The world’s landscape has shifted.
Two books came off my “to be read” pile this month, and both focused on a theme as current as the day’s headlines. The more substantive is a deep analysis of the 2008 financial crisis and how early decisions made in the midst of the Great Recession still affect us today. The other, a charming novel set in a luxury hotel in Moscow, takes the reader from the upheaval of the Russian Revolution through the mid-1950s. President Barack Obama and Count Alexander Rostov, main characters in fact and fiction respectively, nonetheless face similar challenges when their world shifts underneath them.
A Crisis Wasted: Beginning in 2008 through at least 2009, the United States faced the most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression. With the Bush Administration transitioning out of power, President Barack Obama and his administration took on the lion’s share of the work to address this challenge, often while battling opposing forces in both political parties. That the United States survived without falling into national and worldwide chaos is no small achievement.
Yet many supporters of President Obama have felt that in multiple ways the response was inadequate. Reed Hundt’s new book, A Crisis Wasted: Barack Obama’s Defining Decisions, is designed to provide perspective and details on these vague yet deep-felt concerns.
Speaking in November 2004, Stanford economist Paul Romer coined the famous soundbite, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s first chief of staff, was speaking of the 2008 economic meltdown when he told an interviewer, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” It is Obama’s early decisions in addressing the financial crisis, as president-elect and then president, which are the focus of Hundt’s riveting book.
Hundt personally knows and has interviewed most of the key players involved, and he strongly suggests that the response was not up to the scope and intensity of the crisis. He weaves those interviews in with his own personal perspectives to produce an analysis of past action by Obama and his key advisors, as well as a guide for better decision-making going forward to those who believe our country needs fundamental change.
As Stephen Wiseman notes, Hundt makes a compelling case that, “The president-elect forgot how he got elected, and favored Wall Street over homeowners, deficit hawks over the middle class, and costly health care reforms over the chance to make a difference on climate change.” The outcome was an insufficient response to the crisis that favored banks over the middle class and, subsequently, led to the Tea Party revolution and the election of Donald Trump. Strong, provocative words.
A Crisis Wasted reads like a novel, which speaks to the way Hundt has pulled complex material together into a coherent tale. His writing is clear and he makes sure to recognize perspectives other than his own. (The only quibble I have here is that in one footnote, Hundt allows an attack on New York Times columnist Paul Krugman to take place anonymously. If you want to attack Krugman’s work—and he does have a Nobel prize for economics to back up his assertions—have the guts to give your name.)
While the first half of the book is a page-turner, when Hundt gets into the details of housing, the environment, and the other elements of Obama’s “pillars of transformation,” the pace slows. Yet the last two chapters are worth the price and the wait. The first compares the Obama Inaugural Address (and his leadership style) with FDR’s in 1933, and the second is an epilogue that wraps up the main thesis of the book. On the comparison between Obama and Roosevelt, Hundt describes the many differences between the crises they faced, but calls out Obama’s shortcomings in leadership style when contrasted with Roosevelt. I’ve personally believed that Obama was too “nice” to his critics who had determined to block whatever he proposed (for example, Mitch McConnell of the oft-quoted goal to make him a one-term president).
In contrast, consider Roosevelt’s Madison Square Garden speech just before the 1936 election, when he famously described forces which he labeled “the old enemies of peace: business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.” Roosevelt claimed that these forces were united against his candidacy; that “They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.” For many, Obama never came to understand how to use his position and masterful oratorical skills as Roosevelt had done to bring the country along to support his programs.
Hundt’s analysis is detailed and well framed, although not everyone will agree with his conclusions. Nonetheless, it is an important and recommended work.
A Gentleman in Moscow: Amor Towles 2016 novel about a Russian Count who, during the Russian Revolution, is ordered to spend the rest of his life inside a luxury hotel is a good, if light, read. Towels is a gifted writer who can turn a phrase and tell a story.
Towles’ elegant touch comes through to me in a passage late in the book. Count Alexander Rostov is in bed with his long-time lover, Anna Urvanova, discussing the difference between Russians and Americans. When Anna suggests that half the inhabitants of Europe would move to America just for the conveniences, the Count protests that he doesn’t understand. Anna shows him pictures of dishwashing machines, toasters, televisions, and an automatic garage door opener. For someone who hasn’t ventured outside the hotel in four decades, the Count is unimpressed and says, “I think if I were a garage door, I should rather miss the old days.” He then goes further with thoughts that get to the heart of the novel’s focus: what it means to have your life upended, yet remain a man of purpose.
“‘I’ll tell you what is convenient,’ he said after a moment. ‘To sleep until noon and have someone bring you your breakfast on a tray. To cancel an appointment at the very last minute. To keep a carriage waiting at the door of one party, so that on a moment’s notice it can whisk you away to another. To sidestep marriage in your youth and put off having children altogether. These are the greatest of conveniences, Anushka—and at one time, I had them all. But in the end, it has been the inconveniences that have mattered to me most.'”
This is a good and satisfying work. However, early in the story it was clear that the main characters were going to avoid real tension and tragedy. Perhaps I’ve seen too many Game of Thrones episodes, but life doesn’t always work out as well for us as Towles manages for his key characters. A Gentleman in Moscow made several best books of 2016 list, and is worth a read. Just don’t expect War and Peace.
More to come…