1. Headline
  1. Headline

Video: Author: Controversial Obama book 'solid as a brick'

  1. Closed captioning of: Author: Controversial Obama book 'solid as a brick'

    >> the controversial new book about president obama and the questions over its accuracy. chuck todd joins us, nbc's chief white house correspondent.

    >> the president is waking up in new york city this morning and is enjoying the brief respite he'll get with folks on international issues because between the book and the new debt plan he released with i is being met now by republicans with a thud. middle east peace may look more attainable to president obama as he heads to the u.n. than selling republicans on his plans for the economy.

    >> i'm ready to sign a bill, i have' got the pens all ready.

    >> reporter: the president laid out a $3 trillion deficit reduction package including $1.5 trillion of new taxes on wealthier americans.

    >> i will not support any plan that puts all the burden for closing our deficit on ordinary americans. this is not class warfare . it's math.

    >> reporter: but speaker of the house john boehner wasn't buying it.

    >> i don't believe that class warfare is leadership and you know we can get into this tax the rich, tax the rich, but that is not the basis for america and it's not going to get our economy going again and it's not going to put people back to work.

    >> reporter: senate republican leader mitch mcconnell issued a terse statement saying the president's plan is not a press pi for economic or job growth or meaningful deficit reduction. all of this comes as a new book by ron suskind paints an unflattering picture of the president's leadership on the economy. it quotes peter orszag saying "peter we're really home alone , there's no adult in charge, clinton would never have made these mistakes." roehmer told suskind i felt a piece of meat. "this felt the classic piece of requirements for a hostile workplace for women." they contest the book saying their words were taken out of context or saying the words were never spoken. timothy geithner was also asked about the book.

    >> the reports bear no resemblance to the reality we live together, no resemblance.

    >> reporter: the white house is pushing back furiously at author suskind suggesting he lifted part of the book directly from the internet.

    >> one passage seems to be lifted almost entirely from wikipedia in the book. based on that i would caution anyone to assume that if you can't get those things right that you suddenly get the broader analysis right. that analysis is wrong.

    >> so you can judge for yourself on that charge from the white house . here is the comparison that they are making, "it was a description of fannie mae , in confidence in?i 1968 it officially became a publicly held corporation to remove its debt and related activities from the federal balance sheet." wikipedia, in 1968 it converted to a publicly held corporation to remove its activity and debt from the federal budget ."

    >> ron suskind joins us to talk about his book, "confidence men." did you or did you not lift that passage from which cikipedia?

    >> of course not. they're not even the same in the two sentences. the white house should be doing something better on wiki searches on a 500 page book.

    >> they've come up with more. let's get to it one by one.

    >> sure, not a problem.

    >> you write that the president tried to navigate the economic crisis as he was trying to do this, you write that "his authority was systematically undermined or hedged by his seasoned advisers, for example you report that the treasury secretary timothy geithner ignored the president's order to create a plan to do something about citigroup. i'm wondering just yesterday geithner said these reports in your book "bear no resemblance to the reality." did geithner ignore the president or didn't he?

    >> geithner clearly slow walked the president, meaning that he did not move as the president hoped he would, some would say he ignored the president. this is not just reflected in tim geithner 's conversation with me. he responded to that, it's all in the book the response but also memos, internal memos in the white house from pete rouse , they didn't like what the president was deciding, they simply ignored it, they buried it bureaucratically and the president responds to that in the interview, doesn't disagree, this was hard, there were difficult decisions, the bureaucracy didn't do what i wanted them to do. ann, almost everything is responded in the book. toward the end everybody was asked about the comments and they responded.

    >> let's talk more about the comments, the white house communications director dan feiber told us that the comments with timothy geithner are 100% not true so they are saying they're not true.

    >> he is disagree with tim geithner 's rendering in "confidence men." we talked about 35 minutes through citi. everyone was quoted and sourced on the citibank issue. the issue is whether the white house will respond to whether the president is still getting gamed by his advisers or not. the evidence is that he's not and in her interview, the president, he says "i've grown into the office." he was a president with very little experience, came in, in a crisis but the whole point of the book is the evolution of barack obama to now and the president is quite forceful. in a way saying i'm the president, people hoped i would be, and that's part of what the book says.

    >> the book also quotes this comment by pete orszag, we heard about it in chuck todd 's report, larry summers , former director of the national economic council often relitigated the president's decisions and said "we're home alone , there's no adult in charge and clinton would never have made these mistake." in response to your portrayal, larry summers says it's words taken out of context. i have always believe the president led this country with determined, steady and practical advice in the economic area." did summers believe the president was in over his head or didn't he?

    >> seems he did. from he and others the start from early 2009 to 2010 these sorts of things were part of the prevailing conversation in the white house . when i asked larry summers about that quote i said look, what did you mean when you said that he offers a comment in "confidence men" which is more seasoned and less political, he says "we were overwhelmed, five times as many problems and not five times as many people."

    >> are you saying he spoke this to you after this?

    >> i said what did you say, what did you mean? he said look i will say this, we had too many things going on and not enough people and we were overwhelmed.

    >> if in fact he said this he was questioning whether the president was in over his head. did he step back from that or say that was exactly what he was feeling at the time?

    >> in the book he first said i never said it. i said a lot of people heard you say it. he said here's what i meant when i said such a thing this is what i meant. it's important to note, ann, there was enormous cooperation from the white house and they knew virtually in this book before it came out and had a chance to respond.

    >> they say they cooperated with you because they were concerned about the direction you were taking and wanted to make sure that you got it right. let's talk about this one issue because i want to make sure we get to it. this issue is perhaps as sensitive as we said before, the idea the white house was a boy's club. in one story you quote christina roehmer saying "i felt like a piece of meat" when she was excluded from a piece of meat and anita dun calling the white house "a genuinely hostile workplace to women. both women have subsequently denied making these comments. how do you respond to that?

    >> everyone is under a great deal of pressure. the fact of the matter is all of them said everything, we have ex-tensive notes and tapes from the book. they were told what would be said next to them and what they said in the books. with anita "the washington post " this morning confirms the quote. i had to do something i've never done before but i said it's a special occasion , i let "the washington post " listen to the tape. they're like there it is clear as a bell.

    >> let me get to that what's on tape. i understand what's on tape is the fact that she said "if it weren't for the president this place would be in court for a hostile workplace. that's not quite the same as saying it's a hostile work environment . she said if it wasn't for the president it would be a hostile work environment . did you take liberties with that quote?

    >> absolutely not. i did as i did with many subjects i called anita back at the end, here is what's going next to your name in the back to. she said can we say looking back rather than in present tense? we talked about that and ultimately the quote is broken down in terms of the core of the quote that she agreed with, and interestingly the comments about the president is throughout the book. it's shown that people felt good about the president. part of why the white house actually pushed me to write about this women's issue in the workplace is they felt the president solved this issue and in large measure the book says the president stepped up here. a key core issue of the book is the president's growth as a boss, as a manager. he had very little experience, sat all of the sudden atop the most complex managerial organism on the planet. that's the kiev lugs, he learned how to be the president, the boss. this is a stumbling block along the way.

    >> i've got to ask you one final question. we did some looking through your book. you make some mistakes, cnbc erin burnett , you call her erin burkett, the unemployment was 8.2%, in fact it was 9.5%, you say the dow dropped 378 february 10th , it dropped 382 points on that day. jay carney agrees if you cannot get these details right then the broader analysis that you subscribe to, that you put forth in this book has got to be judged in accordance with that, has got to be questioned. there are inaccuracies.

    >> this is a 500 page in this book. everything in this book is solid as a brick and we have gone through every little thing that they have found, much of it was changed early, the book was pushed through with great effort, and the fact is, is it this book like all the books i've written is densely sourced and the analysis is picture perfect , everyone in the white house was confronted with this early, they responded in the book, and this is really a portrait, a first portrait of this white house and this president. when this happens, when the curtain is pulled back, they often respond vigorously, they are and that's testimony to the fact that this is really who they are.

    >> well it's touched a nerve, not the last we're going to hear about it, ron suskind . thank you so much, the book is called "confidence

TODAY books
updated 9/20/2011 6:49:48 AM ET 2011-09-20T10:49:48

In "Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and The Education of a President," Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind goes behind the scenes of President Obama's clash with Wall Street and the first major test of his fortitude in office. Here's an excerpt.

SEPTEMBER 17, 2010

President Barack Obama dances lightly down the four marble steps to the Rose Garden and across the flagstones to a waiting lectern. He still glides, elegant and purposeful, in that tall man’s short-step—a ballplayer returning to the court after a time-out.

Today, September 17, 2010, he has committed to putting some “points on the board,” in the sports parlance of Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff. The president needs to show the country that he hasn’t lost his game, the ineffable confidence, the surety of stance and delivery that propelled a man with little political experience to scale cosmic heights and to realize what felt, on Election Day, like democracy’s version of the moon landing.

  1. Stories from
    1. Craig Strickland's Widow on Their Last Conversation: 'He Walked Out the Door, Looked at Me and Said, "I Love You"'
    2. Joe Jonas Packs on PDA with Former Top Model Contestant Jessica Serfaty
    3. White House Responds to Petition to Pardon Making a Murderer Subjects Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey
    4. Family of Sandy Hook Victim Commends Florida Atlantic University for Firing Professor Who Questioned Massacre
    5. Kylie Jenner's Lip Kit Is Ruining Lives (According to the Internet, Anyway)

Through recent history, America has considered itself something of a providential miracle, a country that kept finding reasons to believe in its Manifest Destiny. That faith, sorely tested over the past several decades, found itself restored with dizzying ebullience when Barack Obama and his beautiful family stepped onto the stage in Chicago’s Grant Park as America’s First Family. It was a sensation of such intensity as to startle many across the country and around the world into believing in the promise of America, the original and long-burning beacon of the democratic ideal.

The legacy of that moment is ever more found in the lengthening shadow it casts. In the nearly two years since, Barack Obama, like an archangel returned to earth, has been forced to walk the flat land and feel its hard contours. What, if anything, it has awakened in him remains unclear—at present, he is clearly struggling to get his bearings. And yet it is impossible to see the president and not search out signs of that man from Grant Park, who strode so boldly across history’s confetti-strewn stage.

Video: Author: Controversial Obama book 'solid as a brick' (on this page)

On this warm late-summer afternoon, with Congress out of session, Obama has convened the press to announce the launch of a new agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. It has been designed to protect American consumers from the predations of the financial services and banking industry, which over the past couple of decades has grown vast and insatiable by inventing, for the most part, new ways to market, sell, and invest in debt.

The woman standing awkwardly at Obama’s left hip, Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren, has become the nation’s town crier on the subject of bankruptcy and debt. In the two years since the economic crisis, she has emerged from nowhere to trumpet the story of how debt was turned into a velvety weapon, how engorged financial firms deceptively packaged it, sold it as securities, and extracted usurious profits from American consumers, especially those in America’s once-vaunted middle class. The notion of a consumer financial product agency, a freestanding, independently funded entity like the Federal Communications Commission, was originally hers, unveiled in an article she published in the spring of 2007. The truth is that no one much cared for the idea, until her unheeded concerns turned up at the center of the worst financial meltdown since the Great Depression.

Image: Ron Suskind on TODAY
Ron Suskind, the author of a controversial new book about the Obama White House, told TODAY’s Ann Curry the book “was pushed through with great effort.“

So today is a long-delayed victory for Warren—almost. Somehow nothing in the Rose Garden is quite as it seems. The president praises Warren, whom he says he met at Harvard Law School, as though they are old friends. They’re not, and Warren only became a professor at Harvard Law the year after Obama graduated from it. In fact, over the past two years, while Warren has seen herself lionized on magazine covers and in prime-time interviews as a leading voice for tough, restorative reforms, the president seems to have been studiously avoiding her. Part of the problem, clearly, is that she has been acting the way people expected and hoped that man from Grant Park would.

Story: Geithner denies ignoring Obama’s request on banks

This has caused discomfort not only for the president, but also for his top lieutenants, including the boyish man in the too-long jacket at Obama’s right hip, bunched cuffs around his shoes, looking more than anything like a teenager who just grabbed a suit out of his dad’s closet. That’s Treasury secretary Tim Geithner, looking sheepish. Only those in his inner circle at Treasury, though, can precisely read what’s behind that expression: a string of private efforts across the past year to neutralize Warren. The previous fall, Geithner huddle with top aides to develop what one called an "Elizabeth Warren strategy," a plan to engage with the firebrand reformer that would render her politically inert. He never worked out a viable strategy—a way to meet with Warren without drawing undesirable comparisons—and so, like the president, he didn’t.

What the Treasury Department did do, unbeknownst to Warren, was embrace demands from the banking industry to create a bureau under the condition that Warren would not be allowed to lead it. But as the financial-reform bill moved to a vote in early summer, industry lobbyists were so aggrieved at the idea of an agency—they felt it unsupportable under any conditions—that they didn’t bother to call in their chits on Warren.

In fact, they played it just so. The industry managed to get the proposed agency shrunk into a bureau that would live under the auspices of the Federal Reserve, the government’s greatest mixed metaphor of public purpose and private self-regard, representing as it does the dual interests of a sound monetary policy and the health of the banking industry. Beyond that, the bureau’s rules can be vetoed by a two-thirds majority of a panel of other financial regulators—an indignity of institutionalized second-guessing known to few other agencies.

But after financial regulatory reform legislation passed in July, the prospect of Warren at the bureau’s helm quickly grew into a movement: complete with Internet write-in campaigns, online petitions, flurries of editorials, and even a viral rap video—certainly a first in the history of appointing government regulators.

Warren would seem the easiest of choices. Since his earliest days on the campaign trail, Obama had spoken passionately about restoring competent government, and with it competent regulators. With the midterm elections less than two months away, he could have used a confirmation battle over Warren to draw a much-needed distinction between his administration and those, mostly Republicans, who dared to side publicly with America’s big banks and financial firms. Warren’s celebrated ferocity looked tailor-made to revive Obama’s vast grassroots campaign network. Like an encamped army with nothing to do, the foot soldiers of the campaign had fought among themselves a bit, eaten the leftover rations, and then drifted back to private life. Field commanders still in touch with the White House signaled by midsummer that a Warren confirmation battle would rally the troops and, according to one, “at least show what we stand for.” On the other side was the financial services industry, which hurled nonspecific attacks at Warren, claiming she was arrogant, disrespectful, and power-hungry. It had begun castigating Obama as “antibusiness,” a charge the industry asserts would be definitively confirmed by the appointment of Warren.

In mid-August, Warren was finally called in to meet with the president. Obama began their sit-down saying, “This isn’t a job interview.” It wasn’t. The president had already decided what he was going to do, in a managerial style that had become his trademark: integrating policy options and political prognostication into a prepackaged solution— announced before the game even started.

Combatants over a Warren nomination will never take the field. Shuffling papers on the lectern in the Rose Garden, Obama says, with a few passive locutions, that Warren will be on the search committee to find someone to run the bureau:

“She was the architect behind the idea for a consumer watchdog, so it only makes sense that she’d be the, um . . .” He stumbles briefly, as though the text is pulling him off balance. “. . . She should be the architect working with Secretary of Treasury Geithner in standing up the agency.” He adds that she’ll be an adviser to both him and Geithner and “will also play a pivotal role in helping me determine who the best choice is for director of the bureau.”

That’s basically it. None of the troops are energized, and anyone who feared the financial debacle might produce a true innovation, a rock star regulator, is left unruffled. The press conference ends with reporters shouting as the president turns to leave. One yells above the rest, “Why didn’t you put her up for confirmation?”

A moment later the president walks from the Rose Garden to the basement of the White House. Having finished with Geithner and Warren, he strolls unaccompanied, free of handlers and Secret Service, through a long subterranean hall on his way to the Situation Room.

“Hey, Alan, how you doing?” he pipes up, spotting Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Affairs Alan Krueger coming the other way. Krueger carries an additional title, held over from the nineteenth century: chief economist of the United States.

“Just fine, Mr. President,” a somewhat surprised Krueger responds. “In fact, today’s my birthday.”

The two men stop to chat for a moment at the entrance to the White House mess. The president has grown to appreciate Krueger’s input over the past eighteen months. A Princeton professor and frequent stand-in for Geithner at Obama’s morning economic briefing, Krueger is something of an oddity in the upper reaches of government: he’s an actual researcher. Typically, high-ranking economists do their substantive, elbows-deep research in the earlier stages of their careers. Not Krueger. Not only had he been publishing groundbreaking studies up until joining the administration in January 2009, but he had also gone so far as to commission targeted research over the past year, using Prince ton funds and resources when he found the government’s research apparatus too slow.

The current economic crisis, he felt, was too thorny and too unusual not to study with fresh eyes and first questions. Characterized by both rock-bottom interest rates and a catastrophic deleveraging spiral, the crisis defied most historical precedents from which actionable policies might be drawn. And the White House needed nothing so much as a stream of creative remedies, one right after the next.

  1. More in books
    1. Harlan Coben returns with ‘Six Years’
    2. ‘I Would Die 4 U’: How Prince became an icon
    3. ‘Until I Say Good-Bye’: Living for love in the face of ALS
    4. Letters from the life of George H.W. Bush
    5. Mom turns sleeping baby into fairy-tale star

The administration undershot the crisis, convincing itself by the summer of 2009 that the economy had turned the corner and, at the same time, recognizing that it would be a jobless recovery of stunning disparities, with restored GDP growth alongside fast-rising unemployment. In fact, internal administration projections in June 2009, when unemployment was at 8 percent, noted that joblessness would average a whopping 9.8 percent in 2010. Krueger and others began to work furiously to find innovative ways that the government might stimulate job growth. Being a close friend of both National Economic Council chairman Larry Summers, who was his graduate adviser at Harvard, and Office of Management and Budget director Peter Orszag, whom he mentored at Prince ton, made Krueger one of the few people to whom both of Obama’s top economic advisers deferred. All to no avail. After the stimulus bill was passed in February 2009, little else happened on the jobs front for a year and a half. Proposals were talked to death without resolution; the few that were adopted tended to lack a coherent political strategy to make them legislative reality. The day before, the Census Bureau had announced that poverty had hit a fifteen-year high. Even the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page had bemoaned that middleclass incomes dropped a stunning 5 percent between 2001 and 2009, a lost decade laying claim to the country’s worst economic performance in half a century. Unemployment stood at precisely the 9.8 percent the administration’s prognosticators had foretold.

Obama, who was at the center of this dispiriting process, tried to keep things light and breezy in the hallway with Krueger. He seemed improbably ebullient, wanting to talk.

“So, how old?”

“A little older than you,” Krueger says. “Just turned fifty.”

Obama steps back, appraisingly.

“Fifty? You’re looking pretty good for fifty.”

He means it. Krueger notices for the first time that the president, a year his junior, has really aged in office, bits of gray hair now sprinkling his crown, wrinkles growing around his eyes. Krueger is about to say, “Well, my job’s easier than yours,” but he catches himself and instead goes with “You should see me on the basketball court.” Maybe this will win him an invitation to one of Obama’s famous five-on-fives.

None forthcoming, and Obama closes it out. “So what are you doing for your birthday?”

“Going back to Princeton,” Krueger says. He’s a breath away from adding: soon for good.

He’s through with D.C. He has decided to return home a day after the midterms, exhausted for sure, but more than that, tamping down the sense of missed opportunity. As the two men part, he can’t help but wonder if Obama feels the same way. How could he not?

Waiting in the Oval Office are Jann Wenner, the founder of Rolling Stone magazine, and his executive editor, Eric Bates. They have been there for an hour, since just before the Elizabeth Warren event, waiting and preparing for an interview with the president. Rolling Stone, failing to score an Obama interview since the campaign, has nonetheless gone through a renaissance in the past two years, dealing some of the most forceful criticisms of Wall Street and Washington and the collusion between the two, with targeted shots directed at both Goldman Sachs and Obama himself.

So, for the president, today is all about forcefully answering the charge from the progressive community—and a great many independents— that what got him elected has not been evident in his governance. The administration’s strategy is to emphasize that the distance between the hopes of Grant Park and the trimmed ambitions of legislative pragmatism is not a fissure, rupture, or acquiescence, but rather the hard reality of governing in a partisan era. All the better for those words to appear in an organ of criticism, which is why Rolling Stone was chosen.

Obama enters his famous office and compliments Wenner, the stylish, aging hipster, on his colorful socks: “If I wasn’t president, I could wear socks like that.” Then he settles himself into a wing chair between marble busts of his heroes, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Obama is ready to rebut criticisms head-on. But the questions today do not pose much of a challenge, beginning with standard fare about the state of the economy he inherited and Republican obstinacy that, the president notes, reared up a day before his inauguration even, when he learned that the Republican Caucus would vote as a bloc against the stimulus package, even though it included tax cuts and other features they’d asked for.

Fifteen minutes have passed before he gets the first tough question, about how his “economic team is closely identified with Wall Street and the deregulation that caused the collapse.”

The president gives a revealing response, noting that while Tim Geithner and the proud and obstreperous Larry Summers never actually worked for Goldman Sachs, “there is no doubt that I brought in a bunch of folks who understand the financial markets, the same way, by the way, that FDR brought in a lot of folks who understood the financial markets after the crash, including Joe Kennedy, because my number-one job at that point was making sure that we did not have a full-fledged financial meltdown.”

To compare Geithner and Summers to Joe Kennedy is a reach. Kennedy was so instrumental for Roosevelt in setting up the Securities and Exchange Commission because he knew Wall Street from the inside as a master operator, had made all the money he could ever need, and, crucially, was bursting with zeal to move into the public sector and never look back, even if it meant that his old colleagues from Wall Street wouldn’t invite him to dinner ever again. There has been no one remotely like this in a position of real power under Obama—especially not Summers or Geithner. The irony of Obama’s Joe Kennedy reference is that a comparable figure, in equal measures expert and unencumbered, is precisely what he has needed, and lacked. This is something Obama surely knows at this point.

There are more answers of this sort going forward: clever—respectfully acknowledging opponents’ positions, even those with thin evidence behind them, that then get stitched together into some pragmatic conclusion—but hollow. With today’s Warren announcement also part of the broader counterattack on progressives’ criticisms, the president then unabashedly champions Warren, speaking as though he has named her head of the bureau. A light bit of chat about Paul McCartney and the Obama girls closes out the lengthy (hour-and-change) interview. Obama bids the visiting journalists adieu and leaves to confer with aides outside the office.

Then suddenly he’s back, enlivened and ready to say something—as if the person the journalists had sat with for the last hour in the Oval Office was not the person he’d intended for them to meet.

“One closing remark that I want to make: It is inexcusable for any Democrat or progressive right now to stand on the sidelines in this midterm election. There may be complaints about us not having certain things done, not fast enough, making certain legislative compromises. But right now, we’ve got a choice between a Republican Party that has moved to the right of George Bush and is looking to lock in the same policies that got us into these disasters in the first place, versus an administration that, with some admitted warts, has been the most successful administration in a generation in moving progressive agendas forward. The idea that we’ve got a lack of enthusiasm in the Democratic base, that people are sitting on their hands complaining, is just irresponsible.”

He continues, passionate, punching the air, throwing some jabs at 527s and the Roberts Court, which had freed companies to spend at will, without disclosure, as political actors, leaving Democrats heavily outspent in the current midterm campaign. Then he brings it to a crescendo.

“We have to get folks off the sidelines. People need to shake off this lethargy, people need to buck up. Bringing about change is hard—that’s what I said during the campaign. It has been hard, and we’ve got some lumps to show for it. But if people now want to take their ball and go home, that tells me folks weren’t serious in the first place.”

The speech he’s referring to “during the campaign” was witnessed by only a few hundred people. It was the darkest moment of his run, in early October 2007, after an American Research Group poll put him 33 points behind Hillary Clinton, with only three months to go until the all-important Iowa Caucus. Obama gathered his National Finance Committee, the campaign’s top givers, in the auditorium of a Des Moines hotel for a do-or-die meeting. He explained to them that they were running a different kind of campaign, a genuine from-the-bottom-up, grassroots effort, that it had never been done before, not like this, and that it took time for those roots to take hold. The heavy hitters nodded: fine, they understood the concept. But it wasn’t working. The dispiriting national polls were one thing, but a recent Des Moines Register piece had Obama running third in Iowa.

Obama listened to them air their doubts for an hour or so before responding. Then his gaze, filled with the flinty resolve of tough love, swept over the crowd.

“Did you think I was kidding when I said this was the unlikely journey? I never said this was going to be simple or easy. You thought this would be simple? Change is never simple. Change is hard.” He dug deep, his voice dropping to a whisper. “Listen, I know you’re nervous. I understand. But if you’re nervous, I’ll hold your hand. We’re going to get through this together. I promise we will. And if we can win Iowa, we’ll win this country.” Many of those in the room, among them not a few Wall Street financiers, cheered, moisture creeping into their eyes. They opened their wallets, one last time, giving a campaign on life support a final transfusion. Of course, he did go on to win Iowa and “win this country.”

Now Obama is in the depths again, but there’s no one’s hand to hold. No one, outside of a few people in this iconic building, understands what the past two years have held, or what they’ve revealed to this man and those gathered tightly around him. By being himself—an alluring and inspiring self, supremely confident yet expressing humility, speaking powerfully of grabbing history’s arc and bending it toward justice—Obama became the first black president. But more and more, walking the halls of this building, he doesn’t feel like himself—someone who could bring people together, who could map common ground and, upon it, build a future.

Disputes among his top advisers have become so acute, so fierce, that the president has had to step in and mediate many of them himself. He’s not getting what he needs to manage this daunting job, and some advisers have become convinced that his lack of experience, especially managerial experience, may be his undoing; that, at a time of peril, the president may simply not be up to the demands of this moment. But his gratitude for those who’ve ushered him to power, and have walked with him through battle, gets in the way of tough love, at least with those closest to him. There are top aides he’s wanted to remove for months or even longer, but can’t seem to. He knows he should, that no organization can run without accountability.

But today, as he runs between events and interviews—struggling to square the circle between pitiless reality and high ideals that, on Election Day, allowed him to claim kinship with FDR—President Obama is feeling oddly buoyant.

In the past few days, he’s caught a break. The mayor of Chicago decided not to run for reelection. That means his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, will be seeking “other opportunities” and the president won’t have to worry about firing him.

All taken care of. Emanuel will be out by month’s end to resume his political career. Many other top advisers are now planning their exits. After that, maybe Obama can at least attempt a fresh start, a next chapter. There’s no perch, anywhere, like the presidency, with the daily burdens of office, the weight of history—and all in a fishbowl, with the world, some of it malevolent, watching every move. Which is why a president who doesn’t feel quite like himself often portends a crisis of leadership. But change presents opportunity—always—and the ground is now shifting beneath Obama’s feet. And soon enough, the president of the United States may get a chance to resume his conversation with the men whose busts stare from the cabinet behind his favorite wing chair, looking, with icy grandeur, over his narrow shoulders.

From the book "Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and The Education of a President" by Ron Suskind. Copyright © 2011 by Ron Suskind.  Reprinted by arrangement with HarperCollins.

© 2012 MSNBC Interactive


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments

More on TODAY.com

  1. @HillaryClinton/twitter

    Hillary Clinton: Granddaughter led me 'to speed up' political plans

    4/10/2015 3:58:42 PM +00:00 2015-04-10T15:58:42
  1. Courtesy Bryan Morseman

    Marathon dad's victories help raise money for son with spina bifida

    4/10/2015 5:54:50 PM +00:00 2015-04-10T17:54:50
  1. YouTube

    8 great celebrity impressions of other celebrities

    4/10/2015 6:44:22 PM +00:00 2015-04-10T18:44:22