A small secret. In writing about the White House or Congress, I always feel completely free to attempt to see things clearly, to consider the evidence, to sift it through experience and knowledge, and then to make a judgment. It may be highly critical, or caustic, even damning. But deep down I always hope I’m wrong—that it isn’t as bad as I say it is, that there is information unknown to me that would explain such and such an act, that there were factors I didn’t know of that make bad decisions suddenly explicable. Or even justifiable.
I note this to make clear the particular importance, for me, of Ron Suskind’s book on the creation of President Obama’s economic policy, “Confidence Men.” If Mr. Suskind is right, I have been wrong in my critiques of the president’s economic policy. None of it was as bad as I said. It was much worse.
The most famous part of the book is the Larry Summers quote that he saw it as a “Home Alone” administration, with no grown-ups in charge. But there’s more than that. Most of us remember the president as in a difficult position from day one: two wars and an economic crash, good luck with that. But Mr. Suskind recasts the picture.
Like FDR, Mr. Obama had big advantages: “overwhelming popular support, Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, and the latitude afforded by crisis.” But things were weird from the beginning. Some of his aides became convinced that his “lack of . . . managerial experience” would do him in. He ran meetings as if they were afternoon talk shows. An unnamed adviser says the 2009 stimulus legislation was the result of “poor conceptualizing.” Another: “We should have spent more time thinking about where the money was being spent, rather than simply that there was this hole of a certain size in the economy that needed to be filled, so fill it.” Well, yes.
The decision to focus on health care was the president’s own. It could have been even worse. Some staffers advised him—this was just after the American economy lost almost 600,000 jobs in one month—that he should focus on global warming.
Mr. Suskind’s book is controversial, and some of his sources have accused him of misquoting them. The White House says Mr. Suskind talked to too many disgruntled former staffers. But he seems to have talked to a lot of gruntled ones, too. The overarching portrait of chaos, lack of intellectual depth and absence of political wisdom, from a Pulitzer Prize-winning former reporter at this paper, rings true.
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Let me say here clearly what I’ve been more or less saying in this column for a while. It is that Mr. Obama cannot win in 2012, but the Republicans can lose. They can hand the incumbent a victory the majority of American voters show themselves not at all disposed to give him. (No column is complete without his latest polling disasters. A Quinnipiac poll this week shows Florida voters disapprove of the job the president is doing by 57% to 39%.)
Republicans only six months ago thought the president was unbeatable. Now they see the election as a bright red apple waiting to fall into their hands. It’s not. They’ll have to earn it.
Dan Henninger analyzes Thursday night’s debate. Plus, Mary O’Grady and Steve Moore explain this week’s economic turmoil.
Mr. Obama isn’t as resilient as a Bill Clinton, with his broad spectrum of political gifts and a Rasputin-like ability to emerge undead in spite of the best efforts of his foes. His spectrum of political gifts is more limited. That’s a nice way to put it, isn’t it?
But consider what happened this week in New York.
Mr. Obama’s speech Wednesday at the United Nations was good. It was strong because it was clear, and it was clear because he didn’t rely on the thumping clichés and vapidities he’s lately embraced. When the camera turned to the professionally impassive diplomats in the audience, they seemed to be actually listening.
“It has been a remarkable year,” he said: Moammar Gadhafi on the run, Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali deposed, Osama bin Laden dead. “Something is happening in our world. The way things have been is not the way they will be.” Technology is putting power in the hands of the people, history is tending toward the overthrow of entrenched powers. But “peace is hard. Progress can be reversed. Prosperity comes slowly. Societies can split apart.”
On the Mideast conflict: “The people of Palestine deserve a state of their own.” But the proposed U.N. statehood resolution is a “shortcut” that won’t work: “If it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now.” Peace can be realized only when both parties acknowledge each other’s legitimate needs: “Israelis must know that any agreement provides assurances for their security. Palestinians deserve to know the territorial basis of their state.” Friends of the Palestinians “do them no favors by ignoring this truth, just as friends of Israel must recognize the need to pursue a two-state solution with a secure Israel next to an independent Palestine.”
“I know that many are frustrated by the lack of progress,” the president said. “So am I.” All in all, it was a measured statement at a tense moment. It was meant to defuse tensions, to cool things down.
Contrast it with the words of Rick Perry, who zoomed into New York to make his own Mideast statement the day before the president’s speech. The Obama administration’s policy, the Texas governor said, amounts to “appeasement.” It has encouraged “an ominous act of bad faith.” We are “at the precipice of such a dangerous move” because the Obama administration is “arrogant, misguided and dangerous.” “Moral equivalency” is “a dangerous insult.”
This was meant not to defuse but to inflame. It does not seem to have occurred to Mr. Perry that when you are running for president you have to be big, you have to act as if you’re a broad fellow who understands that when the American president is in a tight spot in the U.N., America is in a tight spot in the U.N. You don’t exploit it for political gain.
Perry competitor Rick Santorum responded: “I’ve forgotten more about Israel than Rick Perry knows about Israel,” he told Politico. Mr. Perry “has never taken a position on any of this stuff before, and [the media is] taking this guy seriously.”
The Israeli newspaper Ha’artez likened Mr. Perry’s remarks to “a pep rally for one of Israel’s right-wing politicians, and a hard-liner at that,” adding that the governor “adopted the rhetoric of Israel’s radical right lock, stock and barrel.”
I’d add only that in his first foreign-policy foray, the GOP front-runner looked like a cheap, base-playing buffoon.
As I said, Mr. Obama can’t win this election, but the Republicans can lose it by being small, by being extreme, by being—are we going to have to start using this word again?—unnuanced.