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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Escape Artist’

- - Friday, May 4, 2012

THE ESCAPE ARTISTS: HOW OBAMA'S TEAM FUMBLED THE RECOVERY
By Noam Scheiber
Simon & Schuster, $28, 351 pages

It is inevitable that a man may campaign for the U.S. presidency on one set of issues only to face entirely different challenges once he is in office. In 1979, I spent some time traveling with Ronald Reagan throughout Northern California as he tested three major themes with great success for his campaign a year later. They were to "reclaim" the Panama Canal, "tilt" Richard Nixon's efforts at detente with Red China back to stronger ties with Taiwan and "focus" U.S. foreign aid money away from big multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and toward specific friendlier recipients. Within three months of his taking office in 1981, all three of those initiatives had been forgotten.

So it has been with Barack Obama, says author-economist Noam Scheiber. The president will in a few short months have to face voters who rightly will wonder where the promises of "hope and change" went the past four years. The quick answer is that the economic collapse of the past three years is what happened to him.

Then the question becomes how to judge the success or lack of it in how Mr. Obama and his team responded to that unforeseen challenge. The answer to that question and no other is the central issue voters must determine in November. At this writing, no one can be sure what Republican candidate Mitt Romney will do if elected. Nor can anyone foresee what new crisis will come along between now and November. So one is left with the central question of how to grade Mr. Obama's stewardship.

This is an important book that voters of all political persuasions should read between now and November. It is lucidly written, and Mr. Scheiber, a Rhodes scholar who took his economics degree from Oxford, brings solid analysis backed by thorough reporting to his story. That he also is an editor at the New Republic makes his dry-eyed critique of the president and the men he chose to direct his administration all the more impressive. This is no hatchet job from the right. Indeed, it is a cautionary tale from which Mr. Romney and his advisers could benefit as well.

One cannot say fairer than Mr. Scheiber's conclusion: "That Team Obama helped avert catastrophe is indeed beyond question. The economy was losing a breathtaking 700,000 jobs per month in the winter of 2008. In the fourth quarter of that year, it shrank at an annual rate of nearly 9 percent. These were Depression-sized numbers. By the summer of 2009, however, the economy was growing again. As the economists Mark Zandi and Alan Blinder have documented, the combination of Obama's stimulus, George W. Bush's $700 billion bank bailout, and trillions of dollars of loans and subsidies from the Federal Reserve almost certainly averted a 1930s-style economic black hole."

Mr. Scheiber adds, "Despite these heroic efforts, the Obamans nonetheless failed at the task they set for themselves - of restoring the economy to something resembling its pre-crisis vitality. ... Though the challenges facing it were indeed enormous, the administration resorted to shoulder-shrugging professions of futility too often during Obama's first term."

Mr. Scheiber rightly taxes Mr. Obama for failing to respond to that first axiom of the presidency that campaign promises often have to give way to more pressing problems. He notes that Bill Clinton promised middle-class investments but ended up focusing on the deficits in the federal budget. So, too, George W. Bush promised to scale down America's adventuring on the foreign policy front right up until the twin towers were destroyed.

• James Srodes, a former Washington bureau chief for Forbes and Financial World magazines, is the author of "Allen W. Dulles, Master of Spies" (Regnery).