Book Review: The Escape Artists, by Noam Scheiber

A Woodwardian account of infighting in the White House’s economics team
President Obama, flanked by Jared Bernstein, and tailed by Peter Orzag and Christina Romer Photograph by Pete Souza/White House

The Escape Artists: How Obama’s Team Fumbled the Recovery
By Noam Scheiber
Simon & Schuster; 351 pp; $28

Joining Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum in the ranks of Americans temporarily rooting against a strengthening American economy is Noam Scheiber. Scheiber, like Romney, has a message to sell, and it’s set out bluntly in the subtitle of his new book, The Escape Artists. President Obama’s team, he says, has “fumbled the recovery.” Yet with the Dow flirting with the 13,000 mark and the Labor Dept.’s report that U.S. employers added 243,000 jobs last month—not to mention Clint Eastwood’s optimistic, pro-Detroit paid pronouncement that “It’s halftime in America”—it has recently gotten harder to put over a narrative that Team Obama’s economic policies have failed.

Still, Scheiber makes a compelling case that these bits of good news aren’t good enough. The big difference is that Scheiber, a senior editor at The New Republic, is critiquing Obama’s economic team from the left, not the right. Like Paul Krugman, the economist and New York Times columnist, Scheiber has concluded that the Obama team’s $800 billion stimulus package of 2009 was woefully inadequate and that both the President and his GOP opponents are tragically preoccupied with federal deficit reduction when, if anything, tons more government spending is needed to ward off a double-dip recession.

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Photo illustration by 731; Photographs by Bloomberg (4); Everett (4); Getty Images (2)

The Escape Artists is constructed as an intimate, Bob Woodward-style account of decision-making and infighting at the nexus of power, lightly sprinkled with the author’s judgments. Scheiber covered Obama’s Presidential campaign, developing connections that have paid off with on-the-record interviews with the highest of high-ranking officials at the White House and the Treasury Dept., as well as dozens more interviews at the middle and minion levels. So we get blow-by-blow recountings of how policy was formed, as well as potted origin stories of The Escape Artists’ principals. As a teen, the nebbishy but shrewd Larry Summers, future director of Obama’s National Economic Council, warded off the bullies who tormented him in the Philadelphia suburbs “by exposing the flaws in their logic”; current Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner is portrayed as having all but appropriated the workplace persona of his predecessor Robert Rubin, under whom he worked as a youngster in the Clinton administration, “down to the physical mannerisms and verbal tics.”

In Scheiber’s telling, the Obama team’s shortcomings can almost be distilled down to one colossal blunder: not pushing through a trillion-dollar-plus stimulus package early on when the President had the clout, popular support, and Senate votes to do so. The de facto surrogate for the author’s views, and his thwarted heroine, is Christina Romer, an outsider who was reeled in from academia (the University of California at Berkeley) to serve as the chair of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers. Crunching the numbers during the pre-inauguration transition period, Romer came up with a figure for what it would take to get the unemployment rate down to 5 percent: $1.8 trillion.

While that monster number was a nonstarter, it was closer, in Scheiber’s view, to what was politically feasible than most Americans realized, President Obama included. Summers is faulted by Scheiber for trying too hard to play the canny operator, presenting the White House with a preshrunk “ask” figure for the stimulus that had already factored in anticipated GOP pushback. Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, pointedly tells Scheiber that it was his job, not Summers’s, to give the President “an assessment of what the political system could absorb.” The President is faulted for being too obsessed with post-partisan bridge-building to take a hard line with Republicans on stimulus spending. Emanuel is faulted for being too much of an enabler of Obama’s grandiose vision of universal health care. Former Budget Director Peter Orszag (a contributor to Bloomberg View) is faulted for letting his deficit hawkishness blind him to the benefits of a Recovery Act. Geithner, the closest thing The Escape Artists has to a villain (albeit a mild one), is faulted for what Scheiber sees as misplaced priorities and a political tin ear.

Scheiber is a smart, clear-eyed reporter who frames his arguments elegantly. He makes a persuasive case, for example, that Orszag, his own self-perception notwithstanding, was not “ideologically neutral.” Prioritizing a balanced budget over growth and jobs “wasn’t correct in some objective sense,” the author writes, but “a judgment call.” Still, there’s a timidity to Scheiber’s chiding that doesn’t quite jibe with his fumbled-recovery thesis. He needn’t have fulminated to the degree that, say, Rick Perlstein does in Nixonland, a relentlessly aggrieved critical history of Richard Nixon’s political career. But Scheiber could have permitted himself a bit more Krugmaniac feistiness—and better explored the cautionary tales of austerity unfolding in Europe.

We’ll never know if the circa-2009 mega-stimulus of Scheiber’s fantasies would have worked. Shortly before the Democrats lost congressional seats in the midterm elections, the frustrated Romer, whose colleagues, Scheiber says, had come to consider her “an overly shrill presence,” decamped back to Berkeley. Orszag, frustrated for entirely different reasons, had already fled a couple of months earlier, and Summers would be gone by the end of 2010. The sad denouement of The Escape Artists depicts an impotent Obama administration caught up in last summer’s farcical wrangling with Republican leaders over the debt ceiling—making concessions that, if they “weren’t so tragic,” writes the author, “might be an entertaining plot for a David Mamet movie.”

Hang on, though—this just in! The President, this week, presented a gutsy, spending-heavy election-year budget proposal. For the likes of Scheiber, this could be bigger than halftime in America; Team Obama could still recover that fumble.

( Corrects name of deputy assistant to the President on economic policy in photo caption. )
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