Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President

Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President

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by Ron Suskind

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The hidden history of Wall Street and the White House comes down to a single, powerful, quintessentially American concept: confidence. Both centers of power, tapping brazen innovations over the past three decades, learned how to manufacture it. But in August 2007, that confidence finally began to crumble.

In this gripping and brilliantly reported book, Ron

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The hidden history of Wall Street and the White House comes down to a single, powerful, quintessentially American concept: confidence. Both centers of power, tapping brazen innovations over the past three decades, learned how to manufacture it. But in August 2007, that confidence finally began to crumble.

In this gripping and brilliantly reported book, Ron Suskind tells the story of what happened next, as Wall Street struggled to save itself while a man with little experience and soaring rhetoric emerged from obscurity to usher in "a new era of responsibility." It is a story that follows the journey of Barack Obama, who rose as the country fell, offering the first full portrait of his tumultuous presidency.

Editorial Reviews

The Chicago Tribune
“No book about the Obama presidency appears to have unnerved the White House quite so much as Confidence Men by Ron Suskind, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has developed a niche in the specialized art of parting the curtain on presidential dealings.”
Frank Rich
“Savvy and informative. . . . The most ambitious treatment of this period yet. . . . Suskind’s book often reads like Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest. But the quagmire isn’t a neo-Vietnam like Afghanistan—it’s the economy.”
Michiko Kakutani
“A searing new book. . . . Suskind has a flair for taking material he’s harvested to create narratives with a novelistic sense of drama.”
Joe Nocera
“A truly groundbreaking inside account. . . . Penetrating in its analysis of why the administration’s approach to the country’s economic ills has been so lackluster. . . . An important addition to the growing library of books about this president.”
Hendrik Hertzberg
“The book of the week, maybe the book of the month, is Ron Suskind’s Confidence Men. . . . A detailed narrative of the Administration’s response-sometimes frantic, sometimes sluggish, sometimes both-to the financial and economic catastrophe it inherited, as experienced from the inside.”
Ezra Klein
“The work that went into Confidence Men cannot be denied. Suskind conducted hundreds of interviews. He spoke to almost every member of the Obama administration, including the President. He quotes memos no one else has published. He gives you scenes that no one else has managed to capture.”
David Granger
“My Book of the Year. A narrative tour de force. . . . Journalism like this is all too rare in an ange in which reporters trade their critical faculties for access. And it’s even rarer that skeptical reporting is turned into something lasting.”
Eleanor Clift
“This inside account of the Obama economic team contains enough damning on-the-record quotes to give it the ring of truth despite White House efforts to discredit the narrative of infighting and missed opportunities. Read it and weep. It reminds me of the post-Iraq invasion books that documented a similar failure to rise to the enormity of the problem, whether the insurgency was in Iraq or on Wall Street.”
Huffington PostThe Huffington Post
“Suskind’s account of the Obama administration is a marker of our times. It reveals a President unable to perform responsibly the duties of his high office. . . . Suskind’s contribution to this tale of woe is to give us a fine grained picture of Obama’s passive place in deliberations.”
Huffington Post
"Suskind’s account of the Obama administration is a marker of our times. It reveals a President unable to perform responsibly the duties of his high office. . . . Suskind’s contribution to this tale of woe is to give us a fine grained picture of Obama’s passive place in deliberations."
The Wall Street Journal
“The White House says 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 reporter, rings true.”
Financial Times
“Written in sharp, cinematic scenes, in which the main players in the administration are captured in full-blooded, uncensored conversation, Confidence Men sprawls across the multiple crises of the opening two years of the Obama presidency. . . . Suskind’s central thesis deserves to be taken seriously.”
“This narrative. . . keeps you reading long after you’ve absorbed the White House’s petty criticisms about the book. The portrait of Obama that emerges here is sympathetic, even though Suskind addresses the president’s failings. . . . Though the book toggles between Washington and Wall Street, the freshest material comes from Suskind’s deep access to the West Wing.”
“A[n] authoritative window on the inner workings of the administration and a useful management primer on how not to run an organization. . . . Confidence Men is crammed with interesting detail.”
The Chicago Tribune
“No book about the Obama presidency appears to have unnerved the White House quite so much as Confidence Men by Ron Suskind, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has developed a niche in the specialized art of parting the curtain on presidential dealings.”
“Ron Suskind’s book is . . . the one that makes the most sense. . . . The shudder-inducing bits of Confidence Men come when the team is too optimistic about how its policies will play out. The confidence allows them to move on too quickly.”
“Suskind is not calling Obama a confidence man here. Rather, he presents a president who is not up to the task of outmaneuvering a political and economic system that is packed full of confidence men.”
The Daily Beast
“The book paints a harsh, stark portrait of a president in over his head. . . . Suskind makes a compelling case that Obama was able to win the election because he was talking to the right people.”
Library Journal
How did the Obama administration handle the financial crisis? Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Suskind, whose books routinely appear near the top of the New York Times best sellers list, put in hundreds of hours interviewing administration figures (and the President himself) to discover how the battle between Washington and Wall Street played out. With a one-day laydown on September 13 and a 350,000-copy first printing; get it.
Kirkus Reviews
Is it too early for a postmortem on Barack Obama? Not for Pulitzer winner Suskind (The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism, 2008), who offers a damning picture of the president as a Man Who Could Have Been. The author characterizes Obama as a politician who blew a golden opportunity to deliver sweeping reform to a manipulative financial industry just when its bloated belly was turned to the sky. Although Obama was confident of his abilities as a candidate--having been prepped on the coming crisis by early supporters on Wall Street--as president it was a different story. According to Suskind, he was unsure where to turn for assistance, as angels and demons fought for his soul. The angels included Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Warren, who became "the nation's town crier on the subject of bankruptcy and debt" and former Fed chair Paul Volcker, who advised Obama to take the "tough love" approach to the financial industry, even if it meant letting some of the dinosaurs die. The demons included Treasury chief Timothy Geithner, Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel and the egomaniacal National Economic Council head Larry Summers, who all counseled that any major initiative could shake "confidence in the system." Not the most compelling explainer of the hard stuff--collateralized debt obligations, repurchase agreements, derivatives, credit-default swaps--Suskind sprinkles the final pages with a dim, faint hope that Obama has learned from his mistakes and regained his old passion. Whether that proves true or not, his own "Occupy Wall Street" moment has passed. Most interesting as a clear-eyed assessment of the passion of Obama, or what remains of it, and also as a kind of elegy for an old financial world in which there was at least a semblance of ethical standards.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Confidence Men

Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President
By Ron Suskind


Copyright © 2011 Ron Suskind
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780061429255

Chapter One

September 17, 2010
President Barack Obama dances lightly down the four
marble steps to the Rose Garden and across the flagstones to a waiting
lectern. He still glides, elegant and purposeful, in that tall man's
short-step—a ballplayer returning to the court after a time out.
Today, September 17, 2010, he has committed to putting some "points
on the board," in the sports parlance of Rahm Emanuel, his chief of
staff. The president needs to show the country that he hasn't lost his
game, the ineffable confidence, the surety of stance and delivery that
propelled a man with little political experience to scale cosmic heights
and to realize what felt, on Election Day, like democracy's version of the
moon landing.
Through recent history, America has considered itself something of a
providential miracle, a country that kept finding reasons to believe in its
Manifest Destiny. That faith, sorely tested over the past several decades,
found itself restored with dizzying ebullience when Barack Obama and
his beautiful family stepped onto the stage in Chicago's Grant Park as
America's First Family. It was a sensation of such intensity as to startle
many across the country and around the world into believing in the
promise of America, the original and long-burning beacon of the democratic
The legacy of that moment is ever more found in the lengthening
shadow it casts. In the nearly two years since, Barack Obama, like an
archangel returned to earth, has been forced to walk the flat land and
feel its hard contours. What, if anything, it has awakened in him remains
unclear—at present, he is clearly struggling to get his bearings. And yet
it is impossible to see the president and not search out signs of that man
from Grant Park, who strode so boldly across history's confetti-strewn
On this warm late-summer afternoon, with Congress out of session,
Obama has convened the press to announce the launch of a new agency,
the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. It has been designed to
protect American consumers from the predations of the financial ser,vices
and banking industry, which over the past ,couple
of decades has grown
vast and insatiable by inventing, for the most part, new ways to market,
sell, and invest in debt.
The woman standing awkwardly at Obama's left hip, Harvard Law
School professor Elizabeth Warren, has become the nation's town crier
on the subject of bankruptcy and debt. In the two years since the
economic crisis, she has emerged from nowhere to trumpet the story of how
debt was turned into a velvety weapon, how engorged financial firms
deceptively packaged it, sold it as securities, and extracted usurious profits
from American consumers, especially those in America's once-vaunted
middle class. The notion of a consumer financial product agency, a
freestanding, independently funded entity like the Federal Communications
Commission, was originally hers, unveiled in an article she published
in the spring of 2007. The truth is that no one much cared for the idea,
until her unheeded concerns turned up at the center of the worst financial
meltdown since the Great Depression.
So today is a long-delayed victory for Warren—almost. Somehow
nothing in the Rose Garden is quite as it seems. The president praises
Warren, whom he says he met at Harvard Law School, as though they
are old friends. They're not, and Warren only became a professor at
Harvard Law the year after Obama graduated from it. In fact, over the past
two years, while Warren has seen herself lionized on magazine covers
and in prime-time interviews as a leading voice for tough, restorative
reforms, the president seems to have been studiously avoiding her. Part of
the problem, clearly, is that she has been acting the way ,people
and hoped that man from Grant Park would.
This has caused discomfort not only for the president, but also for
his top lieutenants, including the boyish man in the too-long jacket at
Obama's right hip, bunched cuffs around his shoes, looking more than
anything like a teenager who just grabbed a suit out of his dad's closet.
That's Treasury secretary Tim Geithner, looking sheepish. Only those
in his inner circle at Treasury, though, can precisely read what's behind
that expression: a string of private efforts across the past year to neutralize
Warren. The previous fall, Geithner huddled with top aides to develop
what one called an "Elizabeth Warren strategy," a plan to engage
with the firebrand reformer that would render her politically inert. He
never worked out a viable strategy—a way to meet with Warren without
drawing undesirable comparisons—and so, like the president, he didn't.
What the Treasury Department did do, unbeknownst to Warren, was
embrace demands from the banking industry to create a bureau under the
condition that Warren would not be allowed to lead it. But as the financial
reform bill moved to a vote in early summer, industry lobbyists were
so aggrieved at the idea of an agency—they felt it unsupportable under
any conditions—that they didn't bother to call in their chits on Warren.
In fact, they played it just so. The industry managed to get the
proposed agency shrunk into a bureau that would live under the auspices of
the Federal Reserve, the government's greatest mixed metaphor of public
purpose and private self-regard, representing as it does the dual interests
of a sound monetary policy and the health of the banking industry.
Beyond that, the bureau's rules can be vetoed by a two-thirds majority of
a panel of other financial regulators—an indignity of institutionalized
second-guessing known to few other agencies.
But after financial regulatory reform legislation passed in July, the
prospect of Warren at the bureau's helm quickly grew into a movement:
complete with Internet write-in campaigns, online petitions, flurries of
editorials, and even a viral rap video—certainly a first in the history of
appointing government regulators.
Warren would seem the easiest of choices. Since his earliest days on
the campaign trail, Obama had spoken passionately about restoring
competent government, and with it competent regulators. With the midterm
elections less than two months away, he could have used a confirmation
battle over Warren to draw a much-needed distinction between his
administration and those, mostly Republicans, who dared to side publicly
with America's big banks and financial firms. Warren's celebrated ferocity
looked tailor made to revive Obama's vast grassroots campaign network.
Like an encamped army with nothing to do, the foot soldiers of the
campaign had fought among themselves a bit, eaten the leftover rations,
and then drifted back to private life. Field commanders still in touch
with the White House signaled by midsummer that a Warren confirmation
battle would rally the troops and, according to one, "at least show
what we stand for." On the other side was the financial ser,vices
which hurled nonspecific attacks at Warren, claiming she was arrogant,
disrespectful, and power-hungry. It had begun castigating Obama as
"anti-business," a charge the industry asserts would be definitively
confirmed by the appointment of Warren.
In mid-August, Warren was finally called in to meet with the President.
Obama began their sit down saying, "This isn't a job interview."
It wasn't. The president had already decided what he was going to do,
in a managerial style that had become his trademark: integrating policy
options and political prognostication into a prepackaged solution—,announced
before the game even started.
Combatants over a Warren nomination will never take the field. Shuffling
papers on the lectern in the Rose Garden, Obama says, with a few
passive locutions, that Warren will be on the search committee to find
someone to run the bureau:
"She was the architect behind the idea for a consumer watchdog, so
it only makes sense that she'd be the, um ..." He stumbles briefly, as
though the text is pulling him off balance... "She should be the
architect working with Secretary of Treasury Geithner in standing up the
agency." He adds that she'll be an adviser to both him and Geithner and
"will also play a pivotal role in helping me determine who the best choice
is for director of the bureau."
That's basically it. None of the troops are energized, and anyone who
feared the financial debacle might produce a true innovation, a rock star
regulator, is left unruffled.
The press conference ends with reporters shouting as the president
turns to leave. One yells above the rest, "Why didn't you put her up for
A moment later the president walks from the Rose Garden to the basement
of the White House. Having finished with Geithner and Warren,
he strolls unaccompanied, free of handlers and Secret Ser,vice,
through a
long subterranean hall on his way to the Situation Room.
"Hey, Alan, how you doing?" he pipes up, spotting Assistant
Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Affairs Alan Krueger coming the
other way. Krueger carries an additional title, held over from the nineteenth
century: chief economist of the United States.
"Just fine, Mr. President," a somewhat surprised Krueger responds.
"In fact, today's my birthday."
The two men stop to chat for a moment at the entrance to the White
House mess. The president has grown to appreciate Krueger's input over
the past eighteen months. A Prince,ton
professor and frequent stand-in
for Geithner at Obama's morning economic briefing, Krueger is something
of an oddity in the upper reaches of government: he's an actual
researcher. Typically, high-ranking economists do their substantive,
elbows-deep research in the earlier stages of their careers. Not Krueger.
Not only had he been publishing groundbreaking studies up until joining
the administration in January 2009, but he had also gone so far as to
commission targeted research over the past year, using Prince,ton
funds and
resources when he found the government's research apparatus too slow.
The current economic crisis, he felt, was too thorny and too unusual
not to study with fresh eyes and first questions. Characterized by both
rock-bottom interest rates and a catastrophic de-leveraging spiral, the
crisis defied most historical precedents from which actionable policies
might be drawn. And the White House needed nothing so much as a
stream of creative remedies, one right after the next.
The administration undershot the crisis, convincing itself by the
summer of 2009 that the economy had turned the corner and, at the
same time, recognizing that it would be a jobless recovery of stunning
disparities, with restored GDP growth alongside fast rising unemployment.
In fact, internal administration projections in June 2009, when
unemployment was at 8 percent, noted that joblessness would average
a whopping 9.8 percent in 2010. Krueger and others began to work
furiously to find innovative ways that the government might stimulate
job growth. Being a close friend of both National Economic Council
chairman Larry Summers, who was his graduate adviser at Harvard,
and Office of Management and Budget director Peter Orszag, whom he
mentored at Prince,ton,
made Krueger one of the few ,people
to whom
both of Obama's top economic advisers deferred. All to no avail.
After the stimulus bill was passed in February 2009, little else happened
on the jobs front for a year and a half. Proposals were talked to death
without resolution; the few that were adopted tended to lack a coherent
political strategy to make them legislative reality. The day before, the
Census Bureau had announced that poverty had hit a fifteen-year high.
Even the Wall Street Journal's editorial page had bemoaned that middle
class incomes dropped a stunning 5 percent between 2001 and 2009, a
lost decade laying claim to the country's worst economic performance
in half a century. Unemployment stood at precisely the 9.8 percent the
administration's prognosticators had foretold.
Obama, who was at the center of this dispiriting process, tried to keep
things light and breezy in the hallway with Krueger. He seemed improbably
ebullient, wanting to talk.
"So, how old?"
"A little older than you," Krueger says. "Just turned fifty."
Obama steps back, appraisingly.
"Fifty? You're looking pretty good for fifty."
He means it. Krueger notices for the first time that the president, a
year his junior, has really aged in office, bits of gray hair now sprinkling
his crown, wrinkles growing around his eyes. Krueger is about to say,
"Well, my job's easier than yours," but he catches himself and instead
goes with "You should see me on the basketball court." Maybe this will
win him an invitation to one of Obama's famous five-on-fives.
None forthcoming, and Obama closes it out. "So what are you doing
for your birthday?"
"Going back to Prince,ton,"
Krueger says. He's a breath away from adding: soon for good.
He's through with D.C. He has decided to return home a day after
the midterms, exhausted for sure, but more than that, tamping down the
sense of missed opportunity. As the two men part, he can't help but wonder
if Obama feels the same way. How could he not?
Waiting in the Oval Office are Jann Wenner, the founder of Rolling Stone
magazine, and his executive editor, Eric Bates. They have been there for
an hour, since just before the Elizabeth Warren event, waiting and
preparing for an interview with the president. Rolling Stone, failing to score
an Obama interview since the campaign, has nonetheless gone through a
renaissance in the past two years, dealing some of the most forceful
criticisms of Wall Street and Washington and the collusion between the two,
with targeted shots directed at both Goldman Sachs and Obama himself.
So, for the president, today is all about forcefully answering the charge
from the progressive community—and a great many independents—
that what got him elected has not been evident in his governance. The
administration's strategy is to emphasize that the distance between the
hopes of Grant Park and the trimmed ambitions of legislative pragmatism
is not a fissure, rupture, or acquiescence, but rather the hard reality
of governing in a partisan era. All the better for those words to appear in
an organ of criticism, which is why Rolling Stone was chosen.
Obama enters his famous office and compliments Wenner, the stylish,
aging hipster, on his colorful socks: "If I wasn't president, I could wear
socks like that." Then he settles himself into a wing chair between marble
busts of his heroes, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Obama is ready to rebut criticisms head-on. But the questions today
do not pose much of a challenge, beginning with standard fare about
the state of the economy he inherited and Republican obstinacy that,
the president notes, reared up a day before his inauguration even, when
he learned that the Republican Caucus would vote as a bloc against the
stimulus package...


Excerpted from Confidence Men by Ron Suskind Copyright © 2011 by Ron Suskind. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

RON SUSKIND is the author of The Way of the World, The One Percent Doctrine, The Price of Loyalty, and A Hope in the Unseen. From 1993 to 2000 he was the senior national affairs writer for The Wall Street Journal, where he won a Pulitzer Prize. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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