Book: Women in Obama White House felt excluded and ignored
By Nia-Malika Henderson and Peter Wallsten,
A new book claims that the Obama White House is a boys’ club marred by rampant infighting that has hindered the administration’s economic policy and left top female advisers feeling excluded from key conversations.
“Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President,” by journalist Ron Suskind due out next Tuesday, details the rivalries among Obama’s top economic advisers, Larry Summers, former chairman of the National Economic Council, and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner. It describes constant second-guessing by Summers, now at Harvard, who was seen by others as “imperious and heavy-handed” in his decision-making.
In an excerpt obtained by The Post, a female senior aide to President Obama called the White House a hostile environment for women.
“This place would be in court for a hostile workplace,” former White House communications director Anita Dunn is quoted as saying. “Because it actually fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace to women.”
Dunn declined to discuss the specifics of the book. But in an interview Friday she said she told Suskind “point blank” that the White House “was not a hostile environment.”
“The president is someone who when he goes home at night he goes home to house full of very strong women,” Dunn added. “He values having strong women around him.”
The book, due out next week, reveals a White House that at times was divided and dysfunctional.
It says that women occupied many of the West Wing’s senior positions, but felt outgunned and outmaneuvered by male colleagues such as former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Summers.
“I felt like a piece of meat,” Christina Romer, former head of the Council of Economic Advisers, said of one meeting in which Suskind writes she was “boxed out” by Summers.
Dunn told Suskind that the problems began during the 2008 campaign. At one point she was viewing a television ad with other campaign officials and was shocked to see no women in the spot.
“There isn’t a single woman in this ad,” Dunn said. “I was dumbfounded. It wasn’t like they were being deliberately sexist. It’s just there was no one offering a female perspective.”
The ad was later reshot, with women included.
“The president has a real woman problem,” an unnamed high-ranking female official told Suskind. “ The idea of the boys’ club being just Larry and Rahm isn’t really fair. He [Obama] was just as responsible himself.”
Based on interviews with more than 200 people inside and outside the White House, Suskind’s book comes as Obama faces the lowest poll numbers of his tenure, and deep discontent over his economic policies.
According to the book, female staffers, like Dunn and Romer, felt sidelined. In November 2009, female aides complained to the president about being left out of meetings, or ignored.
Dunn said in the interview that her husband, now-White House lawyer Bob Bauer, was “surprised to see me as someone who could be talked over in meetings.”
“It's a place where there is vigorous discussion back and forth. At various times people have issues with their colleagues, but we were united,” Dunn said. “I've been very clear that this is a president who values a diverse set of voices on every issue.”
Dunn refused to discuss the details of “private conversations with the president,” dinners with the economic team or conversations with book authors.
But she added: “I take issue with the idea that [the White House] was a place where senior women weren’t involved in every aspect of every major decision and their voices weren’t heard.”
Obama, according to the book published by Harper Collins, failed to call on Romer after asking her male colleagues for their opinions. The snub prompted Romer to pass a note to Summers where she threatened to walk out of the dinner, according to the book.
The Obama White House has long been dogged by similar claims of exclusivity — his golf outings have been typically all-male affairs, though Melody Barnes, who heads the Domestic Policy Council was invited on at least one round of golf in October 2009 after much grumbling about Obama’s choice of golf buddies.
In a staff shake-up after the midterms, Obama pushed out his long time aides, Robert Gibbs, former press secretary, and senior aide David Axelrod, according to the book — both remain top advisers to Obama’s reelection campaign. Karen Finney, former communications director for the Democratic National Committee, made the shortlist to replace Gibbs — new Chief of Staff William Daley had expressed the desire to add more women to the inner circle — but the job ultimately went to Jay Carney, former press secretary to Vice President Biden.
On the economy, one key claim the book makes is that Geithner failed to follow through on a March 2009 order to look into dissolving Citigroup, and Obama realized that “the speed with which the bureaucracy could exercise my decision was slower than I wanted.”
A senior Treasury official pushed back against the book’s claims, saying that Suskind’s account of Geithner dragging his feet on on Obama’s Citigroup directive is simply untrue.
In the book Geithner also denies that he ignored Obama’s order, but the book offers a portrait of a president who was outmaneuvered by Beltway insiders, according to Suskind.
“The Citibank incident, and others like it, reflected a more pernicious and personal dilemma emerging from inside the administration: that the young president’s authority was being systematically undermined or hedged by seasoned advisers,” the book says.
Key decisions over the size of the February 2009 stimulus package and the restructuring of major banks were all hampered by disagreements, and left Obama’s advisers feeling adrift.