Monday, August 02, 2010

Is it "The Ghost of the Best and the Brightest"? Frank Rich ponders: "Why Has Obama Fallen Short?"


Jonathan Alter's new book is described by Frank Rich as "a credible guide to what's gone right [with the Obama administration], but also to what's gone wrong and what, we must hope, can be fixed."

"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. . . . [I]f 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.'"
-- Frank Rich, in his NYRB (Aug. 19) review of Jonathan
Alter's The Promise: President Obama, Year One

by Ken

I've written with depressing frequency about my inability to make sense of Barack Obama's campaign and presidency from the standpoint of what he himself believes, what he thinks he's doing, what his goals are. As his administration has come to seem more and more hopelessly misdirected, I've worried about this less, since it has come to seem to matter less -- whatever it is he thinks he's doing, we're stuck living with the results.

I'm not going to say that I've changed my mind about this, but Frank Rich has now provided me with the most reasonable account I've encountered of how the president views all of this. It comes in the form of a review of Newsweek and MSNBC correspondent Jonathan Alter's new book, The Promise: President Obama, Year One, on which it draws considerably.

Now it has been a running joke, and not an especially amusing one: all those media whores on the leftish slope of the Village brandishing their Obama-book contracts, with the ominous question hanging over them all of what they were willing to do, how they were willing to compromise themselves, in order to gain enough access to secure and deliver on those contracts.

It seems safe to venture that Rich is as aware as anyone of the credibility problem common to the Obama chroniclers. He applies his own sniff test to Alter's book.
There has been some sniping from the left and right that The Promise is hagiography, as Alter's sunny accounting of Obama's achievements might suggest. But that's not the case. One may quibble with some of Alter's emphases, but his well-reported, judicious book is as mindful of Obama's failings as his successes and seems to be carrying water for no one in the White House or outside it. It's a credible guide to what's gone right, but also to what's gone wrong and what, we must hope, can be fixed.

Alter's reporting feels trustworthy not just because it's nuanced and persuasively sourced but also because it spares us any of those tinny slam-bam-pow recreated "scenes" that have become a plague in books of this genre in the Bob Woodward era.

I'm going to assume that nobody reading DWT needs a refresher course on the claimed achievements of the Obama administration -- some of which are real, and some others at least partly so -- or the ways in which many of us who entertained at least some hopes have been disappointed. Rich's take on all of this is eminently worth reading, but doesn't seem to me to represent anything startlingly different from what we have generally known. So we're going to skip to the part where he tackles the question in the review's title: "Why Has He Fallen Short?"
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.

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." Not only did the director of the Office of Management and Budget, Peter Orszag, have the quintessential best-and-brightest resume (Princeton summa, Marshall Scholar, Ph.D. from the London School of Economics) but even the OMB spokesman, Ken Baer, had a Ph.D. from Oxford.

There is, of course, important disagreement about how much credit the Obama administration deserves for its achievements. Even taking the most charitable view, however --
it'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 Stone in 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.

In April 2009, at Obama's insistence, a group of economists that Summers had blocked from the Oval Office, including Volcker, Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, and Alan Blinder, was invited to a White House dinner. That colloquy has been cited ever since by White House aides in response to complaints that the administration's economic circle is too insular. The dinner was a one-off, however, and the liberal economists' ideas about tougher financial reform and a more ambitious stimulus package have languished.

Obama may have entered the White House with the intention of assembling a Lincolnesque "team of rivals," but Summers subverted that notion by making himself chief packager and gatekeeper for any dissenting arguments about economic policy -- all, he claimed, to spare the President from meeting with "long-winded people." Lincoln's "team of rivals" reported directly to Lincoln, but, as one source told Alter, Summers so skewed the process in this White House that it was like "a team of rivals reporting to Edwin Stanton, Lincoln's prideful secretary of war." Even Warren Buffett, a supporter who had spoken to Obama weekly during the fall of 2008, "found himself mysteriously out of touch with the new president" once he took office.

Obama was now imprisoned within the cozy Summers-Geithner group "and it would be increasingly difficult for him to see beyond its borders." This "disconnection from the world," Alter concludes, was not due to ideology or the clout of special interests but was instead "the malign consequence of the American love of expertise, which, with the help of citadels of the meritocracy, had moved from a mere culture to something approaching a cult." For all Obama's skepticism of cant, he was "in thrall to the idea that with enough analysis, there was a ‘right answer' to everything. But a right answer for whom?"

Once he belatedly reached out to business leaders for other ideas, Obama began to overrule his own economists. Presumably he will continue to learn from his mistakes. The administration is still young, and so is the President. If he has any immutable ideological tenet, it's that he is "a big believer in persistence." He doesn't like to lose. Health care had not been an Obama priority in the campaign, but he embraced it during the transition. Though Joe Biden, Rahm Emanuel, and David Axelrod were all skeptical of pursuing it as a Year One goal, he wouldn't be deterred.

It frustrates me sometimes that people forget the vastness and deepness and impossibleness of the mess Obama inherited from the eight-year devastation of the Bush regime. Rich takes due note of this, but . . .
[I]t could be argued that the matrix of crises facing Obama would have outmatched any Bush successor, no matter how talented. (They certainly would have drowned John McCain, whose utter cluelessness about the economic crisis alarmed even his Republican allies in 2008.) But Obama knew what he was getting into when he ran for president, and the question that matters now is how he can do the job better.

The most challenging quandaries he has faced from the start, unemployment and Afghanistan, may be overcome only if he addresses his own internal obstacles. These include not just his misplaced faith in his own cultural cohort and his romantic illusions about bipartisan collaborations with a Mitch McConnell–John Boehner GOP that has no interest in governance. He might also reexamine his split-the-difference approach to decision-making. Compromise and pragmatism have their virtues, but they can also produce Rube Goldberg policies like an Afghanistan strategy that is at once intellectually clever and yet makes no discernible sense on the ground.

Which leads Rich to one final question: "Can Obama self-correct?"
He remains the same driven, smart, psychologically balanced leader we saw in the campaign, and to these familiar attributes, Alter adds another quality that is less frequently displayed in public -- an utter lack of sentimentality. He's "the most unsentimental man I've ever met," says one aide, summing up for many of his peers. That trait may be the most useful of all if Obama undertakes the ruthless course corrections that are essential to the realization of his promise.


Just how big a course correction the administration needs to make is underscored in the column today of Rich's NYT colleague Paul Krugman, "Defining Prosperity Down," where he worries that workers are being permanently screwed in the U.S. economy based on "growing evidence that our governing elite just doesn't care — that a once-unthinkable level of economic distress is in the process of becoming the new normal."
In short, it's all good. And I predict — having seen this movie before, in Japan — that if and when prices start falling, when below-target inflation becomes deflation, some Fed officials will explain that that's O.K., too.

What lies down this path? Here's what I consider all too likely: Two years from now unemployment will still be extremely high, quite possibly higher than it is now. But instead of taking responsibility for fixing the situation, politicians and Fed officials alike will declare that high unemployment is structural, beyond their control. And as I said, over time these excuses may turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the long-term unemployed lose their skills and their connections with the work force, and become unemployable.

I'd like to imagine that public outrage will prevent this outcome. But while Americans are indeed angry, their anger is unfocused. And so I worry that our governing elite, which just isn't all that into the unemployed, will allow the jobs slump to go on and on and on.

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At 4:19 AM, Blogger Bula said...

Paul Krugman for President!

At 7:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Obama's 2004 Convention speech explains why he has fallen short. He has no sense of history. Guys like Machiavelli and Plato despite limited resources saw that united societies had populations where the elite and the bottom were relatively close together. Plato used the Spartans as an example, and Machiavelli used the Northern Italian city-states. Obama gave a nice rah rah speech, but his speeches have ignored the fundamental economic divides in society. He even used wording to undermine "The Two America's" philosophy of Edwards in that speech.

The problem is the divide and Obama doesn't think its a problem or understands that there is a real divide. Until he realizes that, he will always fall short of addressing problems.

At 8:23 AM, Anonymous me said...

"Why Has Obama Fallen Short?"

Because he's a fuckhead, a gutless wonder, a gop-boot-licking jellyfish.

The first and biggest thing he did wrong was to give a pass to all the Bush-era criminals. Not only was it all downhill from there, but it ensured that the goppers can do literally anything with perfect impunity. They will use the power he gave them to destroy him, and he was too clueless to see it coming.

Obama sealed his own fate, and ours. Fuck Obama.

At 8:30 AM, Anonymous me said...

Only slightly off topic, did you read that Obama gave Helen Thomas's seat to the Assimilated Press?

Jesus H. Christ!!! WTF is the matter with that bozo? AP is every bit as bad as Fox News!

Why couldn't the seat have gone to a REAL news organization? Because the Worm-in-Chief is afraid of offending conservatives, that's why.

Which, BTW, is totally, AWESOMELY, STUPID! It cannot happen! They are determined to either own him or destroy him, and they'll accept no other outcome no matter what he does.

Why can't he see that??

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