In the first two years of the Obama White House, the president's top female aides felt steamrolled and demoralized to the point that Obama had to sit them down and address the problem, according to a new and controversial book by the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Ron Suskind.
"Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President," is the title, and confidence is indeed the "coin of the realm," said Suskind in a "Daily Show" interview on Tuesday. Women were pushed to the margins as forceful, seasoned economic hands like Harvard economist Larry Summers, who had served for two years as Clinton's treasury secretary, dominated the president's time and agenda.
Summers sparked a national controversy back in 2005 for speculating, while president of Harvard, that perhaps the low representation of women in math and science was due to their innate inferiority in those subjects, not discrimination. Regardless of his beliefs about women, Summers is presented in Suskind's book as an unlikable human being. The man, in Jon Stewart's words, "I think, by unanimous consent, is an a**hole."
Christina Romer, former chairwoman of the Council of Economic Advisers, allegedly said after a meeting where Summers had muscled her out, "I felt like a piece of meat."
Former White House Communications Director Anita Dunn was even more damning, quoted as saying that "this place would be in court for a hostile workplace.... Because it actually fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace to women."
Challenging The Book's Accuracy
Dunn insisted that her quote was taken out of context. The Washington Post confirmed the bulk of the quote after listening to the original tape, but Dunn had prefaced her remark: "I remember once I told Valerie [Jarrett] that, I said if it weren't for the president, this place would be in court for a hostile workplace...." Dunn believes this clearly changes its meaning, and should spark skepticism over Suskind's ethics as a reporter more generally. Suskind said he put Dunn's sentiment toward Obama in his own words in the sentence before: "The woman would do almost anything for the president, and carried on with few complaints."
Romer has also protested that she can't imagine ever having said her supposed quote. Romer and Dunn are only two of the many voices coming out of the White House lambasting the expose as false, littered with inaccuracies, and in part plagiarized from Wikipedia.
Suskind defended his book on "The Today Show" Tuesday. While he didn't respond to the few factual slip-ups (a Dow drop here, an unemployment figure there), he said it was absurd that out of a 500-page book the White House's central objection was a sentence with similar wording to one on Fannie Mae's Wikipedia page. Suskind called his book "solid as a rock."
There's other evidence that Suskind's portrait of a boy's club White House is fundamentally true.
"There were some issues early on with women feeling as though they hadn't figured out what their role was going to be on the senior team at the White House," Jarrett told The Washington Post on Monday. "Most of the women hadn't worked on the campaign, and so they didn't have a personal relationship with the president."
Suskind describes a male culture of rough language and footballs thrown during staff meetings. In October 2009, Obama received some flack for inviting only male members of Congress and his Cabinet to play a game of basketball -- and with Rahm Emanuel leading the White House staff, it's not unlikely that meetings were sprinkled with some salty language. In November 2009, Obama had a meeting with his female aides, at which Obama fielded their complaints, according to Suskind. A photograph was snapped of the occasion, the women with stern gazes.
An 'Amateur' President?
This image of the early days of Obama's presidency -- dominated by a few rough-tongued male advisers -- fits into Suskind's larger narrative of a brilliant but "amateur" president who failed to provide the right leadership.
"The first few months of his presidency, that's clearly the crucial time," Suskind told Jon Stewart. "You've got a 75 percent approval rating, 2 million people were weeping on the Mall in January, and you can feel him saying, 'Wait, I can do this, I can be this larger-than-life president.' And you see him kind of getting the wind knocked out of him by March."
Things have improved, however, in Suskind's version of events. Obama has found his stride and asserted himself more, a new style embodied in his jobs speech to Congress earlier this month. "Pass this bill," he repeated. After his meeting with female staffers in 2009, the president put more women in senior positions and on his re-election campaign.
Dunn admits that there were some concerns about the respect afforded women in the White House early in Obama's tenure, but that the president responded appropriately. "What I actually said and believe, what is the case then and today," she told The Huffington Post, "is that the president of the United States proactively took steps and [that] is one of the reasons why women are loyal to him."
Romer echoed Dunn's feelings: "I was told before I went to Washington that there has always been a lot of testosterone in the West Wing. What was different in the Obama administration is that there were so many women in important positions and, when problems arose, the president worked hard to fix them. I felt respected, included and useful to the team."
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