On Friday, Romer offered a softer denial than Dunn, saying, “I can’t imagine that I ever said this.”
“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.”
In the book, Romer is portrayed as speaking up for herself. At one point, Suskind quotes her telling the president that if he empowers Emanuel and Summers, “you’re responsible for their actions.”
Dunn left the administration in late 2009 to resume her private political consulting business, though she remains an adviser to Obama and will work for his campaign, and Romer departed the following year to return to the University of California at Berkeley.
The complaints began circulating early in the administration.
In interviews at the time, female officials complained that top aides fueled the high-testosterone atmosphere. Footballs were occasionally thrown during staff meetings, by one account. Rough language abounded.
That, of course, made the White House hardly different from most other political operations. Most campaigns are run by men, and most administrations suffer from some level of dissatisfaction that so few women are in senior roles.
Some early efforts to elevate women foundered. The first White House communications director, Ellen Moran, departed quickly, after a rocky tenure. Others never quite fit in, or failed to be “in the jet stream” of the most important events of the day, one official said.
According to another official, the president initially discounted the complaints he heard that women, particularly on his economic team, were making. He saw the tough climate as just that — the intense atmosphere of a White House, fostered by competitive people at the top of their game.
But as tensions between Romer and Summers, in particular, escalated, Jarrett counseled Obama to give the issue its due.
“I said, ‘Look, I think that we have some issues with making people, particularly the new women, a part of the team and giving them a better sense of you and how you value their opinion,’ ” Jarrett said, recalling her conversation with the president.
Obama convened the dinner with women on staff. It took place in the White House residence on the night of Nov. 5, 2009 — just hours after a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Tex., dominated the president’s attention.
An official White House photo depicts Obama, his hand on his chin, listening intently as the women sit with serious expressions.
“I really want you guys to talk to me about this openly because recently there has been this suggestion that there are some issues here,” Obama said, according to Suskind’s account of the session. “I’d like to know how you guys feel.”
The dinners have continued ever since, though not with Obama. The women agreed it was not necessary to meet with him again, officials said. Jarrett described Obama’s responses that night as “empowering.”
The complaints seemed to subside over the last year, as officials have made a greater effort to promote women and the tight-knit inner circle has shifted to bring new advisers into the building.
The 2012 reelection team includes two senior women, deputy campaign managers Julianna Smoot and Jen O’Malley Dillon. At the White House, Alyssa Mastromonaco, Obama’s former scheduler, and former health care czar Nancy-Ann DeParle have been promoted to deputy chiefs of staff. Stephanie Cutter is now in a senior communications role. The White House counsel is a woman, as well.
Melody Barnes, Obama’s top domestic policy adviser who this year took on a wider role dealing with health care and energy, said that the president and other officials, “including myself, have made great efforts to make sure women have prominent seats at the table.”
On Monday, the leaders of two women’s advocacy groups, the Feminist Majority and the National Organization for Women, said in interviews that they believed Obama was running an inclusive White House.
“Do I want President Obama to be a flaming effetist feminist like I am? Sure,” said Terry O’Neill, NOW’s president. “But overall, as the leader of a women’s organization, I have to say President Obama is a good president.”
Washington Post researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.
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