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The Miseducation of the President

Ron Suskind describes a leader pulled off course by his staff. But we still don't know where Obama wants to take us.

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Suskind also spends time on the stimulus debate, where proponents of big moves likewise lost. Romer argued forcefully the stimulus should be at least $1.2 trillion, but Peter Orszag told Suskind they couldn't do anything over a trillion, out of "a concern we would look wacko lefty." Better to let the economy decline than look "wacko lefty," I guess. Larry Summers didn't even present Romer's $1.2 trillion suggestion to Obama, but she pushed for it herself in a meeting, and Obama chose to go with the pragmatists.

Some of the book's most unsettling revelations have to do with White House sexism, or maybe it's best described as "guyism," as in Obama just misses the way his guy culture leaves out women, however inadvertently. Most of the juicy stories have already been dissected -- and denied, not convincingly, by some of the women involved: Anita Dunn saying the White House would "fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace to women”; Christina Romer complaining she was overlooked and undermined so often by Larry Summers she "felt like a piece of meat"; a "women's dinner" convened by Valerie Jarrett to allow the president to hear the complaints of his top female staff directly. (It's a little awkward to learn that Obama greeted Christina Romer, the first time they met, by declaring that monetary policy had "shot its wad.")

Most of this stuff has been known since the New York Times' Mark Leibovich revealed that the president's fondness for bonding on the basketball court and golf course was leaving female staffers on the sidelines. But Suskind offers one telling anecdote about Obama's approach to gender that's been overlooked in coverage to date. Early in the book, during a campaign strategy session on candidate Obama's economic program, he and his advisors discuss the continuing erosion of jobs and wages for low to moderately skilled male workers. The big job opportunities, one researcher explains, will be in the exploding realm of healthcare -- positions for nurses, hospital orderlies and in-home assistants to frail seniors will boom.

Obama jumps in: "Look, these are guys," he says. "A lot of them see health care, being nurse's aides, as women's work. They need to do something that fits with how they define themselves as men." Quickly the conversation turned to infrastructure: fixing the nation's crumbling roads, bridges, schools and public buildings. Men like to build, the group concludes, and infrastructure offers a campaign promise that promotes employment, improves our public roads and buildings, and makes working-class men feel better about themselves. It's a threefer, the kind of big idea Obama likes. He leaves the meeting energized. "Good meeting," he tells the guys. "Real good.

Of course, there was no big infrastructure campaign, although Obama has made a pitch for an infrastructure bank in the last year, when he'd already lost control of the economic and political narrative. I could shrug off Obama's "guyism" in that conversation about "women's work," if only he'd had the courage to follow through and push a program that would create jobs, fix what needs fixing and shore up male employment. Instead, we have unconscionably high unemployment, plus a window into the president's retro view of "men's" and "women's work."

That meeting is important for another reason. Princeton economist Alan Krueger gave a seminar on all the trends taking down the economy. He presented a graphic slide: "Growing Together (1947-1973) vs. Growing Apart (1973-2005)." I've seen the slide: It starkly depicts the American dream years, when real family income grew 3 percent a year and the big increases went to those at the bottom. After 1973, we move into the American bust years. Growth for most people slowed or declined -- except for the top 5 percent. Candidate Obama professed to understand and want to tackle that crisis head-on, with tax hikes for the wealthy, tough new reforms for Wall Street, an infrastructure crusade for unemployed and underemployed men (and, I trust, women), but he didn't do any of that. He didn't even push for it very hard.

 
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