Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Triangular Trades

The back cover of Ron Suskind's Confidence Men carries a set of blurbs that, intended to praise the author, instead suggest the defects of his approach. There are only four of them, but a dominant theme quickly emerges. "Suskind is at heart a storyteller." "Mr. Suskind is a prodigiously talented craftsman." "Suskind is the rare writer who combines excellent reporting with a knack for novelistic writing about real people." Those last five words are key to the failure, not only of Suskind's book, but of modern national journalism. As Bob Somerby has spent more than a decade pointing out, novelistic writing has been the press's default position for a long time, and when the facts complicate or disprove the group's preferred novel, they can be corrected, or made to disappear altogether. While Confidence Men isn't quite as egregious as the average press novel, its attempt to paint Barack Obama as a sincere proponent of change who was sidetracked by bad management and an intransigent staff most certainly values pleasing narrative over observable reality.

The press coverage of Confidence Men at the time of its release treated the book as a negative portrait of Obama's first two years in office, but really it's attuned not to Obama's critics but to those who are disappointed in him but still want to believe. The chapters that deal with the campaign are so fawningly impressed by his rhetoric ("brilliant speech... his particular brand of magic... precise and lyrical, heartfelt and gently clipped... extraordinary speech") that it's like being made to read a DailyKos diary from 2008. Forced to confront the distance between that rhetoric and the reality of 2009-2010, Suskind goes for the style rather than the substance, deciding against the elementary logic of human behavior that the "real" Obama is present in the speeches, and that the story of his presidency must explain how that desire for change was sidetracked.

He's supported in that narrative by several Obama-era White House functionaries who weave an account of how Obama's lack of managerial skills, coupled with the aggressive status quo-maintaining arguments of Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, and Rahm Emanuel, stifled the earnest intention to produce genuine cost-cutting healthcare reform and potent new financial regulation. Without disputing that Obama was a poor manager who was intellectually dominated by his advisers, I have to point out that Suskind's major sources, the heroes of his book, all wanted substantial reform themselves, which would naturally color their recollection of Obama's actions and beliefs. At one point Suskind quotes Tom Daschle on the impression Barack Obama creates: "I saw a man who listened. Sometimes people misunderstood that listening as an acquiescence to their point of view." What neither Suskind nor Daschle can say is that Obama might well have encouraged that misunderstanding.

The common cynic's version of electoral politics has it that candidates say whatever they have to before the election and do whatever they want to after it. But of course political theater extends into the administration as well, and targets not only the general public but certain appointees as well, so that they remain in their positions creating the impression that the president really cares about perspective X on issue Y. Although the reformist domestic policymakers Suskind quotes are placed in secondary positions while those who would change as little as possible got the top spots, this is never read as a reflection of Obama's real political preferences. Here, in fact, is Suskind's entire explanation:
Sure, the other [reforming] team brought to the table honesty and passion, but those bold visions of the campaign season had meanwhile resolved into the serious, often risk-averse business of actually governing. In the midst of a battering economic storm, it no longer seemed like the right time to be making waves.
But if Barack Obama was capable of even mild cerebral activity (and though I think his intelligence has been overstated, I believe he was and is), he knew that that battering storm was the product of policies championed by those "serious, often risk-averse" people he was putting in top positions, and that allowing them to define another administration would make more waves that would gradually build the next storm. Such a decision is not simply about judgment as a leader; it's about political as well as managerial philosophy.

But, like so much modern journalism, Suskind places enormous emphasis on presidential personality, leaving unasked and unanswered why such diverse individuals produce results that consistently benefit one segment of the population over another. Much is made of Obama's having his advisers debate issues in front of him so he could lead them toward a consensus position, a preference that Larry Summers' (apparent) intellectual force and preparedness allowed him to manipulate. But that push for consensus is more than a leadership strategy. It's an act of triangulation, taking the liberal and conservative (as those terms are defined by the political class) positions and twisting them into something that, whoever it actually serves, seems like a compromise. Those not bewitched by Obama's rhetoric recognized well before the election that he was a master of such vacuous opportunism, and his fruitless attempts to shape legislation that would win large bipartisan majorities only drove the point home.

A narrative that ignores the ideological implications of Obama's approach encourages continued liberal adulation of his "vision," but more importantly it shifts the focus away from major structural forces that prevent serious reform. The power of the financial and health care lobbies is mentioned, but Suskind seems simply to assume that Obama could have used the power of popular sentiment and skillful politicking to overcome them. He also mentions, but doesn't really explore, the important fact that many of the people responsible for regulating and overseeing Wall Street come to those positions having worked on Wall Street, having made the risky deals and giant paychecks they're now supposed to police. This journey involving Washington and Wall Street also includes a third stop, on major college campuses, where as professors and guest speakers they inculcate their values in the next generation. Such a triangular trade guarantees that the system as it stands will always have more, and more powerful, supporters than detractors, and that calls for reform will often be couched in the language of safer profit rather than that of an increasingly insignificant public good.

There's a lot wrong with Confidence Men: the weakness for lame metaphor and love of a heart-warming biography that constitute Suskind's "knack for novelistic writing" (believe me, Harlequin romance novelists have more of a knack); the mistake, common to modern reporters, of using perceived quirks of body language to justify a invented reading of someone's mood; a habit of praising, and allowing self-serving presentations by, anyone who offers criticisms of the contemporary system (there's a paragraph about the awesomeness of mid-century captains of industry that's positively nauseating); an inability to make the shady economic methods he discusses more than vaguely understandable; the failure to examine foreign policy even cursorily; a simple lack of focus in a long, digressive, repetitive, and ill-structured book. But the crowning annoyance, at least for me, is the conclusion, in which Suskind claims that after the 2010 midterms Obama modified his managerial style and took control of his presidency.

In the wake of the debt ceiling nonsense, that isn't a terribly convincing proposition, and it's unsurprising that Suskind doesn't have much evidence for it. The only policy matter he can dredge up is the compromise that extended the Bush tax cuts in exchange for extended unemployment benefits and a payroll tax cut. What makes this compromise better than any other Obama was involved in, apart from the fact that it falls after Suskind's chosen turning point, is that apparently he "had simply taken control of the matter" and "was sitting in the space his presidency had created." But any decision could be presented on those terms, depending on which facts one chose to emphasize. Another point of praise is Obama's speech in the aftermath of the Arizona shootings. But that tragedy was ideal for Obama's existing rhetorical strength: it involved no policy proposals, required only banalities about divisive politics, opposition to murder, and support for not being murdered. That given such a situation he could deliver an inspiring but intellectually empty speech is evidence of the "old" Obama, not a new one.

The final piece of evidence for this rebirth of an Obama worth supporting is the shakeup of his staff in which Rahm Emanuel and Larry Summers left. To the extent that there was a managerial problem in the White House, those departures might fix it. But from an ideological standpoint, the full spectrum of changes is less than comforting. Setting aside questions about quitting versus being fired, which amount to office gossip, also gone in this new Obama era are financial reformer and Council of Economic Advisers head Christina Romer, healthcare reformer and OMB director Peter Orszag, inspirational-Obama architect David Axelrod, and outspoken financial reformer Paul Volcker. Tim Geithner is still in place as Secretary of the Treasury. This is a clearing of the decks, but it's not one that's particularly friendly to the ideology of the Obama certain liberals imagined themselves to be electing.

The replacements for both Volcker and Rahm Emanuel were widely understood as signals that the Obama administration would now be friendlier to big business. Such "moving to the center" is, as any observer of the political class knows, the ordained response to a Democratic electoral defeat. It's not a sign that Obama is returning to his transformational message, but that he's responding to the shifting elite consensus. And that is nothing new for him: he responded to the desires of liberals by playing one in the Democratic primary, and to those of the political class during his first two years as president by playing a cautious moderate. Now he's playing a cautious conservative, but the deeper political values remain the same. Suskind's happy ending, which includes a claim of post-midterm rising confidence in Obama that poll numbers don't support, is capped by a Valentine's Day 2011 interview with him that, even given Suskind's careful arrangement and glossing, communicates not the certainty of a new era but the same old rambling, waffling self-justifications of a career politician who wants to assuage critics and sound certain of his future without precisely admitting that anything went wrong in the past. Political narratives are powerful, versatile things, but they can only be sustained so far, and despite the author's best efforts, Confidence Men's resurrected liberal myth of Obama dies, like the original did, at the hands of merciless, unlovely fact.