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The Escape Artists: How Obama's Team Fumbled the Recovery [Hardcover]

Noam Scheiber

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Book Description

Feb. 28 2012
FACING THE WORST ECONOMY SINCE THE 1930S, PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA HIRED A CRACK TEAM OF ESCAPE ARTISTS: financial wizards who had pulled off numerous white-knuckle getaways during the Clinton era and who were ready to do it all over again. Three years later, with the economy still in a rut, it’s clear that they fell far short. This is the inside story of what went wrong.

The Escape Artists features previously undisclosed internal documents and extensive, original reporting from the highest levels of the administration. Star White House journalist Noam Scheiber reveals the mistakes and missed opportunities that kept the president’s pedigreed team from steering the economy in the right direction. He shows what responsibility the president bears for those missteps, what bold actions his brain trust refused to take despite its preternatural confidence, and how the White House was regularly outmaneuvered by Republicans in Congress.

Tracking the administration’s efforts deep into the fall of 2011, The Escape Artists provides a gripping look inside the meeting rooms, in-boxes, and minds of the men who tried to manage the defining crisis of the Obama presidency: how the very qualities that made these men and women escape artists in the 1990s ultimately failed them.

 

***

 

THREE YEARS INTO THE OBAMA PRESIDENCY, THE UNEMPLOYMENT RATE WAS PAINFULLY HIGH, THE GAP BETWEEN RICH AND POOR HAD WIDENED, AND THE STIMULUS HAD NOT DONE ENOUGH TO BRING JOBS BACK. WHAT WENT WRONG?

A PRESIDENT WITH OTHER PRIORITIES . . .

Barack Obama hadn’t run for president just so he could clean up someone else’s mess, however urgent the task. He’d run for president to usher in once-in-a-generation achievements like health care reform—“to change the trajectory of America.”

Timothy Geithner remarked to President-elect Obama that “your signature accomplishment is going to be preventing a Great Depression.” Obama’s response was slightly jarring. “That’s not enough for me,” he said. It dawned on Geithner that he and his colleagues were a sideshow rather than the main attraction. “If you don’t do that, nothing else is possible,” Geithner protested. “Yeah,” Obama repeated, “but that’s not enough.”

AN ECONOMIC TEAM RELUCTANT TO TAKE BOLD ACTION . . .

David Axelrod was preparing Christina Romer, Obama’s chief economist, for a Sunday talk show. Many experts were voicing doubts about the size of the original package, and so Axelrod asked, “Was the stimulus big enough?” Without hesitating, Romer responded, “Abso-f---ing-lutely not.” She said it half-jokingly; Axelrod did not seem amused.

AND A BRAIN TRUST THAT BELIEVED IT KNEW BETTER . . .

It was the worst of all worlds for the Obama administration: a country that took one look at the languishing economy and another at the recovery on Wall Street and concluded that its government had put big banks ahead of ordinary people. Generously, the S&P officials didn’t point out any of this. Instead, the leader of the group confessed that the agency was mostly concerned about the prospects for bipartisan compromise.

At this, Geithner became dismissive. His message was unmistakable:

TRUST US, WE’VE DONE THIS BEFORE.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; Reprint edition (Feb. 28 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1439172404
  • ISBN-13: 978-1439172407
  • Product Dimensions: 3.3 x 15.8 x 23.3 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 540 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #450,616 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

Review

“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.

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Amazon.com: 3.7 out of 5 stars  22 reviews
23 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Detailed Reporting, Clear Analysis and Forceful Argument March 5 2012
By LAM - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
A superb treatment of President Obama's first years in office, Noam Scheiber's "The Escape Artists" is an extraordinary blend of reportage, analysis and opinion.

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.
22 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Missed Opportunities March 6 2012
By Barbara - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Scheiber has done a masterful job of putting a human face on the policies that have been argued back and forth about the Obama administration and its handling (or non-handling) of the economy. For those of us not privy to the inside scoop, Scheiber has managed to give us a detailed picture of who said what to whom, and when, and why, and how that catapulted into what someone else said to whom, and when, and why. Though we peruse the newspapers and blogs scrupulously, listen to the cable talkers, and debate with our friends, most of what we hear and know has an ephemeral quality to it. Scheiber provides the down-to-earth human element--the missed opportunities, the flawed judgement, the personal history of the actors-- and we learn, once again, why the person, not just "the idea," matters.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Insight in the President's Failures June 18 2012
By Jim - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I like this book because Scheiber is a Senior Editor of the The New Republic an editorially liberal magazine and he as a presumptive Obamaphile analyzes Barak Obama's failures in the financial sector. Although subtitled "How Obama's Team Fumbled the Recovery" it is more a reflection on the Executive decisions of the President. In Chapter One we learn that Obama's decison was to bring together ex-Clintonites as the heart of his financial team upon winning the election. They had dealt with financial crises during the Clinton Presidency and Obama sought that background. The advice that Obama received from Geithner, Rahm Emanuel and others was to put a priority on economic recovery. Scheiber reports that Obama deflected that advice as not transformative enough. Scheiber points out that Obama quickly exhibited what Scheiber calls a "Messianic" self view.

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.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Ambivalent April 29 2012
By P. Troutman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The other reviews are largely devoted to how this book squares with the reviewers' own political leanings. That isn't too useful (except for one point noted below).

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.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Detailed "inside look" at a truly scary economic meltdown... March 21 2012
By Stephen Armstrong - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Governments are constituted to regulate "illegal" greed, yet here is a detailed, intimate portrait of exactly how difficult it is to do that in the midst of an economic meltdown initiated--is anyone surprised?--by greed. Scheiber has made an Olympian effort to capture the people and their interactions at the White House, Treasury, the Federal Reserve, and the two economic councils, the regulators, and the Congress--and has done quite well. The "too big to fail" institutions, plumped up with bad assets, essentially told the U.S. government how to fix things; and then bellyached when the garnish on their desert wasn't there.

In my view, Scheiber had a difficult time describing the public outrage over the free ride given to highly paid executives who raided the Treasury to support their own prerogatives. During this crisis, these same plutocrats dared to criticize the White House's handling of the crisis they created. Perhaps it is too hard to describe the helplessness and outrage that ordinary people felt. Perhaps it is too difficult to describe the legal and financial fictions that made all this greed impossible to regulate.

In the past twenty years in the U.S., we have had two real estate catastrophes, one dot-com catastrophe, collapses in three major auto makers, the gutting of our manufacturing system, and two huge banking crises. Are we any happier now? Scheiber's book is great at describing the latest banking/government crisis. I am waiting for a good writer such as Scheiber to make sense of the past twenty years, with something deeper than crony capitalism or greed. I am interested in learning how we lost our way--or am I foolish and silly to believe we had a way to start with?

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