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?