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'The Escape Artists': Noam Scheiber's Account of How and Why President Barack Obama Botched the Recovery


If you've ever wondered why the Obama administration has so often botched negotiations with Republican adversaries, you'll put down this book satisfied. Or perhaps infuriated.

In The Escape Artists: How Obama's Team Fumbled the Recovery, Noam Scheiber has written the best account yet of the trials and tribulations of President Barack Obama. Everyone interested in American politics, the US financial system, the modern presidency, the dynamics of complex institutions, or merely a compelling drama should read it.

Scheiber's title refers to a cadre of top officials who first earned their stripes as crisis managers under President Bill Clinton. Jack Lew and Gene Sperling helped Clinton recover from the disastrous losses sustained in the 1994 midterm congressional elections. Tim Geithner and Larry Summers stabilized the US financial system following the 1998 failure of the hedge fund Long Term Capital Management. When Obama won the White House and promptly faced a crisis of even greater magnitude, he brought the escape artists back on stage to reprise their old roles. And, as so often is the case, the sequel was something of a flop.

Scheiber, a senior editor at The New Republic, tells the story of how Obama's team struggled to guide the US economy to a healthy recovery with recollections gathered from hundreds of interviews, conducted with dozens of top White House aides, politicians, executives, friends, family, acquaintances, and even Summers' second-grade teacher. The major players are introduced in new and revealing detail. (Full disclosure: I was an intern at The New Republic until recently.

To be sure, we already know the ending (the stimulus proved too small to get the economy back on track, and the Obama's grand deficit bargain broke down in the face of GOP millennialism - but the economy avoided sinking into a depression). Yet the narrative is brisk, even suspenseful, and Scheiber sheds surprising light on many of the outstanding puzzles of the first three Obama years.

If you've ever wondered, for instance, why the administration didn't push for a larger stimulus; why the private debt overhang was allowed to fester; why White House officials so often botched negotiations with Republican adversaries; why the Washington press corps loved, not wisely but too well, the villainous Peter Orzsag - you'll put down this book satisfied. Or perhaps infuriated; at any rate, you will certainly be better informed.

If there is a moral to this story, it may be the insight that top-level experience is equal parts blessing and curse. To take just one example from the book: In 1995, Lew and Sperling had helped broker a deal with Newt Gingrich to achieve bipartisan deficit reduction. Naturally, they felt confident that the ascendant GOP majority of 2010 would prove equally amenable to negotiations. But the newly elected Tea Party Republicans proved them wrong. The historical parallel failed to hold. And such myopia in the White House was hardly uncommon. It was endemic to a team that so often let the lessons of the nineties trump all others.

Scheiber's narrative follows Obama's aides, yet the book adds up to a damning indictment, never wholly enunciated, of the president who nurtured this narrow garden of opinion. And here is the paradox: In the case of the White House staff, the author has persuasively documented the perils of experience. However, Obama may have been doomed by his very lack of insider credentials.

Commenting on the White House's ill-advised deficit crusade, Scheiber marvels that "A president who had run for office as a genuine outsider, who had campaigned against the most destructive practices and preoccupations of the nation's capital, embraced the hoariest of Washington's old saws." In fact, on the deficit and other issues, Obama evinced a newcomer's nervous respect for tradition and experience. Would a true Washington hand have paid less deference to Washington's conventional wisdom? Thankfully, this well-written, well-reported book permits us to draw our own conclusions.
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