The Escape Artists: How Obama's Team Fumbled the Recovery, by Noam Scheiber, Simon & Schuster, 368 pages, $28
IN WASHINGTON, it is well understood that policy is politics. Changing the world, or even just the law, is not a revolution; it is a slow and painful process of negotiation and compromise. No plan, no matter how perfect its architects imagine it to be, escapes Congress unscathed; no reform ever emerges clean and pure. Interest groups will demand and extract concessions. Constituents must be appeased. Coalitions must remain intact. Appearances must be preserved. Inevitably, the legislative process takes its toll.
But it is easy to forget that policy is also personality. It is convenient to speak of any presidential administration as a single entity with a single purpose. The truth is far more complex. And because the federal government concentrates a relatively large amount of power in the hands of a relatively small number of people, the particular interests and predilections of those individuals can have an outsized impact on the nation's priorities and how they are implemented.
In The Escape Artists: How Obama's Team Fumbled the Recovery, Noam Scheiber, a senior editor at the venerable liberal journal The New Republic, presents a reminder that the senior officials who drive the policymaking process are also people with unique and often clashing personalities. But there is one trait that connects them all: an unshakable belief that there is no economic problem, large or small, they cannot solve through technocratic meddling.
Scheiber's overview of the Obama years focuses on economic policy: the crash, the stimulus, the fights over health care reform and financial regulation, and the ongoing battles over debt and deficit reduction. These policy issues are relayed largely as debates among a cast that consists primarily of Obama's top economic advisers, the big swinging wonks of Washington. In crisp prose, Scheiber sketches their motives, backgrounds, and habits of mind. This book is about what makes them tick--and, implicitly, what makes the economy tick.
The major players are all professional Democrats and liberals of one stripe or another. Scheiber's detailed, thoroughly reported account describes their efforts at responding to the faltering economy while pursuing the rest of Obama's ambitious agenda. In the process, Scheiber takes as a given his protagonists' centrality to the success or failure of the economy.
It is an assumption that his subjects share. Their endless infighting and many personal differences are what drive the book and furnish its...