White House Seeks to Undermine Suskind’s ‘Ineffectual Obama’ Book

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Photo: The White House/Pete Souza

As happens before any steamy political treatise hits the Barnes & Noble and Kindle Store bookshelves — such as Ron Suskind's Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President, out this Tuesday by Harper Collins — advance copies get sent out to drum up some free press. In the case of Confidence Men, the write-ups that have appeared in the past few days have enough people in the White House sweating to guarantee healthy book sales.

Suskind, a former Wall Street Journal Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, paints the portrait of a young, telegenic (yet technocratic) President Obama systematically undermined and overruled by his Clinton-era, Harvard-trained economics team. A few of the juiciest bits so far making waves include the time Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner outright ignored Obama's request that he draw up contingency plans to dissolve Citigroup, or when Larry Summers, a top economic adviser to the president, told former budget director Peter Orszag: "There's no adult in charge. Clinton would never have made these mistakes." (Frank Rich, in one of his patented New York chats with Adam Moss, makes the sensible point that Hillary "would have embraced the same Clinton administration alumni and Wall Street crowd that Obama did.") Already struggling against President Obama's dipping popularity ratings, the looming jobs bill, and deficit reduction battle with the Republicans in Congress, and the prospect of a long and hard-fought reelection campaign, an image crisis was the last thing the White House needed. Which is why they've come out swinging, with senior administration officials and key sources calling out Suskind over misquotations, misleading narratives, and even outright fabrications.

Current White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer implied the book was infused with "drama, palace intrigue and salacious details based on anonymous accounts," while a close study of the book by (we assume) White House fact-checkers found "several [inaccurate] names, a birthdate, a publication date, an employer, an unemployment rate, etc." Speaking to Politico, a Treasury spokesperson refuted the Citigroup anecdote as "simply untrue." Summers, probably sensing how arrogant he came off, lashed out out the strongest.


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 in the economic area.

Another senior aide dragged through the mud, if you will, was Anita Dunn, a former White House communications director who is quoted describing 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as a "genuinely hostile workplace to women." In an interview Friday with the Washington Post, she said that in fact she'd "point blank" told Suskind that the White House "was not a hostile environment." (Emphasis added.) Speaking to Politico, she laid out a serious challenge to the accuracy of the book — something Suskind may decide to set straight by making public the original recording, transcript, or document.


This is not what I told the author, this is not what I believe and anyone who knows me and my history of supporting this president as a candidate and in office knows this isn’t true.

Playbook's Mike "finger on the Beltway pulse" Allen dug up a few more jabs at Suskind, including an e-mail sent to him by someone interviewed for the book. "He talks about 90 percent of the interview, so I don’t know how he gets his actual info." In one of his latest roundups, Allen also includes a very thinly veiled attack on Suskind from inside the White House, in the form of an un-attributed quote describing why the author was granted a 50-minute Oval Office interview: "to clear up a lot of bad reporting and theories that Suskind had developed."

All in all, it's unsurprising that a book purporting to reveal the inner workings of the team tasked with righting a struggling American economy should face such close scrutiny and establishment criticism. But it also seems like a lot of the damage was self-inflicted — Obama did, after all, admit to being "very comfortable with a technocratic approach to government," and even compares himself to Carter, which Mike Allen notes may not be the smartest move in light of Carter's perceived historical legacy. But perhaps what's most interesting is that none of this may even be all that unusual, at least according to Matthew Dickinson, a professor of political science at Middlebury College (and previously at Harvard).


Based on reading memos and documents from thirteen previous presidencies, the scenes Suskind describes regarding dissent in the Obama White House are neither uncommon nor nearly as problematic as he would have us believe.

Regardless in what state Suskind's reputation and Confidence Men's sales come out of all this — we suspect barely diminished — looks like Obama's eventual GOP adversary has just been handed a book's worth of talking points to use against him.

White House pushes back against Suskind book's description of Obama and his staff [Politico]
What Ron Suskind asked Obama [Politico Playbook]
How to bait a president [Politico]
Book: Women in Obama White House felt excluded and ignored [WP]
Susking: Unkind or Unture: Assessing the Obama White House [Presidential Power]
Related: Obama's Economic Team Was an Infighting Mess, According to Suskind's Book
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