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Books: Obama, a campaigner, learning to lead

"The presidency is not something that lends itself to on-the-job-training," Vice-President Joe Biden famously quipped of his future running mate in 2007.
/ Source: Reuters

"The presidency is not something that lends itself to on-the-job-training," Vice-President Joe Biden famously quipped of his future running mate in 2007.

That's exactly what President Barack Obama did in his first two years of office, according to a controversial new book by Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Ron Suskind.

"Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and The Education Of A President" portrays an inexperienced president struggling to manage an administration dominated by out-sized male egos frazzled by epic economic challenges: stabilizing giant banks and a dilapidated auto industry, reforming Wall Street and pushing for health care.

Often, Suskind says, key lieutenants like National Economic Council head Larry Summers and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner either ignored or delayed Obama's decisions.

The story of a conflicted administration comes at a sensitive moment for Obama as he keeps grappling with a stagnant economy, an increasingly depressed public and Republican presidential candidates filling the air waves with noisy doubts about Obama's ability to lead.

Political pundits, meanwhile, have relished the juicy score-settling the book offers, while a few of its subjects have accused Suskind of mischaracterizing or outright misquoting them.

The heart of the nearly 500-page book is Obama's economic team led by Summers, portrayed as an imperious, tantrum-prone diva who demanded a car with a driver like Geithner and a round of golf with the president when Obama decided to keep Ben Bernanke as Federal Reserve Chairman instead of appointing Summers.

As the administration struggles to stabilize the economy, Summers leads economic meetings that devolve into aimless "debate societies," a sort of West Wing "Waiting For Godot" in which critical questions are debated to death but consensus is rarely reached, let alone policies unified.

Obama is often seen as a distant, poor moderator, "who would sit on high, trying to judge if there was any shared ground between the competing debate teams that might coalesce into a policy," Suskind writes.

Suskind is known for distilling insider accounts into novelistic narratives, as he did with "The One Percent Doctrine," his 2006 best-seller on the post-9/11 anti-terrorism strategy of Vice President Dick Cheney, and 2004's "The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, The White House and the Education of Paul O'Neill," about the first years of the Bush Administration.

Suskind says he drew on more than 200 interviews, including a 50-minute interview with Obama, for "Confidence Men."

Action-packed anecdotes abound as he traces the economic dramas of Obama's first two years: Rick Wagoner is left speechless in Washington after car czar Steve Rattner asks him to resign as General Motors CEO, while across town the CEOs of the 13 largest banks await a critical meeting with Obama, "nervous in ways that these men are never nervous."

Women push back against the boys club and come off as heroes. Elizabeth Warren, champion of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, FDIC Chair Sheila Bair and Council of Economic Advisers head Christina Romer press for more substantive reforms but have trouble getting through to the president, Suskind says.

Obama does surface to make risky decisions, whether to support Chrysler against some advisers' wishes or push health care reform after Scott Brown's stunning win in Massachusetts.

"I read the memo, Larry," Suskind quotes him cutting off Summers as the latter started a tense meeting on Chrysler.

It's not until after the November 2010 mid-term elections that Obama's footing seems more assured. Summers and his political advisers Emanuel and David Axelrod move on, giving Obama the chance for a clean slate, Suskind says.

A month later, Obama dismissed a dossier of deals Biden negotiated with Senate leaders and hashed out an agreement himself with Republican Leader Mitch McConnell to exchange the two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts for high-income Americans for a year-long extension of unemployment benefits and a payroll tax cut -- a compromise many progressives thought disastrous.

But, Suskind writes, "Obama had simply taken control of the matter. He was sitting in the space his presidency had created. He owned it."