Sunday 25 February 2018

Yes we can. . . turn the White House into a hotbed of gossip, intrigue and sexism

Caitriona Palmer on a new book that portrays Obama as a lousy leader

Obama with wife Michelle in the White House, allegedly a tough place
for women to work
Obama with wife Michelle in the White House, allegedly a tough place for women to work

Barack Obama is a very poor manager and ineffective leader. He's a brainy intellectual who doesn't have the backbone to govern a country. And he's afraid to fire top aides who are actively thumbing their noses at his policies.

Not only that, the White House is a hotbed of gossip and intrigue -- and a horrible place to work for women.

These aren't the acerbic putdowns of rival right-wing politicians or Fox News commentators as the 2012 election gets into gear -- they come from respected author and former Obama supporter Ron Suskind, who was invited into the inner sanctum to research his new book.

Although the White House has been pushing back hard all week against the allegations in Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President, critics are finding it hard to dismiss them as just another hatchet job.

Suskind, a former Wall Street Journal writer, is a highly respected reporter in American politics -- a former Pulitzer Prize winner who also co-wrote a book with former Treasury secretary Paul O'Neill.

The allegations in Confidence Men are based on more than 700 hours of interviews with current and former members of the administration, including the president himself.

Afforded rare and extensive access inside the Oval Office, Suskind paints a portrait of a dysfunctional and acrimonious White House that has repeatedly stymied Obama's efforts to solve the country's deepening economic morass.

"Some advisers have become convinced that Obama's lack of experience, especially managerial experience, may be his undoing," Suskind writes. "That, at a time of peril, the president may simply not be up to the demands of this moment."

He recounts the president's often pained and drawn-out decision making efforts, his habit of presiding over a "debate society" run by his advisers and his habitual need to seek consensus amongst his staff before finally coming to a tortured conclusion.

He also writes how Obama's authority was "systematically undermined or hedged by his seasoned advisers," particularly his foul-mouthed and much feared former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.

He describes one particularly intense late-night Oval Office meeting to discuss the banking crisis when Obama left the room in frustration to get some dinner and told his staff he wanted a decision when he returned.

With Obama gone, Emanuel took over and pushed his own agenda on the assembled staffers. "Everyone shut the f*** up," he told a stunned room. "Let me be clear -- taking down the banking system in a programme that could cost $700bn is a fantasy."

With fingers pointing across Washington this week, many of the president's current and former advisers are furiously back-peddling on comments they made to Suskind in the book.

Larry Summers, the former chairman of the National Economic Council under Obama, who himself is castigated in the book as a misogynistic bully, told the Washington Post that "hearsay" attributed to him in the book is "a combination of fiction, distortion, and words taken out of context".

One of Summer's alleged female targets, Christina Romer, the former chairwoman of the Council of Economic Advisers, is quoted in Confidence Men as saying she "felt like a piece of meat" after being shunned in a meeting by Summers.

Her colleague, Anita Dunn, former communications director at the White House, said that working there "fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace to women".

Now both women are saying that their words were misquoted and taken out of context by Suskind. "I can't imagine that I ever said this," said Romer in reference to her "piece of meat" quote.

Dunn also defended her comments saying she told Suskind "point blank" that the White House "was not a hostile environment".

But Suskind is standing by his book -- and by the controversial quotes -- which, he says, exist word-for-word on his trusty tape recorder.

And even some senior officials in the Obama camp are acknowledging that with the president's approval ratings at their lowest yet, questions raised by Suskind about the commander-in-chief's leadership abilities and strategies are inevitable.

"Whenever you hit turbulence, these kinds of questions always arise," said David Axelrod, a top Obama aide who said this week that the president faces a "titanic struggle" to get re-elected. "It's like sports. If a team has a losing streak, then the heralded manager all of a sudden doesn't know baseball."

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