This is wonkish stuff, but the you-are-there, personality-driven nature of Suskind’s writing is compelling. He quotes Obama as saying that he had “connected our current predicaments with the broader arc of American history” — and that’s precisely what Suskind himself tries to do here, with much success. He pairs the rise of debt in the United States with the flattening of middle-class incomes and the flow of great wealth to the top. He repeatedly invokes Franklin D. Roosevelt, quoting from his famous first inaugural speech about the bankers of his time: “Faced by failure of credit, they have proposed only the lending of more money. . . . They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.”
Of the Obama presidency, Suskind writes: “Presidents are among the few mortals who are sometimes graced with chances to change a culture. Throughout a windswept March, the country had been working to dislodge some of the era’s prevailing certainties about markets being efficient, about people — economically, at least — getting what they deserve,” but “with the eyes of the country on him, Barack Obama ended the month by shielding Wall Street executives against these winds of cultural change.”
Suskind says he spoke to more than 200 people, and the book is full of great anecdotes, insights and quotes. Ron Bloom, the banker turned United Steelworkers executive turned adviser, was in the room as the economists who surrounded Obama argued over what to do about the failing auto companies. Furious at what he heard, Bloom later said, “There wasn’t one guy in that room who’d spent any serious time having beers with real workers.” Suskind quotes former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker telling a former engineering professor that “the trouble with the United States recently is we spent several decades not producing many civil engineers and producing a huge number of financial engineers. And the result is [expletive] bridges and a [expletive] financial system!”
A picture of the big personalities emerges. At a birthday celebration for Larry Summers, who served as the director of Obama’s National Economic Council until late 2010, Suskind quotes Summers singing about his own reputation, “For he’s an unpleasant fellow.”
Suskind is a grand writer but sometimes stumbles into stretches of poor clarity. This is especially true at the end of the book, when his prose turns rambling. And he often undercuts his own core thesis, which is that Obama suffered a “crisis of confidence” and started “disbelieving his own rhetoric” as the economic collapse set in. As a result, the new president surrounded himself with people who provided a false sense of certainty. Summers, in particular, fell into this camp, and Suskind paints him as the villain in chief. He asserts that Obama realized a secret truth in the fall of 2008 — that he was not ready to serve as president — and he writes that Obama “lost ownership of his words and, eventually, his deeds.” But he also has Volcker describing Obama as “self-confident, too self-confident,” and he writes of Obama’s “preternatural confidence — quite real.” So which is it?