Is it too early for a postmortem on Barack Obama? Not for Pulitzer winner Suskind (The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism, 2008), who offers a damning picture of the president as a Man Who Could Have Been.
The author characterizes Obama as a politician who blew a golden opportunity to deliver sweeping reform to a manipulative financial industry just when its bloated belly was turned to the sky. Although Obama was confident of his abilities as a candidate—having been prepped on the coming crisis by early supporters on Wall Street—as president it was a different story. According to Suskind, he was unsure where to turn for assistance, as angels and demons fought for his soul. The angels included Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Warren, who became “the nation’s town crier on the subject of bankruptcy and debt” and former Fed chair Paul Volcker, who advised Obama to take the “tough love” approach to the financial industry, even if it meant letting some of the dinosaurs die. The demons included Treasury chief Timothy Geithner, Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel and the egomaniacal National Economic Council head Larry Summers, who all counseled that any major initiative could shake “confidence in the system.” Not the most compelling explainer of the hard stuff—collateralized debt obligations, repurchase agreements, derivatives, credit-default swaps—Suskind sprinkles the final pages with a dim, faint hope that Obama has learned from his mistakes and regained his old passion. Whether that proves true or not, his own “Occupy Wall Street” moment has passed.
Most interesting as a clear-eyed assessment of the passion of Obama, or what remains of it, and also as a kind of elegy for an old financial world in which there was at least a semblance of ethical standards.