My last review featured a book on ancient history – a book about swords, sandals, emperors and queens. But history is recent as well, so this week, I’m doing something a little different and reviewing a book about events a little closer to home. With all the attention focused on the Occupy Wall Street movement and the country’s economic troubles, I thought it would be interesting to investigate how this mess all came about. This week, I read this September’s “Confidence Men,” written by famed journalist and writer Ron Suskind.
“Confidence Men” examines the ascent of Barack Obama, the growing crisis on Wall Street and the collision of the two. The book offers a portrait of a White House operating under intense pressure as it deals with a cascade of crises, from insolvent banks to collapsing carmakers. It attempts – with a good deal of success – to relate the complete story of the financial meltdown from 2007 to 2009, and how then-candidate and eventual president Obama dealt with its aftereffects.
A good portion of the book focuses on analyzing the performance of President Obama’s financial team and how they worked to contain the economic crisis – over which Suskin is clearly disappointed. President Obama’s team was filled with incredibly intelligent, illustrious economic figures such as Larry Summers, Timothy Geithner, and Peter Orszag, but they all seemed incapable of working together. More importantly, Suskin writes, Obama profoundly lacked managerial skill and experience, and possessed a limited knowledge of economics. Suskin chalks Obama’s inability to successfully direct and control his team to these shortcomings.
The portrait of Obama that Suskind paints is that of an inexperienced young president lacking the leadership skills necessary to deal effectively with the cascading economic problems he inherited from his predecessor. Obama comes across as an undoubtedly intelligent but detached executive with a tendency to frame policy matters intellectually rather than practically. Suskin suggests his directives on restructuring the banks in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis were ignored or rendered impotent by his own economic team. However, the author does not wholly condemn President Obama’s administration beyond its failures in economic policy.
“Confidence Men” is based on over 700 hours of interviews with more than 200 people, including former and current members of the Obama administration and the president himself. However, I found the book to be a bit narrow in scope and time. Because the book essentially begins with Obama’s crash course in economics as a candidate and ends in early 2011, Suskind does not consider political and economic factors and events leading up to the Obama administration, nor does he place the mismanagement and indecisiveness he describes in perspective with Obama’s generally successful foreign policy, including his tough-minded decision to approve the high-risk mission that led to Osama bin Laden’s capture in May.
Given the country’s continuing economic woes, high unemployment and uncertainty regarding Obama’s re-election prospects, “Confidence Men” makes for timely reading, even if its truncated scope leaves out topics such as the debt ceiling debate or Obama’s more recent efforts to address the jobs crisis.
Ron Suskind is a marvelous, engaging writer who finds the perfect middle ground between fiction and nonfiction writing. “Confidence Men” is intelligently written, faithfully documented and easily accessible to anyone regardless of his or her financial fluency. Suskind’s research is extensive, and much of his information comes from the most direct sources possile. This highlights one of the great advantages of writing recent history: Not only are there more documents to work with, but the writer can actually interview those who participated in the events being written about. With this type of historical scholarship, Suskind revives a tradition in historical writing that goes all the way back to Herodotus, the so-called father of history himself, who employed much the same methods while documenting the Greek-Persian wars. I’d highly recommend this book to just about anyone who wants to learn what really went on behind the scenes during the Great Recession.