Obama’s Foreign-Policy Team Bests Economy Stars: Two recent anecdotes illustrate this problem. On Dec. 2, as Obama prepared to give a major economic speech at the Brookings Institution on Dec. 8 (and a day after his Afghanistan speech at West Point) he met with policy makers. He heard a familiar reprise of the previous several meetings with budget director Peter Orszag arguing for more emphasis on reducing the deficit and Council of Economic Advisers chief Christina Romer leading the contingent espousing a greater short-term stress on jobs. The president, by his standards, exploded. “Why are we having this meeting again, the same discussion,” participants quoted him as saying.
Several administration insiders, prominent outside Democratic economic advisers and a few Congressional heavyweights, all worry this is symptomatic of a process that isn’t working well. Summers, they argue, is brilliant on policy and ill-suited for a high-level staff job, which is what the head of the National Economic Council is. “If you came up with 10 words to describe Larry, coordination and collaboration would not be two,” says one person requesting anonymity who has worked with Summers extensively and admires his intellectual force.
David Axelrod, Obama’s top adviser, cautions not to read too much into one meeting. “When you bring in top-flight players, strong personalities, there’s going to be issues of mediation,” he says. “The president wants strong players, he synthesizes their best thinking, and the product is working.” Still, others say Summers too often is dismissive of fellow economic advisers, other than Geithner, although he gets a bum rap for supposedly freezing Volcker out of major decisions. The 82-year-old Volcker wants a freewheeling advisory role. But advisers acknowledge Summers rarely reaches out to include him. Volcker takes a much tougher line than Summers or Geithner toward Wall Street.
The other problem, an inability to effectively communicate an economic policy, was typified in a Dec. 4 interview with Geithner, who was asked what is the “clear, coherent economic message” of the administration. He proceeded to talk about “high-class education” for children, affordable health care, better incentives for energy and infrastructure, public-private arrangements and the like. There are 15.4 million unemployed Americans and another 11.5 million “underemployed,” either having given up looking and thus not counted in the jobless numbers or involuntarily relegated to part-time work. A laundry list of the Democrats’ agenda is unlikely to prove comforting.
Geithner, who wins praise from Obama and others for his substantive performance after a shaky start and some more recent cheap political shots, acknowledges that public communications isn’t his forte. It isn’t Summers’ either. And those who are more effective, including Roemer and fellow Council of Economic Advisers member Austan Goolsbee, sometimes are cut out of the action. The result: On the economy, Americans are losing confidence in the president, who gets little credit for policies that avoided an economic calamity and are starting to turn things around. In a survey by pollster Ann Selzer a few weeks ago for Bloomberg News, voters by 50 percent to 45 percent disapprove of Obama’s performance on the economy; the numbers were worse on handling the budget deficit and dealing with Wall Street...