Inside “Obama’s job search”

The New York Times tells a story of office politics at the White House. Didn't the country deserve better?

Topics: Unemployment, How the World Works, Barack Obama, U.S. Economy,

Inside "Obama's job search"Christina Romer, Peter Orszag and Larry Summers

Peter Baker’s 6500-word Sunday New York Times Magazine exegesis of economic policy-making pitfalls in the Obama White House over the past two years is getting a harsh response from the lefty blogosphere for understandable reasons. At the end of the piece there is zero sense that the White House has any coherent policy to boost jobs, and Baker’s failure to even mention the words “housing” “foreclosure” or “monetary policy” suggests that his interview subjects — anyone who was anybody in the White House economic team — were more interested in recounting their own office politics resentments than grappling with the hard truths about what is holding the economy back.

There’s not much new reported in the story that hasn’t leaked out in previous forays into the same territory — I think everyone already knew that Larry Summers is not a people person or that budget director Peter Orszag cared more about deficits than stimulating the economy. In the end, we’re left with a picture of a president in an untenable position: he wants to boost jobs and portray himself as a fiscal conservative, but probably won’t be able to achieve either goal.

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But again, we knew that already. The most depressing realization to come from Baker’s article is the fact that, faced with a national economic disaster and the opportunity to provide the most important service to their country that any economist ever gets, Obama’s team of advisors proved to be, well, distressingly all too human.

… [T]he team never embraced the no-drama-Obama ethos. Over the last two months, I interviewed nearly all of the team’s main figures, past and present, and when we talked about their relations with one another, it was like picking through the wreckage of a messy divorce….

…Reflecting on it now, Orszag looked back on the tensions with regret. “Unfortunately,” he told me, “I think the environment often brought out the worst in people instead of the best in people. And I’d include myself in that.”

“Testy” e-mails…. staffers “deriding” each other… “skirmishes” — the people Obama entrusted with the job of keeping the United States out of another Depression seems to have expended an awful lot of energy massaging their own egos instead of knuckling down to the task in front of them.

How much of this do we lay at Obama’s plate? It was his team. He picked them. Ultimately, doesn’t he have to bear responsibility for the tone of the workplace? And does he now have buyer’s remorse?

Today, almost all the members of the original team have moved on, save for Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who, if bets had been taken six months into Obama’s term, would likely have been the odds on favorite to get dumped first. The new team is a group of Clinton-era veterans who will, writes Baker, “joust with Republicans instead of one another.”

Maybe so, but in light of Obama’s recent pronouncements on regulatory policy, and new chief of staff William Daley’s previous stance against both health care reform and key parts of bank reform, and the new emphasis on fiscal conservativsm, one wonders what exactly is is that they are going to joust about.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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