President Obama speaks with senior advisor David Axelrod and economic… (Pete Souza / White House )
No book about the Obama presidency appears to have unnerved the White House quite so much as "Confidence Men" by Ron Suskind, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has developed a niche in the specialized art of parting the curtain on presidential dealings.
The book gives a tough assessment of Obama's leadership style. Brainy but untested, Obama proved unable to exert control over a dysfunctional economic team that was dubious about his orders, the book concludes.
Through Tweets and interviews, White House officials have sought to discredit the book, questioning its basic accuracy.
David Axelrod, a former senior White House aide, said in an interview Wednesday that Suskind relied too heavily on a few disgruntled sources who gave a warped picture of the West Wing.
"He's creating a bunch of fictional characters that were loosely based on people he encountered," Axelrod said. "And he wrote a book that was largely influenced by the point of view of a couple of people. … Obviously, this book was written from the point of view of some who had particular grievances. … But that didn't match the reality of what happened."
Axelrod spoke to Suskind for the book and, in one scene, describes his 89-year-old mother's reverence for Franklin D. Roosevelt, a president who left the public with the comforting feeling that "everything was going to be okay because he was … there."
Today, polls make clear Americans do not believe everything is going to be OK. And that's one reason the book poses a problem for the White House. With the dismal jobs picture certain to dominate the 2012 campaign, Obama can’t afford to be seen as lacking the basic managerial skills necessary to run his own economic team.
Axelrod disputed the notion that Obama was outmaneuvered by economic advisors including Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Lawrence H. Summers, who resigned a year ago.
"There is no doubt that there was discord among" the economic team, Axelrod said. "And I've always said the same thing: If everybody on your team always tells you the same thing and always agrees with each other, you've got the wrong team. You don't want a monolithic point of view. Sometimes when the debates went on too long, the president was the guy who slammed the door shut on those and said, 'OK, here's what we’re going to do.'"
Suskind doesn't seem shaken up, though he acknowledged that the White House reaction has been "a little more personal than I would have anticipated."
Axelrod says of Suskind, "Get him a fact-checker."
Whatever Axelrod's objections, Suskind sees him as an important figure in the book. Inside the White House, senior aides viewed Axelrod as the main link to the 2008 campaign, when Obama presented himself as a force for moral and political renewal.
"Axelrod's is the voice the Obama people yearned for and were always waiting to see emerge," Suskind said. "In Axelrod's long riffs you see a little bit of a what-might-have-been quality."