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.”