Annals of the Great Recession XI.

I saw the Iraq War as an obvious act of stupidity from even before we attacked in Spring 2003. So, in 2008, I voted for the candidate who had opposed it, Barack Obama. I voted for him in spite of his obvious weaknesses: he was as green as grass in politics, he had never run anything, he didn’t know anyone much in Washington, and he had some dopey ideas. My assessment of President Obama’s failings is amply borne out by Ron Suskind’s scathing account of how the President and his advisers made economic policy in the first two years after he reached the White House.[1]

Undoubtedly, Obama inherited an economic disaster from the George W. Bush Administration. However, his background and range of contacts left him ill-positioned to deal with the immense problems on his plate. First, the president believed in the power of rhetoric; he almost seems to have believed that talk and action were identical. Supporters have argued that he’s the first president in a while to speak in full sentences and paragraphs, and that doesn’t mesh well with sound-bites. In reality, the trouble was that much of his discourse seemed to have been picked up in Chicago rec-league basketball. He disses people who disagree with him.[2]

Second, the president turned out to be a poor judge of people and had few close advisers to keep him from going into the ditch at the first opportunity. Rahm Emanuel, who served as his first chief of staff (and who recently squeaked through to re-elections as mayor of Chicago), and Lawrence Summers, who headed his National Economic Council (before going off to become President of Harvard until he vexed the faculty, were imperious), abrasive men who rubbed people the wrong way as a first order of business in any meeting. Tim Geithner, his first Secretary of the Treasury, was consistently suspected of mouthing the Wall Street view.

Third, unlike his immediate predecessor, President Obama could not pull the trigger on any issue. Instead of deciding, he sought consensus. Endless debates went on, but the President refused to choose one option and then to say “it’s my way or the highway.” Who ever crossed Richard Nixon without landing on the sidewalk with his suit in tatters? It’s a short list.

Many of his own subordinates saw through him from the start. Famously, Lawrence Summers, the head of Obama’s National Economic Council, told another official: “We’re home alone. There’s no adult in charge. Clinton would never have made these mistakes.” Geithner has been accused of out-right insubordination, but stayed at Treasury as long as he chose.

The “friendly opposition” within the Democratic Party would argue that, after the rough ride of his first two years, Obama began to understand how things should operate. He got rid of his early hires and started to make decisions. So they say. With a year and change to run on his second term, it isn’t clear that much has changed.

Still, what was the bigger disaster for America: Obama’s mismanagement of the economy or the Iraq War? Somebody in Washington needed to get drilled for the Iraq War, not just the men and women who fought there. John McCain and Hillary Clinton had to pay a price at the voting booth. What are we supposed to do? Let bygones be bygones after each new train-wreck engineered by the usual suspects who populate American politics?

Finally, has Obama learned anything? The answer to that question goes to the credibility of the Iran deal.

[1] Ron Suskind, Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President (New York: HarperCollins, 2011).

[2] See: Stuff my president says.”

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