Book portrays dysfunction in Obama White House

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod said the president’s team was not surprised by criticisms of the White House. Axelrod was referring to recent political criticism from Democrats and others, not to the book, “Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President.” As the article said, he added that the book rang untrue to him. This version has been changed to clarify that point.

Obama administration officials scrambled Friday to hunt down copies of a new book scheduled to be released next week that paints an unflattering portrait of a dysfunctional and acrimonious White House that sometimes stymied President Obama’s effort to rescue the country’s economy.

The book, “Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President,” by journalist Ron Suskind, comes at an inconvenient time for an administration that increasingly finds itself on the defensive over questions of effectiveness. The Washington Post obtained a copy of the book Friday.

This week, one prominent Democratic strategist, James Carville, said Obama should “panic” and fire much of his staff, and a Republican victory in a special House election in a heavily Democratic district in New York raised concerns among Democrats about Obama’s ability to win strong support from core party voters in next year’s reelection campaign.

Moreover, some Democrats are voicing frustration with a West Wing strategy they say allowed House Republicans to outmaneuver the president during the summer’s debt-ceiling talks.

The challenges have mounted as Obama and his advisers try to go on the offensive and boost the president’s low approval ratings, which are the worst of his tenure.

But as copies of the book began circulating around town Friday, Obama’s aides and allies were forced to defend his management style against the portrayal conveyed by Suskind, who secured White House cooperation for much of his work. Suskind interviewed many top officials and was granted a White House interview with Obama.

White House officials were still reviewing the book late Friday. Communications director Dan Pfeiffer said that such books “tend to take the normal day-to-day activities of governing and infuse them with drama, palace intrigue and salacious details.”

“The president made very tough decisions in the most difficult of circumstances, and his team executed those decisions faithfully and tirelessly,” he said.

Some of the defense came from former senior officials who were quoted making some of the book’s most provocative allegations.

Anita Dunn, a former communications director, is quoted as saying that “looking back, this place would be in court for a hostile workplace. . . . Because it actually fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace for women.”

Dunn said Friday that she told Suskind “point-blank” that the White House “was not a hostile environment.”

Christina Romer, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, is quoted as saying, after being excluded by top economic adviser Lawrence H. Summers at a meeting, “I felt like a piece of meat.”

On Friday, Romer said, “I can’t imagine that I ever said this.”

The book says Romer shared her thoughts with Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren, then a candidate to lead the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. “Why is it always the women?” Romer asked. “Why are we the only ones with the balls around here?”

“I was told before I went to Washington that there has always been a lot of testosterone in the West Wing,” Romer said Friday. “What was different in the Obama administration is that there were so many women in important positions and, when problems arose, the president worked hard to fix them. I felt respected, included and useful to the team.”

The book, which covers Obama’s presidency through February of this year and is based on more than 700 hours of interviews, suggests that the president was not always the dominant figure in his White House.

Suskind cites a series of memos from top aide Pete Rouse sharply critical of the White House’s operations, including one cautioning that an ongoing “rolling dialogue” by Summers and others on the economic team with Obama “strengthens Larry’s power to shape policy.”

The book portrays discord within the economic team, with Summers, then director of the National Economic Council, attempting to shut out the views of Romer and then-budget director Peter Orszag.

According to the book, Summers sought to derail Obama’s push on several policies, including a financial transactions tax.

At one point, Orszag delivered a private report to the president, at his request, about what might happen if the government did not act to rein in the long-term federal budget deficit. Summers was outraged that Orszag would communicate with the president without going through the National Economic Council.

“What you’ve done is immoral!” Summers shouted.

Orszag told Suskind, according to the book: “Larry just didn’t think the president knew what he was deciding.”

Meeting over dinner at the Bombay Club one night, Summers told Orszag that “we’re really home alone,” according to the book. “I mean it,” Summers said. “We’re home alone. There’s no adult in charge. Clinton would never have made these mistakes.”

Suskind asked Summers about the comment. “What I’m happy to say is, the problems were immense, they came from a number of very different sources, they were all coming at once, and there were not very many of us,” Summers replied.

In an e-mail Friday to The Post, Summers, who left the administration last year, said, “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.”

The book also claims that Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner essentially ignored a key request by Obama to come up with a plan to restructure the mega-bank Citigroup, which had been bailed out by the government.

In early 2009, Obama had decided to authorize a series of
Geithner-designed stress tests for the banks to determine whether they were likely to survive the financial crisis without additional funds. According to the book, Obama saw this moment as one when he could begin to overhaul Wall Street and told the Treasury secretary to develop a plan to restructure Citi.

A month later, at a meeting Geithner didn’t attend, Obama asked about the plan.

“I’m sorry, Mr. President,” Romer said, “but there is no resolution plan for Citi.”

The book says Obama was stunned. “Well, there better be,” he said.

Suskind alleges that Geithner, who disagreed with immediately pressing a plan to overhaul Citi, simply did not produce the plan.

In an interview with Suskind, Geithner denied that he ignored the president’s request. “I don’t slow-walk the president on anything,” he told him.

On Friday, the Treasury Department called the book’s account “untrue.”

The Treasury said Obama asked Geithner to develop backup plans to overhaul banks if the government was forced to maintain a big ownership stake in the companies. “There was fortunately never a need to put them in place,” the department said.

Senior Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod, who was a top White House aide during the administration’s first two years and was interviewed by Suskind, said Friday that the book’s account was not accurate. He said Obama was in command of his White House and ran an inclusive West Wing.

Still, apart from the book, Axelrod said he is not surprised that many Democrats at the moment are finding fault with the White House’s strategies – criticisms that he said would likely be different if Obama’s political standing improved.

 “Whenever you hit turbulence, these kinds of questions always arise,” he said. “It’s like sports. If a team has a losing streak, then the heralded manager all of a sudden doesn’t know baseball.”

Zachary A. Goldfarb is policy editor at The Washington Post.
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