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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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Maybe more vexing, candidate Obama had smart early advisors who saw what was coming on Wall Street and warned him: about the derivatives disasters; the "repo books" where companies borrowed and loaned one another cash without examining the shoddy collateral put up to secure loans, which increasingly companies couldn't pay back; about the extent to which big firms like Goldman Sachs made money betting against their clients and the entire economy. You can argue that Obama became president because he spoke knowledgeably and reassuringly about the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy apocalypse in September 2008, while John McCain was still insisting "the fundamentals of our economy are strong." With his head start, Obama should have been wiser about how to get on top of the Wall Street disaster, and his early speeches were. It's also possible the intimacy that led his Wall Street friends to give him a heads up on the coming crisis also prevented him from breaking up their racket.

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Suskind frequently stops mid-narrative to grapple with the central question of his book: Was the problem mainly with Obama's staff, which can be corrected by a staff shakeup, and with the president's early inexperienced leadership, which can be ameliorated by experience? Or is there something missing in Obama himself, in his vision and values, that led to the lack of bold action to solve the nation's biggest problems? He points to a defining moment in Obama's candidacy, when he's making his final decision about whether to run for president with his closest advisors, and Michelle says:

"You need to ask yourself why you want to do this. What are you hoping to uniquely accomplish, Barack?"

Obama answers:

"The world will see us differently. Millions of kids across this country will see themselves differently."

Clearly, that was a worthy goal; electing our first black president would change -- did change -- America. But his answer didn't reveal what he would accomplish after he was elected president. Obama's appeal and his motivation were wrapped up in his story; but his story isn't a platform, an ideology or a set of policy prescriptions.

If we take Obama's answer a step beyond where Suskind leaves it, if we examine Obama's story, and look at the "American exceptionalism" that made his presidency possible, I think it also explains his worldview, and his priorities: Obama believes he is the creation of a fundamentally sound American meritocracy, which is often but not always distorted by race; where a kid whose father came from Kenya and whose mother came from Kansas, mostly raised by his grandparents in Hawaii, could get the opportunity, despite his race and his funny name, to rise and just keep rising -- Punahou Prep, Columbia University, Harvard Law School. Is this a great country, or what? It helps explain how an administration made up of Ivy League standouts, "the best and the brightest," to use David Halberstam's chilling phrase about JFK's team, updated for the 21st century, could wind up in an economic quagmire to rival the one Kennedy's men created in Vietnam.

On the question of whether the problem is with Obama's political values and priorities, or just his lack of leadership experience, Suskind doesn't seem sure himself. He closes the book with a picture of a president who's been "educated" on the ways of the White House, a picture that reassures Suskind a little. Obama cleans house after the midterm debacle, getting rid of most of his top staff, and he executes a big deal with Mitch McConnell and John Boehner to extend the Bush tax cuts, in exchange for extending unemployment insurance and a payroll tax cut, which would provide a stimulus of almost $500 billion over the next year. Suskind questions the content of the deal, but there's no doubt he sees a glimmer of hope for the young president in his bold deal-making: Finally, he wasn't paralyzed by the indecision of his staff or the carping of congressional Democrats. Indeed, Obama's approval ratings rise, briefly.

 
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