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CEPEDA: Loss of confidence

Esther J. Cepeda

Esther J. Cepeda

CHICAGO — It's only October, but I have a nomination for the scariest book of 2011 -- maybe the saddest, too.I've rarely read a book that punched me in the gut quite like "Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President" by journalist Ron Suskind.

Though most of the reviews and news reports have centered around the accuracy of some of the more juicy bits of White House gossip, the stories in this book ring true to anyone who has been paying close attention for the last two years -- and spent them being frustrated by the stunning lack of leadership from President Obama.

Worse, learning about all of the missteps this messiah-like candidate has made as president begs the question of how to assess the current crop of White House aspirants.

You hope Obama reads this book, or gets his advisers to feed him the highlights, so he can start thinking about what he's actually going to do if he is re-elected.

If granted another four years, will he finally take ownership of his presidency, and use his marvelous grasp of issues and pragmatic, big-picture solutions to make meaningful changes to how this country operates?

Nobody needs Suskind's book as proof that Obama's tenure has been replete with unfulfilled expectations and lost opportunities to reform the financial industry, deal with skyrocketing health care costs or find effective ways to create jobs. How in the world will Obama convince anyone he'll be able to manage those, and so many other challenges, in a subsequent term?

An interesting side note here is that the Occupy Wall Street movement began Sept. 17 to protest what its organizers consider out-of-control corporate greed and corruption. If the picketers had had the benefit of reading Suskind's book before trekking to New York -- it was released on Sept. 20 -- they'd have left their MacBook Pros at home and taken pitchforks and torches to Pennsylvania Avenue instead.

Suskind's version of history says Wall Street's interests rolled easily over a disjointed administration superficially led by a president who attempted to create change by bringing bright minds together and trying to get them to agree on a best course of action. In the end, the author says, overly influential advisers who had more interest in preserving the status quo than in making any big moves won the big battles.

As for the Republican candidates in the 2012 race, after reading this book, it's hard to imagine accurately predicting presidential success.

You might ask yourself, who's the smartest -- Jon Huntsman, Rick Perry, Mitt Romney? Well, does it really matter? Sadly, the Obama administration's abundance of impressive brainpower didn't seem to have had much impact.

You might consider the merits of a "historic president" -- the first Mormon, the first woman. I promise that in the book you won't suffer through many passages where we find Obama reflecting about his place in history or, according to Suskind, all but shouting, "What is my narrative? I don't have a narrative," before you decide that inspirational life stories or the opportunity to bring more diversity to the presidency just isn't going to cut it this time around.

Is business sense a good indicator? Well, Herman Cain made a fortune on pizzas. But not even stellar executive performance is preparation enough for the Oval Office.

It's certainly more than Obama could claim, even with a few years in the Senate under his belt. Suskind's exhaustive research left him with the impression that seasoned Washington players felt Obama had "stumbled into town like a tourist." Ouch.

"Confidence Men" has been panned as filled with rambling, sometimes erroneous, details that would have best been left in the reporter's notebook. It's the kind of book you'll love only if you regularly devour ultra-wonky chronicles of the financial meltdown. But it verifies for readers that as bad as we thought things were going inside the White House, they were actually even worse. Check today's newspaper -- there are no signs things have gotten any better.

The American people will soon have to decide who will be their leader for the next four years. Reading this book in that context makes for some truly scary, and sad thoughts.

Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.