Obama’s Economic Team Was an Infighting Mess, According to Suskind Book

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Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

The president wanted to reconstruct the major banks during the financial crisis, but was ignored or otherwise hampered by his warring advisers and team of underminers, according a new book by Pulitzer Prize–winning author Ron Suskind. In Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and The Education of A President, Suskind reveals that Obama ordered the Treasury to consider dissolving Citigroup in March of 2009 amid continued systemwide stress tests, and was frustrated by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, who never drew up a plan do to so. "Agitated may be too strong a word," Obama told Suskind about Geithner's decision to pass over his request. According to Suskind, "The Citbank incident, and others like it, reflected a more pernicious and personal dilemma emerging from inside the administration: that the young president's authority was being systematically undermined or hedged by his seasoned advisers."

Geithner rejects Suskind's take in the book, saying he doesn't remember Obama being mad at him over Citigroup and insisting, "I don't slow walk the president on anything." The president admits, "the speed with which the bureaucracy could exercise my decision was slower than I wanted," but accepts blame for mismanagement, according to Suskind. More generally, Obama admits to losing a "narrative thread" in his presidency and says that he, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter "all have sort of the disease of being policy wonks." (Shhh, don't tell anyone!)

Suskind's account stems from interviews with more than 200 people, including Obama and Clinton's economic adviser Larry Summers, who said he was dealing with "five issues" at once and needed "five times as many" people to handle everything under Obama. Meanwhile, a memo from White House aide Peter Rouse said, "There is deep dissatisfaction within the economic team with what is perceived as Larry’s imperious and heavy-handed direction of the economic policy process." Rouse, according to the book, was actually on Obama's short list for chief of staff, a list Rahm Emanuel didn't even make.

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Book Details Dissension in Obama Economic Team [NYT]