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Persistent Complaints of Sexism in Obama White House

I don’t feel much desire to read Ron Suskind’s book either, but the protests from the White House, which Suskind has begun to parry, suggest that they really feel concerned by it. And maybe not so much by the economic revelations, which they can at least fudge with an inattentive public. It’s the persistent theme of sexism that could be more dangerous for the White House.

Friction about the roles of women in the Obama White House grew so intense during the first two years of the president’s tenure that he was forced to take steps to reassure senior women on his staff that he valued their presence and their input.

At a dinner in November 2009, several senior female aides complained directly to the president that men enjoyed greater access to him and often muscled them out of key policy discussions.

Those tensions prompted Obama, urged on by senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, to elevate more women into senior White House positions, recognize them more during staff meetings and increase the female presence in the upper ranks of the reelection campaign. “There were some issues early on with women feeling as though they hadn’t figured out what their role was going to be on the senior team at the White House,” Jarrett said in an interview Monday. “Most of the women hadn’t worked on the campaign, and so they didn’t have a personal relationship with the president.”

Former White House communications director Anita Dunn told Suskind that the White House “actually fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace to women.” She then denied the quote, but Suskind played the tape recording of the interview back for a reporter at WaPo, and she said exactly that.

There’s a sense that this was a source of problems early in the Administration, and the atmosphere generally improved. And a couple women’s groups who have not pulled back their punches on Obama typically had positive things to say about the inclusiveness of the current White House. But I do think this is a nagging problem that had impacts not just for the female White House staffers themselves, but more broadly.

For instance, look at this fascinating passage that Brad DeLong highlights. Christina Romer, then the chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, was in a meeting with the President near the end of 2009, the time when the pivot to the deficit and away from jobs occurred. Romer argued in favor of at least a $100 billion program aimed at job creation. Peter Orszag’s view was that a small stimulus would be ineffective and that fiscal responsibility was a bigger priority. When Obama agreed with Orszag, Romer blurted out “that is oh so wrong.”

Obama snapped back, “It’s not just wrong, it’s oh so wrong?” And he launched into an uncharacteristic verbal tirade, saying that a new stimulus wasn’t going to happen. He was extremely dismissive. A few weeks later, Larry Summers brought up the exact same idea. Obama was more respectful, but still denied the pitch. Even Summers pointed out to Romer, “You know, he sure was a lot more generous to me than he was with you.”

The real problem here is that Obama seemed to get it into his head that productivity gains, not a shortfall in aggregate demand, accounted for the high unemployment of the period. I cannot help but think that if Romer wasn’t arguing the other side initially, if it came from Summers, the President might not have come to this conclusion, which is truly disastrous (Obama is saying that high unemployment is essentially a smart business decision). “The President seems to have developed his own view,” Romer said. It’s speculative, but worth asking, whether this was due to the messenger of the opposite view.

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David Dayen

David Dayen

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