Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner with President Obama

Landing at the same time as a White House plan to trim $3 billion from the deficit is a new exposť that purports to explain why, for the past three years, passing these kinds of policy proposals has been nearly impossible. Confidence Men, Ron Suskind’s 500-plus-page look at the infighting and palace intrigue behind the Obama White House, has quickly become what Daniel Yergin in our Fall issue calls a “Washington Read”—a book adopted by the inside-the-beltway crowd that’s generally more discussed than read. Judging by the recent explosion of media attention for Suskind, however, he seems to have found plenty of readers.

“Book portrays dysfunction in the Obama White House,” read last week’s Washington Post headline, while reviewing the book in today's New York Times, Michiko Kakutani describes Obama as an “oddly passive chief executive,” saying Suskind sketches him as a “young, inexperienced president lacking the leadership and managerial skills to deal effectively with the cascading economic problems he inherited.” The book has also spawned debate over whether, as former communications director Anita Dunn is quoted as saying, the White House is a “genuinely hostile workplace for women.” Emphasizing the point, Suskind cites Christina Romer, the former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, as saying she “felt like a piece of meat” after a meeting with fellow ex-economic advisor Larry Summers.

To write Confidence Men, Suskind, a Pulitzer Prize winning former Wall Street Journal reporter, interviewed over two hundred people, including current and former administration members. (Some of whom, Kakutani notes, have political reasons to distance themselves from an administration widely perceived as on the rocks). Talking points include Suskind quoting Larry Summers complaining about the handling of the debt crisis, and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s refusal to come up with contingency plans for the dissolution of Citigroup. Other senior economic advisors are described as “systematically undermining” the president. “We’re home alone,” Suskind cites Summers as saying. “There’s no adult in charge. Clinton would never have made these mistakes.”

Advance copies were sent to the media last week, and although the book isn’t scheduled for public release until tomorrow, the White House is already on the defensive. Romer, Summers, and Dunn have denied Suskind’s explosive quotes, and Geithner remarked this week that "the reports I've read about this book bear no resemblance to the reality." To counteract more negative press, the White House has granted the author an interview with Obama “to clear up a lot of bad reporting and theories that Suskind had developed." Excerpts from that interview are available here, and at New York Magazine, Frank Rich and Adam Moss discuss whether the book is really revelatory, or if it's just more media sensationalism.


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