• Marc Johnson

Confidence Men


So many things we associate with the modern American presidency, including its imperial nature, where created by Franklin D. Roosevelt nearly 80 years ago. Roosevelt perfected the presidential news conference, used the mass media skillfully and repeatedly, polished the symbols of the office to a new sheen and he invented the modern White House staff and Cabinet machinery.

After reading Ron Suskind’s book Confidence Men over the holidays, a sharply critical assessment of Barack Obama’s first two years in office often fueled by the mistakes of his dysfunctional economic team, I’m betting that the president has quietly cursed FDR for that last invention – the White House staff and Cabinet operation.

The overarching theme of Suskind’s book – a president who can’t or won’t control his own staff is going to have a tough time running the country – is, at its core, an indictment of the modern way of politics in our nation’s capitol. Big egos, retained minds, power for power’s sake and a supreme level of confidence in one’s own view of the world are, in Suskind’s telling, at the heart of the original Obama economic team and its response to the Great Recession.

The two principle (and bad) actors in Suskind’s tale are Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and former Clinton Treasury official Lawrence Summers. Now-Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was then White House chief of staff, plays a less central role, but still comes off like the opinionated, profane bully that everyone – admirer and not – seems to agree he is. For whatever reasons those unsvaory traits endeared him to the cool, no drama president.

Suskind’s book has had its detractors, including Geithner and the White House press office. Reviewing the 515 page tome in the New York Times, columnist Joe Nocera, a guy who almost always writes with insight and balance about the economy and politics, called the book “bloated” and “reeking of self-importance.” I agree. But Nocera also says the book “is an important addition to the growing library of books about this president. It tells you things — lots of things — that you didn’t know before. Very few of those things reflect well on Obama and his initial team.” I also agree.

Suskind’s book came out last fall at almost the exact time that Joe McGinniss’s much maligned hit piece on Sarah Palin arrived in book stores. Five months later no one is talking about The Rogue, but Confidence Men has lasted, perhaps because the subject is so much more important.

The history of the modern presidency dating back to FDR provides a guide to some of Obama’s missteps. He made two fundamental mistakes in staffing his White House; mistakes of inexperience committed by a rookie perhaps. First, he failed to appreciate that past behavior almost always forecasts future behavior. Summers, a man who had accumulated enemies during his tenure in the Clinton Administration, went from there to Harvard to serve as president and bombed. Summers’ comments about and inability to work with women cost him his job in the Ivy League and he brought, if you believe Suskind, all that baggage to the West Wing of the White House. A sub-theme in Suskind’s book is that the White House is a “boys” domain where Summers and others systematically kept senior women advisers, including current Massachusetts U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, out of the loop as they struggled to right the economy. 

As for Geithner, it’s difficult to think of a more inappropriate choice to help steer the economy out of a housing-inspired collapse fueled by Wall Street greed than the guy who presided over the New York Federal Reserve Bank during the meltdown. There is a chilling account in Suskind’s book of Geithner socially and comfortably rubbing shoulders with his Wall Street friends, while being almost completely uncomfortable with reporters, members of Congress and most of his administration colleagues. You can’t help but wonder what Obama was thinking with this appointment, particularly since he had the full support of people like the tough and independent former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker, who would have made a perfect Treasury Secretary in Obama’s early days.

Instead Obama went for big egos, big resumes and big Wall Street connections and Summers and Geithner brought big problems with them.

The second lesson of Obama’s initial years is the importance of discipline and loyalty and by that I don’t mean the blind loyalty of an H.R. Haldeman, but rather the kind of loyalty that requires you, as a White House staffer or Cabinet member, to carry out the boss’s orders or leave. By Suskind’s account, the Obama White House was endlessly “re-litigating” decisions that should have been made and implemented, apparently because guys like Summers and Geithner were convinced they knew more than the president. In short: no discipline, little loyalty.

One of the hotly disputed stories in Confidence Men is Suskind’s detailed reporting on Geithner’s failure to carry out Obama’s ordersto implement an orderly take down of Citibank. Geithner”slow walked” the Treasury process for weeks, according to Suskind, to avoid carrying out a decision that his boss had made. Suskind properly points out that such behavior is a firing offense everywhere but Washington, D.C.

Imagine how Obama’s fortunes might have changed had he called in his Treasury Secretary and told him of his disappointment in Geithner’s failure to carry out a direct order and that the price for that insubordination would be public humiliation and dismissal. A president with steel in his spine – Harry Truman say – would have called a news conference, laid out the story and said as of this moment we have a new acting Treasury Secretary. A public firing is a thing of the past in national politics. It shouldn’t be. In the hands of a young, inexperienced president it was a valuable tool that Obama apparently chose not to wield.

Roosevelt, of course, assembled a White House staff and Cabinet that was far from harmonious. Harold Ickes, the imperious Interior Secretary, warred openly with Henry Wallace the brainy and unconventional Agriculture Secretary. Both of them fought with FDR’s trusted insider Harry Hopkins, but none of these guys ever overshadowed the president. Roosevelt saw too that. Insubordination was not a subtext of Roosevelt’s presidency.

For his White House aides, Roosevelt sought, as it has been famously said, men with “a passion for anonymity.” They were there to serve the president – and the country. The young president seems to have selected men, at least on his economic team, with their own agendas and no passion for serving in his shadow. Obama has now re-shuffled his White House staff to get ready for the re-election battle and a hoped for second term. We’ll see if he’s learned any management lessons from his ragged first term.

Again a Roosevelt comparison is apt. Roosevelt clearly learned on the job in the 1930’s. Repeatedly throughout his presidency, FDR shuffled and re-shuffled his Cabinet and personal staff. Some, like Ickes became indispensable and stayed for the duration, but others like Gen. Hugh Johnson, who controversially headed the National Recovery Administration, and Joe Kennedy, the first SEC chief and Ambassador to Great Britain, were sent packing when their judgment or usefulness came to question. Twice, in 1940 and again in 1944, Roosevelt dumped incumbent vice presidents from the ticket he headed.

FDR managed and led his staff and Cabinet even as he remade the modern presidency. Every president since – including the inexperienced Obama – could learn from his approach that insisted on discipline, loyalty and a firm understanding of just who was in charge.

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©2019 by Marc C Johnson