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Author Ron Suskind on Obama's Evolution amidst Unprecedented Economic and International Challenges

Web ExclusiveSeptember 23, 2011
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In part two of our interview with veteran journalist Ron Suskind about his explosive new book, Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President, Suskind discusses the challenges faced by President Obama and his evolution as a leader. "You see the President try to get his arms around what is often an untenable situation," says Suskind. "He has a team around him with long Washington experience and long histories with one another. The President, meanwhile, is ramping up at Mach speed on very difficult, and often very complex, national issues, economic issues, for which there is no recent precedent." According to Suskind, Obama muses he has "policy wonk’s disease" and now aims to be more dynamic in telling the American people "who we are and where we’re going."

AMY GOODMAN: Ron Suskind is our guest. Let’s continue for a few more minutes with this conversation. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Ron, I wanted to ask you about the—the thrust of the book is the green nature of Obama, especially when it comes to administration and administering the White House. How did you see his growth throughout that period? What’s changed from those early days?

RON SUSKIND: You know, I think it’s—it’s really what the book’s about. It’s about the growth of this man. And we’re interested in the advisers, as always, as I am with all of the books. And I think other writers would agree, not so much as to who the advisers are and what they do, but as to the glimpse they give of the central actor, the president. That’s why we always like to hear about White House advisers. And in this case, what you see is the President grappling, often with great might, to try to get his arms around what is often an untenable situation. He has a team around him with long Washington experience and long histories with one another. The President, meanwhile, is ramping up at Mach speed on very difficult, and often very complex, national issues, economic issues, for which there is no recent precedent. Meanwhile, he has—the fact of the matter is, it would take, you know, a manager of the utmost skill to manage Larry Summers, much less Larry Summers and Rahm Emanuel together. The President, who really had been mostly managing his one-man Barack Obama narrative and journey his whole life, without executive experience, certainly—he’s not a governor. Some governors, of course, they have experience in executing power, which is something fairly unique, actually, in government. And he has, neither, a set of nourishing experiences.

What he finds, going forward, is that he finds the gremlins pop up in a lot of different areas. In some cases, he sort of—he says at one point—I think it’s sort of telling—he knows he’s a great, you know, orator. And everyone does. But he’s frustrated that there’s not a follow-up to the speeches, that the speeches happen, and there’s great acclaim, but there’s not a policy follow-up to the speeches. This is something that frustrates him. Prior to the healthcare speech, after several incidents where he says we didn’t follow up, he is very, very pointed about "I want" — this is the September 2009 speech on healthcare before the joint session, a crucial speech of his first year — "I want a fully realized healthcare plan, our proposal, out as I give this speech. I’m going to give the speech, and we’re going to pass out that proposal." The President is very focused on this. He, of course, is also writing this speech at high speed. And right coming up until the speech, he is convinced that a full plan, letter and verse of what the administration wants, will be released. In a meeting just prior to the speech, there’s debate about this. Dan Pfeiffer, Peter Orszag and others think that what’s now, you know, being proffered, which is a two-page thing of bullet points—the President doesn’t realize this—is wrong. The President says in this meeting, "We’re going to release the speech." Orszag says no—you know, he wants—begins to say, "No, it’s bullet points." And he recalls Emanuel gives him the "don’t say another word" look. Now, I talked to Rahm about this. He says, you know, "I don’t think that comports with my memory. I would never keep things from the President." But the fact of the matter is, there are many instances in which those at the uppermost levels of the White House were feeling the President was not fully informed of the flow of events and, in some cases, where policies were going in the White House.

Now, finally, I think now, and importantly, the President has—after this memo was written, he, step by step, tried and did take control of the building. Almost everyone from that first period left, certainly in 2010, from February forward, one after the other, all the way up to Rahm Emanuel in September of the year. Pete Rouse moves in as the interim chief of staff. And starting in November—and the President talks about this with great energy in the interview—the President says, "I have the staff I need." He felt he did the tax cut deal on the Bush tax cuts, attached the payroll tax cut, which he said was very strong stimulus. He feels emboldened in a way that I think it’s clear he did not feel before. "I’ve got this under control. This White House is expressing my will." The Tucson speech with Gabby Giffords, all the way through. That’s where the book ends: the President feeling like he’s got this together.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But isn’t that, to some degree, those failings, his responsibility vis-à-vis the promise that he gave to all those people who ran for him? Remember, he’d constantly say, if you bring back the same people to Washington, you’re going to get the same results. So, he was the change, and yet he brought in all these same people from the Clinton administration to do a lot of his key work.

RON SUSKIND: Yeah, there’s no doubt that the questions of why he made those choices, what he was thinking, are ones that people ask. They’ve been asking it from the beginning, pointing out just what you said, Juan. The President, I think if you look at it from his shoes, you know, was facing a very difficult situation where he had to own Washington, tame New York, save a collapsing economy, with a collapsed financial system. He moved, I think, to a team that he felt was tried and true, in terms of dealing with financial crisis. That was his decision.

Going forward, I think he says something interesting in the final interview, where he talks about this experience has been one in which he has learned hard lessons, that he does not want to be legislator-in-chief—that’s past. He talked about technocratic solutions and his inclination in those directions being not sufficient to the job of president. He says at one point, "Carter, Clinton and I suffer from," what he called, "the policy wonk’s disease." And he feels like, again in February of this year, he’s shucking that off to be a president who’s more dynamic, more in control and larger in purpose, and most importantly, being able to tell a story, as he says, to the American people about who we are and where we’re going, which, he says, is something only a president can do.

AMY GOODMAN: I think why people are so concerned right now—who we are and where we’re going—cutting Social Security, cutting Medicare, cutting Medicaid, caving to those in the very right of the Republican Party, not even those in the center of the Republican Party, and not responding to the progressive base, right until now. What was—did Obama have to say about that?

RON SUSKIND: Well, you know, I didn’t get into where you stand politically in the interview. We kept it as to his evolution, what he’s learned, essentially, as the boss, as the leader. I think that he does say something that’s—that is telling on that score, when he talks about the Bush tax cuts and the swap he makes after the midterm elections, which is he doesn’t agree with the Bush tax cuts. He used it to make a swap for the stimulus. But he says that he thinks America felt better, more confident, because Washington was not simply in a gridlock, in stasis, where nothing was being done. And he talks about that as a positive. That is part of, I think, what he would term his evolution. The question is, is that really telegraphing where he will go from here.

AMY GOODMAN: Women meeting with him en masse in the White House to confront President Obama about the senior White House male advisers.

RON SUSKIND: Yes. In the dinner, in the residence, in November of 2009—and this dinner, mind you, has been—this is not the first time it’s been reported. It was in Jonathan Alter’s book. It was in Richard Wolff’s book. They all had a rendering of this scene. I have a rendering with some additional parts, certainly.

I think the thing that is striking about it—two things come to mind. One of Valerie Jarrett walking in—Valerie also, I interviewed for the book—and Anita Dunn were concerned, Valerie especially, that the women would not speak openly to the President. And Anita recalled that Valerie said to her, "I want you to start, Anita," because Anita is a very forceful character, as I think people now know. "And you start to get the rest moving." That wasn’t necessary. The women were free and frank and quite open with the President. And as their comments built, it seemed to coalesce that they were pointed, at least significantly, at Larry Summers and Rahm Emanuel. Both of them are brusque personalities, well known. Some would say they’re equal opportunity bullies. But the fact is, the women felt their behavior was inappropriate.

At the end of the dinner, the President says, "I hear you. I am sympathetic to what you’re facing. But I really need these guys," because the women seemed to suggest that either one or both of them should be fired. The President says, "Yes, yes, I understand, but I really need Rahm and Larry." Now, some of the women, I think, felt a little deflated from that, that, well, maybe they thought there would be more dramatic action or that maybe the President would take those two senior aides to the woodshed, so to speak. And that, again, is part of the flow of events.

After the meeting, though, things moved forward, and I think expressing their grievances to the President—he’s the leader of the free world, he’s very busy; this is something that’s usually handled by a chief of staff, but Emanuel being at the center of it made that a problem—I think it gave a kind of forward motion. It created a kind of forward motion to this issue, brought it out into the open, and probably created valuable benefits.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, Larry Summers was partly forced out of Harvard as president because of his attitude toward women, among the other controversies there, saying women can’t do science as well as men.

RON SUSKIND: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: Your most—your greatest shock in doing this, what you felt were the most explosive issues, as we sum up. And I know you have to leave for a CNN interview.

RON SUSKIND: Yeah. I think the issue that’s hardest to reckon with is not just how the President was racing to ramp up, to take control of his building, to do what he needs to do, but the awful combination of circumstances, of the President arriving with so little experience in this way but such demonstrative and demonstrable gifts, if you will, having to get all of this right very quickly, because that’s the moment of opportunity, in those first few months. And I think that it’s indisputable now, looking back, and I think the President would agree, that maybe an opportunity then was lost, as many point out, to restructure, as people have talked about in the last two days of this financial sort of up and down, where everybody is pulling their hair out, to restructure the way credit flows in America and the wider global economy, so that we don’t have this fear and fragility that causes these eruptions, eruptions and ups and downs, that often actually carry ill effects for the wider economy by virtue of people not having confidence to invest, to feel like the landscape will be sound and solid going forward. I think that’s really the missed opportunity of this period. He may make up for it now. I don’t think he has any lack of understanding of these things. And so, I think part of the issue, as we look forward—this book brings us up to present—is what now will the President do? Now that I think readers know him better, know why he did what he did, what was happening, they’ll have a better understanding of what he may do in the future and an understanding of what it means when he does act in the future. And I think that’s part of the goal of the book.

AMY GOODMAN: Ron Suskind, thanks so much for being with us. Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President, that is the title of the book.

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