The Escape Artists: How Obama's Team Fumbled the Recovery Hardcover – Feb 28 2012
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“Scheiber writes with ease and authority about complicated financial matters . . . and proves particularly adept at showing how [the Obama economic team’s] personalities, philosophies and previous experiences with one another shaped their interactions and the policy-making process.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“A Woodwardian account of infighting in the White House’s economics team . . . Scheiber is a smart, clear-eyed reporter who frames his arguments elegantly.” —Bloomberg Businessweek
“The Escape Artists is a compelling narrative, deeply reported and beautifully written.” —Jonathan Chait, New York
“Diligently reported and informative.” —John Cassidy, The New Yorker
"The Escape Artists reads like a Bob Woodward book—albeit better written and informed by a more sophisticated understanding of economics and policymaking." —Daniel Gross, Yahoo! Finance
“Noam Scheiber offers a persuasive take on administration policymaking . . . [and] provides a template for future administrations—even a future Obama administration—to avoid the trap of thinking too narrowly and too politically in a crisis.” —Matthew Yglesias, Slate
“What Scheiber offers is a judicious, nuanced and ultimately . . . persuasive chronicle of how contentious experts jockeyed to influence a young president stuck with an almost impossible set of challenges. . . . Such sophisticated analysis of how the nation’s most powerful officials think—however one regards the wisdom of that thinking—distinguishes Scheiber’s book.” —Paul M. Barrett, The New York Times Book Review
“The Escape Artists offers great insight into Obama’s self-perception. . . . Scheiber’s reporting has naturally sparked a great deal of second-guessing in Democratic circles, and his book will provide plenty of ammunition for the president’s liberal critics . . . [and] to those critics on the right who believed that the White House never really earned their trust.” —Reihan Salam, The Daily
About the Author
Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic, writing about politics and Obama administration economic policy. He has written for the New York Times, The Washington Post, New York magazine, and Slate, and has appeared on CNN, CNBC, MSNBC, and NPR. He lives in Washington, D.C.See all Product Description
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Although Scheiber covers the same territory as a number of other recent books, there is a great deal of new information here that makes the book valuable as a first draft of history. Scheiber's punctilious coverage of the internecine battles among Obama's economic advisers alone sets his book apart. In particular, Scheiber lays bare for the first time National Economic Chair Lawrence Summers' thoroughgoing efforts to bury CEA Chairwoman Christina Romer's recommendation for a much larger, $1.8-trillion stimulus package in the first months of the administration. The exceptional detail of this episode is quite helpful in furthering the picture of Summers as hectoring bully that has emerged in more breathless, but less satisfying, books, such as Ron Suskind's "Confidence Men."
And while the reportage in "The Escape Artists" is terrific, Scheiber's lucid analysis of the 2009-2010 economic terrain gives the book an added dimension. Indeed, Scheiber's explication of the path not taken with respect to additional stimulus, derivative regulation, and "too big to fail" financial institutions is as helpful as anyone will find anywhere. This book deserves a widespread audience and here's to hoping that it finds one.
Some general interest issues:
A. Noam Scheiber is obviously a strong, if occasionally hyperbolic, writer who writes with a novelist's panache. The editor, however, could been tougher and reined him more. There are a number of places in which they could have demanded more coherence. The most obvious example of this is the title, which doesn't make much sense on a number of levels. The phrase `the escape artists' doesn't clearly point to any central theme, and the word `fumbled' isn't an accurate description of what Scheiber describes (except for a homeowner relief package mentioned toward the end of the book). A more accurate subtitle for this work would have been `How Republicans tripped up the economic recovery'.
Scheiber himself, however, seems to reluctant to reach this conclusion, in part I suspect because he doesn't want to appear partisan and in part because if that really was the story, that would mean a different book with a whole set of more interviews. I'm not saying this to blame Republicans but to say that Scheiber doesn't want to go where his evidence is leading him. And if he followed the trail, he would have had to interview a lot more Hill Republicans, which might have complicated the story he got from talking to White House insiders. Or it might have made him squarely face his own evidence that Wall Street effectively captured a White House promising change.
B. Toward the beginning of the book especially, Scheiber fetishizes intelligence, talking about how brilliant or analytical this or that person is. As someone who believes in the existence of idiots but not geniuses, I found this tiresome, especially when the people keep making mistakes.
C. There's little sense of sources. The opening scene discusses Geithner's clothing at a particular meeting, and things like that set off all kinds of alarm bells in my head about authorial license. There's a note on sources, which I'd recommend reading ahead of time, that says that he interviewed six people at that particular meeting. That reassures on that point, but it's generally hard to tell what to make of evidence. [Between the time I wrote this and posted this, I saw a short video clip of Obama. The book says that he has a tendency to fish for credit and that explains the video clip exactly.]
D. There are an awful lot of characters here. The effect is liking starting War and Peace and not knowing anything about Russian naming conventions. If you don't already have some familiarity with people central to the Obama's internal policy debates, like Tim Geithner and Larry Summers, this book might be hard to follow.
E. One of the reviews rightly criticizes this book for not being critical about how stimulus funds were actually spent. I suspect that what they should be saying is that the Obama administration itself was really naive about this point. I got to see how some of the stimulus funds were spent. What I saw was money being spent on long-term improvements to quality of life that had minimal short-term economic impacts. Not all economic stimulus is created equal, but that's a discussion neither Democrats nor Republicans have wanted to engage in.
In subsequent chapters Scheiber analyzes the backgrounds the financial team and learn what a "grab-bag character" this team had in terms of their own financial priorities. Through some 200 interviews documented in 30+ pages of notes, Scheiber elaborates on the infighting of the Obama team. While the author's documentation is that of the debates themselves, the picture that emerges is that of a President that was not in control of his own team. Simply stated the tail was wagging the dog.
Scheiber states that this atmosphere was the environment that Obama wanted. The tone is that rather than engaging in the nitty gritty of policy formation, Obama would survey opinions then make a choice.
There are two specific failures that Scheiber assigns to Obama's team. First they failed to request the level of the stimulus that they believed they needed for economic recovery. In effect they bid against themselves by taking the position that they would never get the bigger stimulus package through Congress at a time when the Democrats controlled both the Senate and the House. Then later on, the got "snookered" by the Republicans who managed to change the debate to controlling the deficit. Scheiber ascribes this to Obama's political naivity.
Scheiber through his many interviews has given us the play by play of the economic results from the Obama White House.
Noam Scheiber is a regular writer for The New Republic. He researched the tremendously readable The Escape Artists, which is an insider look at the Obama Administration's dealings with the economy. He weaves a beautiful narrative that focuses on the personal and institutional biases of many of the players within the administration, including Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, Christina Romer, and Obama himself. I recommend the book to all readers of this post, especially because it tries to counter the self serving spin that we get from any president. However, many of the criticisms that Scheiber levels at the president just don't pass muster logically.
Scheiber credits the president with averting economic disaster (and that credit should also be shared with George Bush, who stepped away from his ideology to sign the TARP program), but Scheiber believes that the economy would have improved with more liberal policy prescriptions, which would have also put the president in a position of political strength in the present. Scheiber theorizes that the use of the president's power of persuasion, or "the bully pulpit," would have put the American public on his side and forced Congress along for the ride. Scheiber also faults Obama for listening more to his more centrist advisers, like Summers and Geithner, and less to more liberal members of his staff, like Romer.
Scheiber first discusses the stimulus, and how Romer believed it was too small. If only Obama would have listened to Romer, or if Summers would not have taken her larger option off the table, then the country would be in a better position. But Scheiber's own research flies in the face of this conclusion. Romer believed that the stimulus needed to be $1.8 trillion in order to close the gap in the economy where private spending has fled. However, in the early meetings, she said, "I think this needs to be at least $800 billion." She later told Summers that that the $1.8 trillion number was the best option, but Summers thought that was politically impossible, so she settled on a compromise of $1.2 trillion. Summers struck that numbers from the proposals list to Obama, settling on either 600 billion or 800 billion. Scheiber himself says that she protested at first, but because she did not have much Washington experience, she deferred to Summers on political questions. Scheiber believes that by not setting the bar higher for negotiation that Obama lost out on the possibility of more stimulus. He also postulates that tax cuts do not has as stimulative an effect on the economy, and they should not have been in the package because the Republicans were not going to vote for it anyway and therefore would not be lured. As a result, Scheiber blames Summers for not presenting the more expensive proposal, and Obama for choosing Summers to be a high level economic adviser.
Although we cannot know for sure that Scheiber is wrong, what happened next flies in the face of his assertions. The stimulus didn't receive a single Republican vote in the House, but needed Senate Republican votes to avoid failure. After swelling to 920 billion dollars due to the adding of pet projects that were necessary to get individual votes from Democrats, the Republican Senators on the fence demanded it be cut down to...800 billion. Even conservative Democrat Ben Nelson demanded the cuts. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi demanded a vote on the 920 billion dollar package, but Harry Reid declined because he didn't think he had the votes. Don't these facts vindicate Summers' thought process? Could Reid have chanced a vote that, if it failed, would have caused another stock market tumble and hurt the president politically in his first month in office?
Scheiber's solution for that? Barnstorming by Obama in the first months of office, as George W Bush did for his first tax cut. First of all, most political scientists believe that idea of a bully pulpit is a myth. Second of all, the economy wasn't collapsing around Bush when he was campaigning for his tax cut, and the tax cut wasn't viewed as necessary to pull the country away from economic abyss. Obama didn't have a couple of months to pass stimulus. Scheiber ignores that about a week and a half before Obama signed the stimulus bill, a government report stated that the country lost almost 600,000 jobs in January of 2009. Does Scheiber think that if the January jobs report would not sway Nelson, Arlen Specter, Susan Collins, and Olympia Snowe from their position of a smaller package, that campaigning in their states in his first month of office would? That seems like a ridiculous notion.
Scheiber also offers that Obama should have passed the stimulus plan under the reconciliation option, which would have required only 51 Senate votes. But how would it look politically for the president who campaigned on a more bipartisan politics to use a partisan manuever to pass the first bill he signed? That would have removed the very thing that many independents to this day like about Obama...that he is willing to compromise with the opposition.
Scheiber also talks about the diversion of the health care reform battle and how it sucked oxygen away from the economy. I think this is a fair point, but that only leads to other questions. Was there any political will in Congress for more stimulus, especially since the public believed that the original one was large but wasn't working? If Obama waited on health care reform, would he have had the chance to pass anything, knowing that he would not have a filibuster proof majority after the midterms? Was health care reform worth prioritizing over more stimulus because the former was politically possible and the latter was not, especially with the GOP turning up the rhetoric on deficits?
Once the GOP won control of the House and grabbed Senate seats in 2010, Scheiber argues that they were intransigent because of Tea Party influence. I happen to agree with that. But in the same book, he argues that Obama should have used the bully pulpit to batter Republicans over the deficit ceiling issue, explaining that jobs were a more important issue, and also on the Bush tax cuts. Either the other side is intransigent, or it can be swayed...not both, and Obama was not willing to resist cataclysm when many members of the House were willing to let the deadline pass. Scheiber even at one point in the book states that the president took the bully pulpit on health care, and it passed, trying to prove that if he would do the same on other issues, it would work. That ignores the fact that after he spoke out for health care reform in many ways, the GOP practices relentless demagoguing, the president was forced to pass the bill through reconciliation, and that to this day, the bill is unpopular in polls, which shows how little the bully pulpit means. It also ignores that Obama has repeatedly tried to use the bully pulpit both for job creation and on the Bush tax cuts, but to no avail. Why hasn't it worked? Because the other side is intransigent, as Scheiber rightfully states. It seems like Scheiber tries to have his cake and eat it too when it comes to analysis on what the president should have done.
In all my reading on presidents, I have come to the conclusion that, more often than not, events control the presidency rather than the other way around. Events change minds, not speeches. Politicians often make mistakes, but when it comes to dealing with Congress, whether it is controlled by allies or adversaries, it is not often that tactical changes will get an executive to the desired result.
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