. What that something is may be the answer everybody is after.

    I believe that he has expressed who he is and what he wants by his policy and staff choices. He is a guy who fundamentally sees nothing wrong with our society that some tinkering around the edges couldn’t fix. He doesn’t see a need for fundamental change. He sees the expansion of Wall Street and the “shrinking” of government as good things, specifically referring to privatization of Social Security. He thinks our society is unsustainable not because it’s inherently so, but because government is incapable of providing social goods, so the answer is to get and keep the government out of the business of providing social goods. That’s my biggest quarrel with him, really.

  3. Matt L on 27 Jul 2010 at 12:50 pm #

    I agree with Emma. Obama has shown us exactly who he is through his policies and his appointments. I do not really see a ‘best and the brightest’ problem here. Instead, I see a shortage of genuine idealism. “Yes we can,” was a slogan to win the election. Everything we have heard since the inauguration has been either, “no we can’t,” or, “maybe we can, but only if the blue dogs say its ok.”

  4. Historiann on 27 Jul 2010 at 1:13 pm #

    I didn’t read the review as saying that we should all blame Geithner. It sounded like Alter–or at least Rich channeling Alter–was saying that Geither/Summers were Obama’s choices, and we should blame Obama for appointing and retaining them.

    I think Emma’s onto something with this: “He is a guy who fundamentally sees nothing wrong with our society that some tinkering around the edges couldn’t fix.” This is something I thought about a lot during the primaries. His biography shows little if any real work on behalf of a cause or fight for anything other than his nomination as the Dem candidate in 2008–and even then, he didn’t seem to have much fight in him as Clinton continued to beat him in all of the big states and states with closed primaries (versus open primary states or caucus states), even when “the math” indicated she couldn’t win. The system has worked wonderfully for him–what’s his investment in “Change?”

    Then again, I think my own argument about experience is pretty compelling. While I agree with you all that he’s got the administration he wants and they’re pursuing the policies he prefers, I think he’s proud enough not to be pleased with his approval rating or the possible (likely?) loss of congress. He cares about his reputation and history, and I’m sure he doesn’t want to be judged ineffective.

    He’d be a fine President if the wind were at his back. But it’s not–and Carteresque luck like the hole in the floor of the Gulf of Mexico isn’t helping. The loss of Congress is another potential disaster, or opportunity for him. Adverse times are when executive experience counts.

  5. Emma on 27 Jul 2010 at 1:33 pm #

    “I think he’s proud enough not to be pleased with his approval rating or the possible (likely?) loss of congress.”

    I think he’s arrogant enough to blame it on the “f’ing retarded” progressives who won’t support his “bipartisan” efforts. I think that if he gets Social Security privatized he’ll spend the remainder of his life crowing about his signature legislative accomplishments: health care reform, financial reform, and entitlement reform. He has years and years to spin his presidency as one of great success wholly misunderstood by the partisan left who clings to the battles of yesteryear incited by the Clintons’ inability to recognize their own polarizing natures.

  6. Historiann on 27 Jul 2010 at 1:43 pm #

    Yeah, but that spin doesn’t really work in the end. You will probably think this foolish, Emma, but I think Presidents are held accountable by history and they pretty much get the place in history they deserve. (Millard Fillmore, anyone? Herbert Hoover?) I don’t know of any U.S. President who is blamed by a consensus of historians for being too “left wing.” (There are some conservative historians who hate on FDR, but they’re not influential.) I also don’t know of any historians who in the main would accept that the “dirty f’ing hippies” are all to blame. Even the wingnut historians who might blame Obama for being too “left wing” wouldn’t go for that.

    Those who choose to exercise the Imperial Presidency get judged on the merits of their leadership.

    But in the words of George W. Bush: “History? We don’t know. We’ll all be dead.” I care less about the judgement of history than policy right this minute, and whether it’s helping more people or hurting more people. So far, Wall Street has done pretty awesomely under Obama. And we get. . . ?

  7. Emma on 27 Jul 2010 at 1:45 pm #

    I don’t think you’re being foolish.

  8. Comrade PhysioProf on 27 Jul 2010 at 3:39 pm #

    Speaking of meritocracy, standardized tests, and telling professors what they wanna fucken hear, this memoir is awesome:

    Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever by Walter Kirn

    When I was still in high-school, one of my buddies was freshman at Princeton, and I actually hung out at the Terrace Club and got totally fucked up with some of the freaks described in detail in the book. The book is totally fucken hilarious.

  9. Eduardo on 27 Jul 2010 at 4:38 pm #

    Of course, Lincoln didn’t have executive experience either, except running a law office. But on the whole, I think you’re correct, exec experience usually helps more than hurts.

    But so many other factors are involved too — judgment of one’s personnel, micro versus macro managing, effectiveness at governing linked with effectiveness at politics (pretty damn necessary in a democracy, whine as many people do about it), etc. Carter was a micro manager, disaster. Reagan was a macro manager, good deal more successful, masterful pol.

    OB strikes me as smart man who took advantage of the moment, and found himself in a situation one and a half years into his presidency that he’s never faced before. He can’t charm or orate his way out. He’s never governed before, so it’s a mystery. He’s surrounded himself with people not unlike himself who have little answers. And his inclination and of those around him is to blame voters and opposing pols (Repub and Blue Dog) for not understanding “what it’s all about,” “what is good for them,” “or what we’re fighting for.”

    Which won’t win you elections. When you’re midterm slogan is “elect us, it could be worse,” things are going very badly indeed.

    E

  10. Historiann on 27 Jul 2010 at 9:01 pm #

    Heh. Eduardo, who knew that we’d ever agree on something politically? I think you’re correct. Obama is the dog that caught the car, and he doesn’t quite know what to do with it now.

    But note: I only restricted my comments on executive experience to the modern presidency (which I would define as pretty much anything 1900 or 1920 on). Lincoln was utterly bereft of executive experience–but then, the presidency was a totally different office then (although Lincoln gave it a good shove towards the Imperial Presidency, what with the suspension of habeus corpus and massive government buildup/spending.) But you know much more about that than I do, I am sure.

  11. LadyProf on 27 Jul 2010 at 11:35 pm #

    Part of the problem is that it’s rare for a candidate to seem plausible as a presidential nominee without having served as a governor, senator, or vice president. The latter two categories are vulnerable to “He never ran anything and now he wants to be the leader of the free world!”

    But the former category, which you praise, Historiann, has its own vulnerability, about foreign policy. No coincidence that Reagan and Bush were both governors of very large states that have nation-like views of themselves and, in effect, foreign policies of their own.

    I’m not sure I understand in which ways G.W. Bush was a success. Certainly he threw his weight around well, leveraging the terrorist attack he should have prevented into first a war that he wanted to wage as part of his private agenda, and then to getting himself reelected. But his domestic legislative accomplishments are pretty negligible (delaying stem cell research? faith-based initiatives? No Child Left Behind?), and he presided over a national economy as it fell apart.

    Some foreign policy in his past might have been helpful, I think. Former governors have been CEOs, but maybe that experience blinds them to their limitations. Someone who had served on the Senate foreign relations committee or even been briefed on a national security matter probably would have considered the idea of an Iraq war more soberly.

  12. Emma on 28 Jul 2010 at 8:23 am #

    Bush was successful in getting his agenda passed. The Republicans were massively effective in getting what they wanted, including two wars and huge tax cuts for the wealthy.

    The one notable policy failure they had was privatizing social security. No worries, though, Obama is going to do it for them.

    Now, whether this all was good for the country is another matter. But they certainly did what they wanted to do.

  13. Historiann on 28 Jul 2010 at 8:28 am #

    Bush was not a success in my view–he’s the Worst President Ever, bumping John Adams out of last place. But, he was *highly effective* in pushing through his agenda, and for that he’ll probably get higher marks from many historians. He got more done with 50 senators plus Dick Cheney than Obama has with 59 or 60 senators. For example: today I see that the Senate has given up on its climate change bill, because they couldn’t make cloture with “only” 57 votes.

    Pathetic!!! And the House Dems who took the hard votes are hopping mad. One thing’s for sure: Bush didn’t let much legislation come up for votes if he and Bill Frist didn’t have the votes. Any competent Department chair knows you don’t call for a vote on an issue on something consequential unless you’re pretty sure how it’s going to turn out.

    As Eduardo said above: The Dems plan is to say “it could be worse,” and “Big ol’ Republican meanies won’t let us do anything!!!” And this messaging is going to work?

  14. Tony Grafton on 28 Jul 2010 at 9:36 am #

    Let’s not forget that Bush put the final touches on the Roberts court.

  15. Historiann on 28 Jul 2010 at 9:51 am #

    Yes–perhaps the Roberts court will be his longest-lived legacy. Awesome!

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go stick my head in a gas oven.

  16. Indyanna on 28 Jul 2010 at 10:51 am #

    Us hippies are (still) just taking a little rest. Who says there are no great second scenes in the first acts of American lives? Actually, us hippies–along with the former Soviet Union–are still taking the hammer from the Reagan defense spending run-ups of the first half of the 1980s. The old “spend your enemies into submission while backing smaller government” strategy, one that Bush II learned not half badly on the tax cut side. Brilliant.

  17. Trudy on 28 Jul 2010 at 12:16 pm #

    I do think you have a point about experience, generally speaking. A lot of effectiveness in any given job comes from having experience and taken advantage of lessons learned. I also have to agree with Emma. What she wrote reflects the sense I get that he is not in for any fundamental change, he really likes the system. I don’t think he ever was anything but clear about this; that the system “works” (it worked for him, didn’t it?) and all that needs to be done is sort of act the shepherd and make sure the sheep don’t go way off into the cliff. He did advocate the bailout, he did state clearly he believed in US military intervention in Afghanistan … he has done nothing much to help with unemployment or the immigrants’ plight, because that might affect his “bipartisan” stance, which he was clear about from the beginning: bipartisanship was crucial to his vision, and that means a great deal of appeasement under the guise of “compromise”. I always thought too many Liberals were pinning way too much hope on the man. Is he better for the country than McCain would have been? Probably. But, sadly, given the state of our country nowadays, that isn’t saying much.

  18. Opeach Obama on 29 Jul 2010 at 12:44 am #

    the strange strange 21st Century Nobel Peace Prize of 2009 ????????