Noam Scheiber, The Escape Artists: How Obama’s Team Fumbled The Recovery. Simon & Schuster, 2012, pp. 351, $28.00 When he assumed the Office of the Presidency in January 2009, Barack Obama faced challenges on multiple fronts. Ground troops were still in Iraq, the deleterious effects of the housing bubble were rippling throughout the economy, and [...]
Noam Scheiber, The Escape Artists: How Obama’s Team Fumbled The Recovery. Simon & Schuster, 2012, pp. 351, $28.00
When he assumed the Office of the Presidency in January 2009, Barack Obama faced challenges on multiple fronts. Ground troops were still in Iraq, the deleterious effects of the housing bubble were rippling throughout the economy, and confidence about the nation’s long-term fiscal prospects hovered somewhere between hope and despair. To his significant advantage, President Obama did enter the White House with Democrat majorities in both the House and Senate. Although the former Illinois Senator’s supporters did not necessarily know it at the time of the new president’s inauguration, the first two years of the Obama Presidency would be crucial years for the country’s recovery from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. For decades to come, historians will debate whether President Obama helped or hindered what, in fact, would prove to be an anemic recovery from the near meltdown of the American financial sector.
In The Escape Artists: How Obama’s Team Fumbled the Recovery, Noam Scheiber provides a comprehensive narrative detailing the personalities and policies of the Obama economic team. He argues that President Obama and his team made a mistake in focusing on deficit reduction, rather than putting jobs foremost on the agenda. A senior editor at The New Republic and a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, Scheiber posits that while it is certainly the case that, “Team Obama helped avert catastrophe,” they nevertheless failed in their self-appointed task of restoring the economy to close to where it was prior to the financial crisis.
Readers most interested in the personalities behind the recovery will find much to appreciate in Scheiber’s extremely well researched book. Although he treats the complex economic issues with dexterity, Scheiber focuses his attention on the educational, personal, and professional backgrounds of the major players on Obama’s economic team than on complex and nuanced economic and legal issues. He devotes individual chapters to differing members of Team Obama, including Larry Summers of the National Economic Council, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, and Gary Gensler of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC).
Overall, Scheiber is successful in documenting how the personal backgrounds of the key players on Obama’s economic team affected their policy decisions during their tenures in the administration. Occasionally, however, Scheiber’s narrative goes slightly off course. This is never more the case when, perhaps in an attempt to be comprehensive, he seemingly diverts his attention from the topic at hand. There are sections in the work where Scheiber spends perhaps too much time detailing some of the interesting, albeit not immediately relevant, details about the aforementioned personalities. One such case in point is a detailed discussion of Larry Summers’ childhood and high school years, which could easily have been condensed into two short paragraphs.
When he is at his best, however, Scheiber provides a fascinating look at the decision-making process of Obama’s economic team. This includes the numerous, and sometimes colorful, internal squabbles within the West Wing and other agencies and departments. Scheiber recounts how Christina Romer of the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) had advocated for a larger stimulus package than the one that eventually was put into place is perhaps well known, details the tensions between Summers and Geithner, and recounts the different personalities and policy views of those tasked with deciding how to regulate derivatives, for instance, in the wake of the crisis.
Scheiber does, however, devote significant attention to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s career and policy decisions. The reader learns how Geithner’s years overseas, first in his youth and then early in his career at Treasury, shaped his worldview. According to the author, Geithner’s approach, describing as a “willingness to set aside concern for appearances and keep kicking dirt on the fire until he smothered it,” is probably responsible for saving the financial system. On the other hand, recounts Scheiber, the bailouts really demonstrated how deeply embedded both personally and professionally Geithner was in the financial world.
As for President Obama himself, Scheiber portrays him as an idealistic politician who both sought bipartisanship on economic matters and was committed to his health care agenda, but was ultimately faced with an intransigent Republican opposition. For those readers who think that only Congressional Republicans cared about the deficit, The Escape Artists will provide a different perspective. In fact, Scheiber contends that Obama was too focused on deficit reduction. This, according to the author, played into the Republicans’ hands, as if to concede the point that the larger American public was most concerned with cutting spending. “By agreeing that deficits were the biggest threat to the economy,” he writes, “the president lent credence to the fallacious argument that cutting breeds prosperity, which Republicans wielded against his efforts to secure more stimulus.” Scheiber’s own view, then, is more in line with Keynesianism than with the cutting spending crowd.
In conclusion, The Escape Artists is an enjoyable read detailing how President Obama and his advisers ultimately failed to revive the American economy. The book, however, sometimes does not live up to the very provocative subtitle regarding fumbling the recovery. Indeed, if one were to judge this book by its cover, one would think it was just another right-wing critique of the president. While Scheiber occasionally gets bogged down in details that detract from the overall flow of the larger narrative, he does provide a lucid study of how individuals, personality quirks and all, do ultimately shape policy. Scheiber thinks that the president should have focused more on jobs. Whether he will get a chance to do so in a second term is ultimately up for the voters to decide.
Jonathan Eric Lewis (c) 2012