فصل 22دوره: سرزمین موعود / درس 23
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IN THE BARREL
IT’S IN THE NATURE OF politics, and certainly the presidency, to go through rough patches—times when, because of a boneheaded mistake, an unforeseen circumstance, a sound but unpopular decision, or a failure to communicate, the headlines turn sour and the public finds you wanting. Usually this lasts for a couple of weeks, maybe a month, before the press loses interest in smacking you around, either because you fixed the problem, or you expressed contrition, or you chalked up a win, or something deemed more important pushes you off the front page.
If the rough patch lasts long enough, though, you may find yourself in a dreaded situation in which problems compound, then congeal into a broader narrative about you and your presidency. The negative stories don’t let up, which leads to a drop in your popularity. Your political adversaries, smelling blood in the water, go after you harder, and allies aren’t as quick to defend you. The press starts digging for additional problems inside your administration, to confirm the impression that you’re in political trouble. Until—like the daredevils and fools of old at Niagara Falls—you find yourself trapped in the proverbial barrel, tumbling through the crashing waters, bruised and disoriented, no longer sure which way is up, powerless to arrest your descent, waiting to hit bottom and hoping, without evidence, that you’ll survive the impact.
For most of my second year in office, we were in the barrel.
We’d seen it coming, of course, especially after the Tea Party summer and the ruckus surrounding the Affordable Care Act. My approval ratings, which had held fairly steady during my first six months in office, ticked down throughout the fall. Press coverage became more critical, on matters both significant (like my decision to send more troops into Afghanistan) and strange (like the case of the Salahis, a pair of Washington social climbers who found a way to crash a state dinner and have their photo taken with me).
Nor had our troubles let up over the holidays. On Christmas Day, a young Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had boarded a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit and tried to detonate explosive materials sewn into his underwear. Tragedy had been averted only because the contraption hadn’t worked; seeing smoke and flames coming from under the would-be terrorist’s blanket, a passenger restrained him and flight attendants extinguished the flames, allowing the plane to land safely. Having just arrived in Hawaii with Michelle and the girls for a much-needed ten-day break, I spent most of the next several days on the phone with my national security team and the FBI, trying to determine who exactly Abdulmutallab was, whom he’d been working with, and why both airport security and our terrorist watch list hadn’t kept him from boarding a U.S.-bound plane.
What I failed to do in those first seventy-two hours, though, was follow my initial instincts, which were to get on television, explain to the American people what had happened, and assure them that it was safe to travel. My team had made a sensible argument for waiting: It was important, they said, for the president to have all the facts before making a statement to the public. And yet my job involved more than just managing the government or getting the facts right. The public also looked to the president to explain a difficult and often scary world. Rather than coming off as prudent, my absence from the airwaves made me seem unengaged, and soon we were taking incoming fire from across the political spectrum, with less charitable commentators suggesting that I cared more about my tropical vacation than I did about threats against the homeland. It didn’t help that my usually unflappable secretary of homeland security, Janet Napolitano, briefly stumbled in one of her TV interviews, responding to a question about where security had broken down by saying that “the system worked.” Our mishandling of the so-called Underwear Bomber played into Republican accusations that Democrats were soft on terrorism, weakening my hand on issues like closing the detention center at Guantánamo Bay. And like the other gaffes and unforced errors that occurred during my first year, this one no doubt contributed to my slide in the polls. But according to Axe, who spent his days poring over political data, cross-tabbed by political party, age, race, gender, geography, and Lord knows what else, my sinking political fortunes heading into 2010 could be traced to one overriding factor.
The economy still stank.
On paper, our emergency measures—along with the Federal Reserve’s interventions—appeared to be working. The financial system was up and running, and banks were on the way to solvency. Housing prices, while still way down from their peak, had at least temporarily stabilized, and U.S. auto sales had started to climb. Thanks to the Recovery Act, consumer and business spending had rebounded slightly, and states and cities had slowed (though not stopped) their layoffs of teachers, cops, and other public workers. Across the country, major building projects were under way, picking up some of the slack that had resulted from the collapse of housing construction. Joe Biden and his chief of staff, my former debate coach Ron Klain, had done an excellent job of overseeing the flow of stimulus dollars, with Joe often devoting chunks of his day to picking up the phone and barking at state or local officials whose projects were behind schedule or who weren’t providing us with adequate documentation. An audit found that as a result of their efforts, just 0.2 percent of Recovery Act dollars had been improperly spent—a statistic that even the best-run private sector companies might envy, given the amounts of money and the number of projects involved.
Still, to the millions of Americans dealing with the aftermath of the crisis, things felt worse, not better. They were still at risk of losing their homes to foreclosure. Their savings were depleted, if not entirely wiped out. Most troubling of all, they still couldn’t find work.
Larry Summers had warned that unemployment was a “lagging indicator”: Companies typically didn’t start laying off employees until several months into a recession and didn’t resume hiring until well after a recession ended. Sure enough, while the pace of job loss gradually slowed over the course of 2009, the number of unemployed people continued to grow. The unemployment rate didn’t peak until October, hitting 10 percent—the highest since the early 1980s. The news was so consistently bad that I found myself developing a knot in my stomach on the first Thursday of every month, when the Labor Department sent the White House an advance copy of its monthly jobs report. Katie claimed that she could usually gauge the contents of the report by my economic team’s body language: If they averted their gaze, she told me, or spoke in hushed tones, or just dropped off a manila envelope for her to give me, rather than waiting around to hand it to me in person, she knew we were in for another rough month.
If Americans were understandably frustrated with the recovery’s glacial pace, the bank bailout sent them over the edge. Man, did folks hate TARP! They didn’t care that the emergency program had worked better than expected, or that more than half of the money given to the banks had already been repaid with interest, or that the broader economy couldn’t have started healing until the capital markets were working again. Across the political spectrum, voters considered the bank bailouts a scam that had allowed the barons of finance to emerge from the crisis relatively unscathed.
Tim Geithner liked to point out that this wasn’t strictly true. He would list all the ways Wall Street had paid for its sins: investment banks gone belly-up, bank CEOs ousted, shares diluted, billions of dollars in losses. Likewise, Attorney General Holder’s lawyers at the Justice Department would soon start racking up record settlements from financial institutions that were shown to have violated the law. Still, there was no getting around the fact that many of the people most culpable for the nation’s economic woes remained fabulously wealthy and had avoided prosecution mainly because the laws as written deemed epic recklessness and dishonesty in the boardroom or on the trading floor less blameworthy than the actions of a teenage shoplifter. Whatever the economic merits of TARP or the legal rationale behind the Justice Department’s decisions not to press criminal charges, the whole thing reeked of unfairness.
“Where’s my bailout?” continued to be a popular refrain. My barber asked me why no bank executives had gone to jail; so did my mother-in-law. Housing advocates asked why banks had received hundreds of billions in TARP funds while only a fraction of that amount was going toward directly helping homeowners at risk of foreclosure pay down their mortgages. Our answer—that given the sheer size of the U.S. housing market, even a program as big as TARP would have only a nominal effect on the rate of foreclosures, and any additional money we got out of Congress was more effectively used to boost employment—sounded heartless and unpersuasive, especially when the programs we had set up to help homeowners refinance or modify their mortgages fell woefully short of expectations.
Eager to get out ahead of the public outrage, or at least the line of fire, Congress set up multiple oversight committees, with Democrats and Republicans taking turns denouncing the banks, questioning regulators’ decisions, and casting as much blame as possible on the other party. In 2008 the Senate had appointed a special inspector general to monitor TARP, a former prosecutor named Neil Barofsky who knew little about finance but had a gift for generating sensational headlines and attacked our decision-making with zeal. The further the possibility of a financial meltdown receded from view, the more everyone questioned whether TARP had even been necessary in the first place. And because we were now in charge, it was often Tim and other members of my administration occupying the hot seat, defending the seemingly indefensible.
Republicans weren’t shy about taking advantage, suggesting that TARP had always been a Democratic idea. On a daily basis, they launched broadsides at the Recovery Act and the rest of our economic policies, insisting that “stimulus” was just another name for out-of-control, liberal pork-barrel spending and more bailouts for special interests. They blamed the Recovery Act for the exploding federal deficit we’d inherited from the Bush administration, and—to the extent that they even bothered to offer alternative policies—argued that the best way to fix the economy was for the government to slash its budget and get its fiscal house in order, the same way hard-pressed families across the country were “tightening their belts.” Add it all up, and by early 2010, polls showed that significantly more Americans disapproved of my economic stewardship than approved—a flashing red light that helped explain not only the loss of Ted Kennedy’s seat in Massachusetts but also Democratic losses in off-year gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia, states I’d won handily just twelve months earlier. According to Axe, voters in focus groups couldn’t distinguish between TARP, which I’d inherited, and the stimulus; they just knew that the well-connected were getting theirs while they were getting screwed. They also thought that Republican calls for budget cuts in response to the crisis—“austerity,” as economists liked to call it—made more intuitive sense than our Keynesian push for increased government spending. Congressional Democrats from swing districts, already nervous about their reelection prospects, began distancing themselves from the Recovery Act and shunning the word “stimulus” altogether. Those further to the left, freshly angered by the lack of a public option in the healthcare bill, renewed their complaints that the stimulus hadn’t been big enough and that Tim and Larry were too cozy with Wall Street. Even Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid started questioning our White House communications strategy—especially our penchant for denouncing “excessive partisanship” and “special interests” in Washington rather than going harder at the Republicans.
“Mr. President,” Nancy said to me on one call, “I tell my members that what you’ve managed to do in such a short time is historic. I’m just so very proud, really. But right now, the public doesn’t know what you’ve accomplished. They don’t know how awful the Republicans are behaving, just trying to block you on everything. And voters aren’t going to know if you aren’t willing to tell them.” Axe, who oversaw our communications shop, was exasperated when I mentioned my conversation with the Speaker. “Maybe Nancy can tell us how to spin ten percent unemployment,” he harrumphed. He reminded me that I’d run on the promise to change Washington, not to engage in the usual partisan food fight. “We can bash Republicans all we want,” he said, “but at the end of the day, we’re going to keep taking on water so long as the best we can tell voters is ‘Sure, things are terrible—but it could’ve been worse.’ ” He had a point; given the state of the economy, there were limits to what any messaging strategy could accomplish. We had known from the start that the politics of the recession were going to be rough. But Nancy was also right to be critical. I was the one, after all, who’d taken such great pride in not letting short-term politics intrude on our response to the economic crisis, as if the rules of political gravity didn’t apply to me. When Tim had expressed concern that overly harsh rhetoric directed at Wall Street might dissuade private investors from recapitalizing the banks and therefore prolong the financial crisis, I’d agreed to tone it down, despite objections from Axe and Gibbs. Now a sizable part of the country thought I cared more about the banks than I cared about them. When Larry had suggested that we pay out the Recovery Act’s middle-class tax cuts in biweekly increments rather than in one lump sum because research showed that people were more likely to spend the money that way, giving the economy a quicker boost, I’d said great, let’s do it—even though Rahm had warned that it meant no one would notice the slight bump in each paycheck. Now surveys showed that the majority of Americans believed that I’d raised rather than lowered their taxes—all to pay for bank bailouts, the stimulus package, and healthcare.
FDR would never have made such mistakes, I thought. He had understood that digging America out of the Depression was less a matter of getting every New Deal policy exactly right than of projecting confidence in the overall endeavor, impressing upon the public that the government had a handle on the situation. Just as he’d known that in a crisis people needed a story that made sense of their hardships and spoke to their emotions—a morality tale with clear good guys and bad guys and a plot they could easily follow.
In other words, FDR understood that to be effective, governance couldn’t be so antiseptic that it set aside the basic stuff of politics: You had to sell your program, reward supporters, punch back against opponents, and amplify the facts that helped your cause while fudging the details that didn’t. I found myself wondering whether we’d somehow turned a virtue into a vice; whether, trapped in my own high-mindedness, I’d failed to tell the American people a story they could believe in; and whether, having ceded the political narrative to my critics, I was going to be able to wrest it back.
AFTER MORE THAN a year of unrelentingly bad economic numbers, we finally received a glimmer of hope: The March 2010 jobs report showed the economy gaining 162,000 new jobs—the first month of solid growth since 2007. When Larry and Christy Romer came into the Oval to deliver the news, I gave them both fist bumps and declared them “Employees of the Month.” “Do we each get a plaque for that, Mr. President?” Christy asked.
“We can’t afford plaques,” I said. “But you get to lord it over the rest of the team.”
The April and May reports were positive as well, offering the tantalizing possibility that the recovery might finally be picking up steam. None of us inside the White House thought a jobless rate over 9 percent called for a victory lap. We agreed, though, that it made both economic and political sense to start more emphatically projecting a sense of forward momentum in my speeches. We even began planning for a nationwide tour in the early summer, where I’d highlight communities on the rebound and companies that were hiring again. “Recovery Summer,” we would call it.
Except Greece imploded.
Although the financial crisis had originated on Wall Street, its impact across Europe had been just as severe. Months after we’d gotten the U.S. economy growing again, the European Union remained mired in recession, with its banks fragile, its major industries yet to recover from the huge drop in global trade, and unemployment in some countries running as high as 20 percent. The Europeans didn’t have to contend with the sudden collapse of their housing industry the way we did, and their more generous safety nets helped cushion the recession’s impact on vulnerable populations. On the other hand, the combination of greater demands on public services, reduced tax revenues, and ongoing bank bailouts had placed severe pressure on government budgets. And unlike the United States—which could cheaply finance rising deficits even in a crisis, as risk-averse investors rushed to buy our Treasury bills—countries like Ireland, Portugal, Greece, Italy, and Spain found it increasingly difficult to borrow. Their efforts to placate financial markets by cutting government spending only lowered already weak aggregate demand and deepened their recessions. This, in turn, produced even bigger budget shortfalls, necessitated additional borrowing at ever higher interest rates, and rattled financial markets even more.
We couldn’t afford to be passive observers to all this. Problems in Europe acted as a significant drag on the U.S. recovery: The European Union was our largest trading partner, after all, and U.S. and European financial markets were practically joined at the hip. Through much of 2009, Tim and I had urged European leaders to take more decisive action to mend their economies. We advised them to clear up the issues with their banks once and for all (the “stress test” E.U. regulators had applied to their financial institutions was so slipshod that a pair of Irish banks needed government rescues just a few months after regulators had certified them as sound). We pushed any E.U. countries with stronger balance sheets to initiate stimulus policies comparable to our own, in order to jump-start business investment and increase consumer demand across the continent.
We got exactly nowhere. Although liberal by American standards, Europe’s biggest economies were almost all led by center-right governments, elected on the promise of balanced budgets and free-market reforms rather than more government spending. Germany, in particular—the European Union’s one true economic powerhouse and its most influential member—continued to see fiscal rectitude as the answer to all economic woes. The more I’d gotten to know Angela Merkel, the more I’d come to like her; I found her steady, honest, intellectually rigorous, and instinctually kind. But she was also conservative by temperament, not to mention a savvy politician who knew her constituency, and whenever I suggested to her that Germany needed to set an example by spending more on infrastructure or tax cuts, she politely but firmly pushed back. “Ya, Barack, I think maybe that’s not the best approach for us,” she would say, her face pulling into a slight frown, as if I’d suggested something a little tawdry.
Sarkozy didn’t serve as much of a counterweight. Privately, he voiced sympathy for the idea of economic stimulus, given France’s high unemployment rate (“Don’t worry, Barack…I’m working on Angela, you’ll see”). But he had trouble pivoting away from the fiscally conservative positions that he himself had taken in the past, and as far as I could tell, he wasn’t organized enough to come up with a clear plan for his own country, much less for all of Europe.
And while the United Kingdom’s prime minister, Gordon Brown, agreed with us on the need for European governments to boost short-term spending, his Labour Party would lose its majority in Parliament in May 2010, and Brown would find himself replaced by Conservative leader David Cameron. In his early forties, with a youthful appearance and a studied informality (at every international summit, the first thing he’d do was take off his jacket and loosen his tie), the Eton-educated Cameron possessed an impressive command of the issues, a facility with language, and the easy confidence of someone who’d never been pressed too hard by life. I liked him personally, even when we butted heads, and for the next six years he’d prove to be a willing partner on a host of international issues, from climate change (he believed in the science) to human rights (he supported marriage equality) to aid for developing countries (throughout his tenure, he’d managed to allocate 1.5 percent of the U.K.’s budget to foreign aid, a significantly higher percentage than I’d ever convince the U.S. Congress to approve). On economic policy, though, Cameron hewed closely to free-market orthodoxy, having promised voters that his platform of deficit reduction and cuts to government services—along with regulatory reform and expanded trade—would usher in a new era of British competitiveness.
Instead, predictably, the British economy would fall deeper into a recession.
The stubborn embrace of austerity by key European leaders, despite all of the contrary evidence, was more than a little frustrating. But given everything else on my plate, the situation in Europe hadn’t been keeping me up at night. That all began to change in February 2010, though, when a Greek sovereign debt crisis threatened to unravel the European Union—and sent me and my economic team scrambling to avert yet another round of global financial panic.
Greece’s economic problems weren’t new. For decades, the country had been plagued by low productivity, a bloated and inefficient public sector, massive tax avoidance, and unsustainable pension obligations. Despite that, throughout the 2000s, international capital markets had been happy to finance Greece’s steadily escalating deficits, much the same way that they’d been happy to finance a heap of subprime mortgages across the United States. In the wake of the Wall Street crisis, the mood grew less generous. When a new Greek government announced that its latest budget deficit far exceeded previous estimates, European bank stocks plunged and international lenders balked at lending Greece more money. The country suddenly teetered on the brink of default.
Normally the prospect of a small country not paying its bills on time would have a limited effect outside its borders. Greece’s GDP was roughly the size of Maryland’s, and other countries faced with similar problems were typically able to hammer out an agreement with creditors and the IMF, allowing them to restructure their debt, maintain their international creditworthiness, and eventually get back on their feet.
But in 2010, economic conditions weren’t normal. Greece’s attachment to an already shaky Europe made its sovereign debt problems the equivalent of a lit stick of dynamite being tossed into a munitions factory. Because it was a member of the European Union’s common market, where companies and people worked, traveled, and traded under a unified set of regulations and without regard to national borders, Greece’s economic troubles easily migrated. Banks in other E.U. countries were some of Greece’s biggest lenders. Greece was also one of sixteen countries that had adopted the euro, meaning it had no currency of its own to devalue or independent monetary remedies that it could pursue. Without an immediate, large-scale rescue package from its fellow eurozone members, Greece might have no alternative but to pull out of the currency compact, an unprecedented move with uncertain economic ramifications. Already, market fears about Greece had caused big spikes in the rates banks were charging Ireland, Portugal, Italy, and Spain to cover their sovereign debt. Tim worried that an actual Greek default and/or exit from the eurozone might lead skittish capital markets to effectively cut off credit to those bigger countries altogether, administering a shock to the financial system as bad or even worse than the one we’d just been through.
“Is it just me,” I asked after Tim had finished laying out various hair-raising scenarios, “or are we having trouble catching a break?”
And so, out of nowhere, stabilizing Greece suddenly became one of our top economic and foreign policy priorities. In face-to-face meetings and over the phone that spring, Tim and I put on a full-court press to get the European Central Bank and the IMF to produce a rescue package robust enough to calm the markets and allow Greece to cover its debt payments, while helping the new government set up a realistic plan to reduce the country’s structural deficits and restore growth. To guard against possible contagion effects on the rest of Europe, we also recommended that the Europeans construct a credible “firewall”—basically, a joint loan fund with enough heft to give capital markets confidence that in an emergency the eurozone stood behind its members’ debts.
Once again, our European counterparts had other ideas. As far as the Germans, the Dutch, and many of the other eurozone members were concerned, the Greeks had brought their troubles on themselves with their shoddy governance and spendthrift ways. Although Merkel assured me that “we won’t do a Lehman” by letting Greece default, both she and her austerity-minded finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, appeared determined to condition any assistance on an adequate penance, despite our warnings that squeezing an already battered Greek economy too hard would be counterproductive. The desire to apply some of that Old Testament justice and discourage moral hazard was reflected in Europe’s initial offer: a loan of up to €25 billion, barely enough to cover a couple of months of Greek debt, contingent on the new government enacting deep cuts in worker pensions, steep tax increases, and freezes on public sector wages. Not wanting to commit political suicide, the Greek government said thanks but no thanks, especially after the country’s voters responded to news reports of the European proposal with widespread riots and strikes.
Europe’s early design for an emergency firewall wasn’t much better. The initial figure proposed by eurozone authorities to capitalize the loan fund—€50 billion—was woefully inadequate. On a call with his fellow finance ministers, Tim had to explain that to be effective, the fund would have to be at least ten times that size. Eurozone officials also insisted that to access the fund, a member country’s bondholders would have to undergo a mandatory “haircut”—in other words, accept a certain percentage of losses on what they were owed. This sentiment was perfectly understandable; after all, the interest lenders charged on a loan was supposed to factor in the risk that the borrower might default. But as a practical matter, any haircut requirement would make private capital far less willing to lend debt-ridden countries like Ireland and Italy any more money, thus defeating the firewall’s entire purpose.
For me, the whole thing felt like a dubbed TV rerun of the debates we’d had back home in the aftermath of the Wall Street crisis. And while I was crystal clear about what European leaders like Merkel and Sarkozy needed to do, I had sympathy for the political bind they were in. After all, I’d had a hell of a time trying to convince American voters that it made sense to spend billions of taxpayer dollars bailing out banks and helping strangers avoid foreclosure or job loss inside our own country. Merkel and Sarkozy, on the other hand, were being asked to persuade their voters that it made sense to bail out a bunch of foreigners.
I realized then that the Greek debt crisis was as much a geopolitical problem as it was a problem of global finance, one that exposed the unresolved contradictions at the heart of Europe’s decades-long march toward greater integration. In those heady days after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in the years of methodical restructuring that followed, that project’s grand architecture—the common market, the euro, the European Parliament, and a Brussels-based bureaucracy empowered to set policy on a wide range of regulatory issues—expressed an optimism in the possibilities of a truly unified continent, purged of the toxic nationalism that had spurred centuries of bloody conflict. To a remarkable degree, the experiment had worked: In exchange for giving up some elements of their sovereignty, the European Union’s member states had enjoyed a measure of peace and widespread prosperity perhaps unmatched by any collection of people in human history.
But national identities—the distinctions of language, culture, history, and levels of economic development—were stubborn things. And as the economic crisis worsened, all those differences the good times had papered over started coming to the fore. How prepared were citizens in Europe’s wealthier, more efficient nations to take on a neighboring country’s obligations or to see their tax dollars redistributed to those outside their borders? Would citizens of countries in economic distress accept sacrifices imposed on them by distant officials with whom they felt no affinity and over whom they had little or no power? As the debate about Greece heated up, public discussions inside some of the original E.U. countries, like Germany, France, and the Netherlands, would sometimes veer beyond disapproval of the Greek government’s policies and venture into a broader indictment of the Greek people—how they were more casual about work or how they tolerated corruption and considered basic responsibilities like paying one’s taxes to be merely optional. Or, as I’d overhear one E.U. official of undetermined origin tell another while I was washing my hands in a G8 summit lavatory: “They don’t think like us.”
Leaders like Merkel and Sarkozy were too invested in European unity to traffic in such stereotypes, but their politics dictated that they proceed cautiously in agreeing to any rescue plan. I noticed that they rarely mentioned that German and French banks were some of Greece’s biggest lenders, or that much of the Greeks’ accumulated debt had been racked up buying German and French exports—facts that might have made clear to voters why saving the Greeks from default amounted to saving their own banks and industries. Maybe they worried that such an admission would turn voter attention away from the failures of successive Greek governments and toward the failures of those German and French officials charged with supervising bank lending practices. Or maybe they feared that if their voters fully understood the underlying implications of European integration—the extent to which their economic fates, for good and for ill, had become bound up with those of people who were “not like us”—they might not find it entirely to their liking.
In any event, by early May, the financial markets got scary enough that European leaders faced reality. They agreed to a joint E.U.-IMF loan package that would allow Greece to make its payments for the next three years. The package still included austerity measures that everyone involved knew would be too onerous for the Greek government to implement, but at least it gave other E.U. governments the political cover they needed to approve the deal. Later in the year, the eurozone countries also tentatively agreed to a firewall on the scale that Tim had suggested, and without a mandatory “haircut” requirement. European financial markets would remain a roller-coaster ride throughout 2010, and the situation in not just Greece but also Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and Italy remained perilous. Without the leverage to force a permanent fix for Europe’s underlying problems, Tim and I had to content ourselves with having temporarily helped to defuse another bomb.
As for the crisis’s effect on the U.S. economy, whatever momentum the recovery had gathered at the beginning of the year came to a screeching halt. The news out of Greece sent the U.S. stock market sharply downward. Business confidence, as measured by monthly surveys, dropped as well, with the new uncertainties causing managers to put off planned investments. The jobs report for June returned to negative territory—and would stay that way into the fall.
“Recovery Summer” turned out to be a bust.
THE MOOD IN the White House changed that second year. It wasn’t that anyone started taking the place for granted; each day, after all, brought new reminders of how privileged we were to be playing a part in writing history. And there sure wasn’t any drop in effort. To an outsider, staff meetings might have looked more relaxed as people got to know one another and grew familiar with their roles and responsibilities. But beneath the easy banter, everyone understood the stakes involved, the need for us to execute even routine tasks to the most exacting of standards. I never had to tell anyone in the White House to work hard or go the extra mile. Their own fear of dropping the ball—of disappointing me, colleagues, constituencies that were counting on us—drove people far more than any exhortation I might deliver.
Everybody was sleep-deprived, perpetually. Rarely did senior staffers put in less than a twelve-hour day, and almost all of them came in for at least part of each weekend. They didn’t have a one-minute commute like I did or a bevy of chefs, valets, butlers, and assistants to shop, cook, pick up dry cleaning, or take the kids to school. Single staffers stayed single longer than they might have liked. Those staffers lucky enough to have partners often relied on an overburdened and lonely spouse, creating the kinds of chronic domestic tensions that Michelle and I were more than familiar with. People missed their children’s soccer games and dance recitals. People got home too late to tuck toddlers into bed. Those like Rahm, Axe, and others, who’d decided against putting their families through the disruption of moving to Washington, barely saw their spouses and kids at all.
If anyone complained about this, they did so privately. Folks knew what they signed up for when joining an administration. “Work-life balance” wasn’t part of the deal—and given the perilous state of the economy and the world, the volume of incoming work wouldn’t slow down anytime soon. Just as athletes in a locker room don’t talk about nagging injuries, the members of our White House team learned to suck it up.
Still, the cumulative effects of exhaustion—along with an increasingly angry public, an unsympathetic press, disenchanted allies, and an opposition party with both the means and the intent to turn everything we did into an interminable slog—had a way of fraying nerves and shortening tempers. I began hearing more consternation over Rahm’s occasional outbursts during early-morning staff meetings, accusations that Larry cut people out of certain economic policy discussions, whispers that people felt shortchanged when Valerie took advantage of her personal relationship with me and Michelle to do end runs around White House processes. Tensions flared between younger foreign policy staffers like Denis and Ben, who were accustomed to running ideas by me informally before putting them through a formal process, and my national security advisor, Jim Jones, who’d come out of a military culture in which chains of command were inviolate and subordinates were expected to stay in their lanes.
Members of my cabinet had their own frustrations. While Hillary, Tim, Robert Gates, and Eric Holder got most of my attention by virtue of their posts, other cabinet members were performing yeomen’s work without a lot of hand-holding. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, the hard-charging former governor of Iowa, would leverage Recovery Act dollars to spark a host of new economic development strategies for struggling rural communities. Labor secretary Hilda Solis and her team were working to make it easier for low-wage workers to get overtime pay. My old friend Arne Duncan, the former Chicago school superintendent, now secretary of education, was leading the effort to raise standards in low-performing schools across the country, even when it drew the wrath of the teachers’ unions (who were understandably wary of anything that might involve more standardized tests) and conservative activists (who thought that the effort to institute a common core curriculum was a plot by liberals to indoctrinate their children).
Despite such achievements, the daily grind of running a federal agency didn’t always match the more glamorous role (advisor and confidant to the president, frequent visitor to the White House) that some in the cabinet had imagined for themselves. There was a time when presidents like Lincoln relied almost exclusively on their cabinets to formulate policy; a bare-bones White House staff handled little more than the president’s personal needs and correspondence. But as the federal government had expanded in the modern era, successive presidents looked to centralize more and more decision-making under one roof, swelling the number and influence of White House personnel. Meanwhile, cabinet members became more specialized, consumed with the task of managing massive, far-flung principalities rather than bending the president’s ear.
The shift in power showed up in my calendar. Whereas folks like Rahm or Jim Jones saw me almost every day, only Hillary, Tim, and Gates had standing meetings in the Oval. Other secretaries had to fight to get on my schedule, unless an issue involving their agency became a top White House priority. Full cabinet meetings, which we tried to hold once a quarter, gave people a chance to share information, but they were too big and unwieldy to allow for much actual business; just getting everybody seated in the Cabinet Room was something of an ordeal, with folks having to take turns sidling awkwardly between the heavy leather chairs. In a town where proximity and access to the president were taken as a measure of clout (the reason why senior staffers coveted the West Wing’s cramped, ill-lit, and notoriously rodent-infested offices rather than the spacious suites in the EEOB across the street), it didn’t take long for some cabinet members to start feeling underutilized and underappreciated, relegated to the periphery of the action and subject to the whims of often younger, less experienced White House staffers.
None of these issues were unique to my presidency, and it’s a credit to both my cabinet and my staff that they maintained their focus even as the work environment got tougher. With few exceptions, we avoided the open hostilities and constant leaks that had characterized some previous administrations. Without exception, we avoided scandal. I’d made clear at the start of my administration that I’d have zero tolerance for ethical lapses, and people who had a problem with that didn’t join us in the first place. Even so, I appointed a former Harvard Law School classmate of mine, Norm Eisen, as special counsel to the president for ethics and government reform, just to help keep everybody—including me—on track. Cheerful and punctilious, with sharp features and the wide, unblinking eyes of a zealot, Norm was perfect for the job—the kind of guy who relished the well-earned nickname “Dr. No.” When asked once what sorts of out-of-town conferences were okay for administration officials to attend, his response was short and to the point: “If it sounds fun, you can’t go.”
Keeping up morale, on the other hand, wasn’t something I could delegate. I tried to be generous in my praise, measured in my criticism. In meetings, I made a point of eliciting everyone’s views, including those of more junior staffers. Small stuff mattered—making sure it was me who brought out the cake for somebody’s birthday, for example, or taking the time to call someone’s parents for an anniversary. Sometimes, when I had a few unscheduled minutes, I’d just wander through the West Wing’s narrow halls, poking my head into offices to ask people about their families, what they were working on, and whether there was anything they thought we could be doing better.
Ironically, one aspect of management that took me longer to learn than it should have was the need to pay closer attention to the experiences of women and people of color on the staff. I’d long believed that the more perspectives around a table, the better an organization performed, and I took pride in the fact that we’d recruited the most diverse cabinet in history. Our White House operation was similarly loaded with talented, experienced African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and women, a group that included domestic policy advisor Melody Barnes, deputy chief of staff Mona Sutphen, political director Patrick Gaspard, director of intergovernmental affairs Cecilia Muñoz, White House cabinet secretary Chris Lu, staff secretary Lisa Brown, and the head of the Council on Environmental Quality, Nancy Sutley. All of them were exemplary at their jobs and played key roles in shaping policy. Many became not just valued advisors but good friends.
My non-white and non-male cabinet members didn’t have to worry, though, about fitting into their workplace; within their buildings, they were at the top of the food chain and everyone else adjusted to them. Women and people of color in the White House, on the other hand, had to wrestle—at various times and to varying degrees—with the same nagging questions, frustrations, and doubts that faced their counterparts in other professional settings, from corporate suites to university departments. Did Larry dismiss my proposal in front of the president because he thought it wasn’t fully fleshed out, or was it because I wasn’t assertive enough? Or was it because he doesn’t take women as seriously as men? Did Rahm consult with Axe and not me on that issue because he happened to need a political perspective, or because the two of them have a long-standing relationship? Or is it that he’s not as comfortable with Black people?
Should I say something? Am I being overly sensitive?
As the first African American president, I felt a particular obligation to model an inclusive workplace. Still, I tended to discount the role that race and gender—as opposed to the friction that typically arises when you get a group of stressed-out, type A high achievers confined in close quarters—actually played in office dynamics. Maybe it was because everyone was on their best behavior in front of me; when I did hear about problems popping up among staffers, it was usually through Pete or Valerie, in whom, by virtue of age and temperament, others seemed most comfortable confiding. I knew that the brash styles of Rahm, Axe, Gibbs, and Larry—not to mention their politically conditioned nervousness about taking a strong stand on wedge issues like immigration, abortion, and relations between police and minority communities—were sometimes received differently by the women and people of color on the team. On the other hand, those guys were combative with everybody, including one another. Knowing them as well as I did, I felt that as much as any of us growing up in America can be free of bias, they passed the test. So long as I didn’t hear about anything egregious, I figured that it was enough for me to set a good example for the team by treating people with courtesy and respect. Day-to-day cases of bruised egos, turf battles, or perceived slights, they could handle among themselves.
But late in our first year, Valerie asked to see me and reported deepening dissatisfaction among the senior women in the White House—and it was only then that I started to examine some of my own blind spots. I learned that at least one woman on the team had been driven to tears after being upbraided in a meeting. Tired of having their views repeatedly dismissed, several other senior women had effectively stopped talking in meetings altogether. “I don’t think the men even realize how they’re coming across,” Valerie said, “and as far as the women are concerned, that’s part of the problem.” I was troubled enough that I suggested that a dozen women on the staff join me for dinner so that they’d have a chance to air things out. We held it in the Old Family Dining Room, on the first floor of the residence, and perhaps because of the fancy setting, with the high ceilings, black-tied butlers, and fine White House china, it took a little time before the women opened up. Feelings around the table weren’t uniform, and no one said they’d been on the receiving end of overtly sexist remarks. But as I listened to these accomplished women talk for well over two hours, it became clear the degree to which patterns of behavior that were second nature for many of the senior men on the team—shouting or cursing during a policy debate; dominating a conversation by constantly interrupting other people (especially women) in mid-sentence; restating a point that somebody else (often a female staffer) had made half an hour earlier as if it were your own—had left them feeling diminished, ignored, and increasingly reluctant to voice their opinions. And while many of the women expressed appreciation for the degree to which I actively solicited their views during meetings, and said they didn’t doubt my respect for their work, their stories forced me to look in the mirror and ask myself how much my own inclination toward machismo—my tolerance for a certain towel-snapping atmosphere in meetings, the enjoyment I took in a good verbal jousting—may have contributed to their discomfort.
I can’t say that we resolved all of the concerns raised that night (“It’s hard to unravel patriarchy in a single dinner,” I said to Valerie afterward), any more than I could guarantee that my periodic check-ins with the Black, Latino, Asian, and Native American members of the team ensured that they always felt included. I do know that when I spoke to Rahm and the other senior men about how their female colleagues were feeling, they were surprised and chastened and vowed to do better. The women, meanwhile, seemed to take to heart my suggestion that they assert themselves more in discussions (“If somebody tries to talk over you, tell them you’re not finished!”)—not only for their own mental health but because they were knowledgeable and insightful and I needed to hear what they had to say if I was going to do my job well. A few months later, as we walked together from the West Wing to the EEOB, Valerie told me that she’d noticed some improvement in how the staffers were interacting.
“And how are you holding up?” she asked me.
I stopped at the top of the EEOB’s stairs to search my jacket pockets for some notes I needed for the meeting we were about to attend. “I’m good,” I said.
“You sure?” Her eyes narrowed as she searched my face like a doctor examining a patient for symptoms. I found what I was looking for and started walking again.
“Yeah, I’m sure,” I said. “Why? Do I seem different to you?”
Valerie shook her head. “No,” she said. “You seem exactly the same. That’s what I don’t understand.”
IT WASN’T THE first time Valerie had commented on how little the presidency had changed me. I understood that she meant it as a compliment—her way of expressing relief that I hadn’t gotten too full of myself, lost my sense of humor, or turned into a bitter, angry jerk. But as war and the economic crisis dragged on and our political problems began to mount, she started worrying that maybe I was acting a little too calm, that I was just bottling up all the stress.
She wasn’t the only one. Friends started sending notes of encouragement, somber and heartfelt, as if they’d just learned that I had a serious illness. Marty Nesbitt and Eric Whitaker discussed flying in to hang out and watch a ball game—a “boys’ night,” they said, just to take my mind off things. Mama Kaye, arriving for a visit, expressed genuine surprise at how well I looked in person.
“What’d you expect?” I teased, reaching down to give her a big hug. “You thought I was going to have a rash on my face? That my hair’d be falling out?”
“Oh, stop it,” she said, playfully hitting me on the arm. She leaned back and looked at me the same way Valerie had, searching for signs. “I guess I just thought you’d look more tired. Are you getting enough to eat?”
Puzzled by all this solicitude, I happened to mention it to Gibbs one day. He chuckled. “Let me tell you, boss,” he said, “if you watched cable news, you’d be worried about you too.” I knew what Gibbs was driving at: Once you became president, people’s perceptions of you—even the perceptions of those who knew you best—were inevitably shaped by the media. What I hadn’t fully appreciated, though, at least not until I scanned a few news broadcasts, was how the images producers used in stories about my administration had shifted of late. Back when we were riding high, toward the end of the campaign and the start of my presidency, most news footage showed me active and smiling, shaking hands or speaking in front of dramatic backdrops, my gestures and facial expressions exuding energy and command. Now that most of the stories were negative, a different version of me appeared: older-looking, walking alone along the colonnade or across the South Lawn to Marine One, my shoulders slumped, my eyes downcast, my face weary and creased with the burdens of the office.
Being in the barrel put the sadder version of me on permanent display.
In fact, life as I was experiencing it didn’t feel nearly so dire. Like my staff, I could have used more sleep. Each day had its share of aggravations, worries, and disappointments. I’d stew over mistakes I’d made and question strategies that hadn’t panned out. There were meetings I dreaded, ceremonies I found foolish, conversations I would have rather avoided. While I continued to refrain from yelling at people, I cursed and complained plenty, and felt unfairly maligned at least once a day.
But as I’d discovered about myself during the campaign, obstacles and struggles rarely shook me to the core. Instead, depression was more likely to creep up on me when I felt useless, without purpose—when I was wasting my time or squandering opportunities. Even during my worst days as president, I never felt that way. The job didn’t allow for boredom or existential paralysis, and when I sat down with my team to figure out the answer to a knotty problem, I usually came away energized rather than drained. Every trip I took—touring a manufacturing plant to see how something got made or visiting a lab where scientists explained a recent breakthrough—fed my imagination. Comforting a rural family displaced by a storm or meeting with inner-city teachers who were striving to reach kids others had written off, and allowing myself to feel, if just for a moment, what they were going through, made my heart bigger.
The fuss of being president, the pomp, the press, the physical constraints—all that I could have done without. The actual work, though?
The work, I loved. Even when it didn’t love me back.
Outside of the job, I had tried to make peace with living in the bubble. I maintained my rituals: the morning workout, the dinner with my family, an evening walk on the South Lawn. In the early months of my presidency, that routine included reading a chapter from Life of Pi to Sasha each night before tucking her and Malia into bed. When it came time to choose our next book, though, Sasha decided that she, like her sister, had gotten too old to be read to. I hid my dismay and took to playing a nightly game of pool with Sam Kass instead.
We’d meet on the third floor of the residence after dinner, once Michelle and I had talked through our days and Sam had had a chance to clean up the kitchen. I’d put on some Marvin Gaye or OutKast or Nina Simone from my iPod, and the loser from the previous night’s game would rack, and for the next half hour or so we’d play eight-ball. Sam would dish up White House gossip or ask for advice about his love life. I’d relay something funny one of the girls had said or go off on a brief political rant. Mostly, though, we just trash-talked and tried improbable shots, the crack of the break or the soft click of a ball rolling into a corner pocket clearing my mind before I headed to the Treaty Room to do my evening work.
Initially, the pool game had also given me an excuse to duck out and have a cigarette on the third-floor landing. Those detours stopped when I quit smoking, right after I signed the Affordable Care Act into law. I’d chosen that day because I liked the symbolism, but I’d made the decision a few weeks earlier, when Malia, smelling a cigarette on my breath, frowned and asked if I’d been smoking. Faced with the prospect of lying to my daughter or setting a bad example, I called the White House doctor and asked him to send me a box of nicotine gum. It did the trick, for I haven’t had a cigarette since. But I did end up replacing one addiction with another: Through the remainder of my time in office, I would chomp on gum ceaselessly, the empty packets constantly spilling out of my pockets and leaving a trail of shiny square bread crumbs for others to find on the floor, under my desk, or wedged between sofa cushions.
Basketball offered another reliable refuge. When my schedule allowed, Reggie Love would organize a game on the weekend, rounding up some of his buddies and reserving time for us on an indoor court at the Fort McNair army base, the FBI headquarters, or the Department of the Interior. The runs were intense—with a couple of exceptions, most of the regular participants were former Division I college players in their late twenties or early thirties—and while I hated to admit it, I was usually one of the weaker players on the floor. Still, as long as I didn’t try to do too much, I found I could hold my own, setting picks, feeding whoever on our team was hot and hitting a jumper when I was open, running the break and losing myself in the flow and camaraderie of competition.
Those pickup games represented continuity for me, a tether to my old self, and when my team beat Reggie’s, I’d make sure he heard about it all week. But the enjoyment I got from playing basketball was nothing compared to the thrill—and stress—of rooting for Sasha’s fourth-grade rec league team.
They called themselves the Vipers (props to whoever thought of the name), and each Saturday morning during the season, Michelle and I would travel to a small public park field house in Maryland and sit in the bleachers with the other families, cheering wildly whenever one of the girls came remotely close to making a basket, shouting reminders to Sasha to box out or get back on defense, and doing our best not to be “those parents,” the kind who yell at the refs. Maisy Biden, Joe’s granddaughter and one of Sasha’s best friends, was the star of the team, but for most of the girls it was their first experience with organized basketball. Apparently the same was true for their coaches, a friendly young couple who taught at Sidwell and who, by their own admission, didn’t consider basketball their primary sport. After observing an adorable but chaotic first couple of games, Reggie and I took it upon ourselves to draw up some plays and volunteered to conduct a few informal Sunday afternoon practice sessions with the team. We worked on the basics (dribbling, passing, making sure your shoelaces were tied before you ran onto the court), and although Reggie could get a little too intense when we ran drills (“Paige, don’t let Isabel punk you like that!”), the girls seemed to have as much fun as we did. When the Vipers won the league championship in an 18–16 nail-biter, Reggie and I celebrated like it was the NCAA finals.
Every parent savors such moments, I suppose, when the world slows down, your strivings get pushed to the back of your mind, and all that matters is that you are present, fully, to witness the miracle of your child growing up. Given all the time I’d missed with the girls over years of campaigning and legislative sessions, I cherished the normal “dad stuff” that much more. But, of course, nothing about our lives was completely normal any longer, as I was reminded the following year when, in true Washington fashion, a few of the parents from a rival Sidwell team started complaining to the Vipers coaches, and presumably the school, that Reggie and I weren’t offering training sessions to their kids too. We explained that there was nothing special about our practices—that it was just an excuse for me to spend extra time with Sasha—and offered to help other parents organize practices of their own. But when it became clear that the complaints had nothing to do with basketball (“They must think being coached by you is something they can put on a Harvard application,” Reggie scoffed) and that the Vipers coaches were feeling squeezed, I decided it would be simpler for all concerned if I went back to just being a fan.
Despite a few exasperating incidents like that, there was no denying that our status as the First Family conferred plenty of benefits. Museums around town let us visit after hours, allowing us to avoid the crowds (Marvin and I still laugh over the time he decided to strategically plant himself in front of a large and very detailed portrait of a naked man at the Corcoran Gallery for fear that the girls might see it). Because the Motion Picture Association of America sent us DVDs of new releases, the White House movie theater got plenty of use, although Michelle’s tastes and mine often diverged: She preferred rom-coms, while according to her, my favorite movies usually involved “terrible things happening to people, and then they die.” The incredible White House staff also made it easy for us to entertain guests. No longer did we have to worry, as most working parents with young kids do, about mustering the energy after a long week at the office to shop, cook, or straighten up a house that looks like it’s been hit by a tornado. Along with weekend get-togethers with our regular circle of friends, we began hosting small dinner parties in the residence every few months, inviting artists, writers, scholars, business leaders, and others whose paths we’d crossed and wanted to know better. Usually the dinners would last until well past midnight, full of wine-fueled conversations that inspired us (Toni Morrison, at once regal and mischievous, describing her friendship with James Baldwin); instructed us (the co-chair of my Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, Dr. Eric Lander, describing the latest breakthroughs in genetic medicine); enchanted us (Meryl Streep leaning over to softly recite in Mandarin the lyrics to a song about clouds that she’d learned for a part years ago); and generally made me feel better about humanity’s prospects.
But maybe the best White House perk involved music. One of Michelle’s goals as First Lady was to make the White House more welcoming—a “People’s House” in which all visitors would feel represented, rather than a remote, exclusive fortress of power. Working with the White House Social Office, she organized more tours for local school groups and started a mentorship program that paired disadvantaged kids with White House staffers. She opened up the South Lawn for trick-or-treating on Halloween, and held movie nights for military families.
As part of that effort, her office arranged for us to host a regular American music series in tandem with public television, in which some of the country’s leading artists—household names like Stevie Wonder, Jennifer Lopez, and Justin Timberlake but also up-and-comers like Leon Bridges and living legends like B. B. King—spent part of a day conducting music workshops with area youths before performing in front of a couple hundred guests on an East Room stage, or sometimes on the South Lawn. Along with the Gershwin Prize concert, which the White House traditionally put on each year to honor a leading composer or performer, the series gave my family front-row seats three or four times a year at a live, star-studded musical extravaganza.
Every genre was represented: Motown and Broadway show tunes; classic blues and a Fiesta Latina; gospel and hip-hop; country, jazz, and classical. The musicians typically rehearsed the day before they were scheduled to appear, and if I happened to be upstairs in the residence as they were running through their set, I could hear the sounds of drums and bass and electric guitar reverberating through the Treaty Room floor. Sometimes I’d sneak down the back stairs of the residence and slip into the East Room, standing in the rear so as not to attract attention, and just watch the artists at work: a duet figuring out their harmonies, a headliner tweaking an arrangement with the house band. I’d marvel at everyone’s mastery of their instruments, the generosity they showed toward one another as they blended mind, body, and spirit, and I’d feel a pang of envy at the pure, unambiguous joy of their endeavors, such a contrast to the political path I had chosen.
As for the actual concerts, they were absolutely electric. I can still picture Bob Dylan, with just a bassist, a piano player, and his guitar, tenderly reworking “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” When finished, he stepped off the stage, shook my hand, gave a little grin and bow in front of me and Michelle, and vanished without a word. I remember a young playwright of Puerto Rican descent named Lin-Manuel Miranda, who told us in the photo line before an evening of poetry, music, and the spoken word that he planned to debut the first song of what he hoped would be a hip-hop musical on the life of America’s first Treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton. We were politely encouraging but secretly skeptical, until he got up onstage and started dropping beats and the audience went absolutely nuts.
And there was the time Paul McCartney serenaded my wife with “Michelle.” She laughed, a little embarrassed, as the rest of the audience applauded, and I wondered what Michelle’s parents would have said back in 1965, the year the song came out, if someone had knocked on the door of their South Side home and told them that someday the Beatle who wrote it would be singing it to their daughter from a White House stage.
Michelle loved those concerts as much as I did. But I suspect she would have preferred to have attended them as a guest rather than a host. On the surface, she had every reason to feel good about her own adjustment to our new life: Our daughters seemed happy; she’d quickly made a new circle of friends, many of them the mothers of Malia’s and Sasha’s classmates; and she had a little more flexibility than I did to leave the White House complex unnoticed. Her initiative to reduce childhood obesity—called Let’s Move!—had been well received and was already showing meaningful results, and in collaboration with Jill Biden she would soon launch a new initiative, called Joining Forces, that would provide support to military families. Whenever she appeared in public, whether it was visiting a public school classroom or trading good-natured barbs with late-night television hosts, people seemed irresistibly drawn to her genuineness and warmth, her smile and quick wit. In fact, it was fair to say that, unlike me, she had not missed a step or hit a false note from the moment we’d arrived in Washington.
And yet, despite Michelle’s success and popularity, I continued to sense an undercurrent of tension in her, subtle but constant, like the faint thrum of a hidden machine. It was as if, confined as we were within the walls of the White House, all of her previous sources of frustration became more concentrated, more vivid, whether it was my round-the-clock absorption with work, or the way politics exposed our family to constant scrutiny and attacks, or the tendency of even friends and family members to treat her role as secondary in importance.
More than anything, the White House reminded her daily that fundamental aspects of her life were no longer entirely within her control. Who we spent time with, where we went on vacation, where we’d be living after the 2012 election, even the safety of her family—all of it was at some level subject to how well I performed at my job, or what the West Wing staff did or didn’t do, or the whims of voters, or the press corps, or Mitch McConnell, or the jobs numbers, or some completely unanticipated event occurring on the other side of the planet. Nothing was fixed anymore. Not even close. And so, consciously or not, a part of her stayed on alert, no matter what small triumphs and joys a day or week or month might bring, waiting and watching for the next turn of the wheel, bracing herself for calamity.
Michelle rarely shared such feelings directly with me. She knew the load I was carrying and saw no point in adding to it; for the foreseeable future, at least, there wasn’t much I could do to change our circumstances. And maybe she stopped talking because she knew I’d try to reason away her fears, or try to placate her in some inconsequential way, or imply that all she needed was a change in attitude.
If I was fine, she should be too.
There remained stretches when it really did feel fine, evenings when the two of us snuggled under a blanket to watch a show on TV, Sunday afternoons when we got down on the carpet with the girls and Bo and the entire second floor of the residence filled up with laughter. More often, though, Michelle retired to her study once dinner was done, while I headed down the long hall to the Treaty Room. By the time I was finished with work, she’d already be asleep. I’d undress, brush my teeth, and slip under the covers, careful not to wake her. And although I rarely had trouble falling asleep during my time in the White House—I’d be so tired that within five minutes of my head hitting the pillow I’d usually be out cold—there were nights when, lying next to Michelle in the dark, I’d think about those days when everything between us felt lighter, when her smile was more constant and our love less encumbered, and my heart would suddenly tighten at the thought that those days might not return.
It makes me wonder now, with the benefit of hindsight, whether Michelle’s was the more honest response to all the changes we were going through; whether in my seeming calm as crises piled up, my insistence that everything would work out in the end, I was really just protecting myself—and contributing to her loneliness.
I know that it was around this time that I started having a recurring dream. In it, I find myself on the streets of some unnamed city, a neighborhood with trees, storefronts, light traffic. The day is pleasant and warm, with a soft breeze, and people are out shopping or walking their dogs or coming home from work. In one version I’m riding a bike, but most often I’m on foot, and I’m strolling along, without any thoughts in particular, when suddenly I realize that no one recognizes me. My security detail is gone. There’s nowhere I have to be. My choices have no consequence. I wander into a corner store and buy a bottle of water or iced tea, making small talk with the person behind the counter. I settle down on a nearby bench, pop open the cap on my drink, take a sip, and just watch the world passing by.
I feel like I’ve won the lottery.
RAHM THOUGHT HE had the answer for regaining political momentum. The Wall Street crisis had exposed a breakdown in the system for regulating financial markets, and during the transition, I’d asked our economic team to develop legislative reforms that would make a future crisis less likely. As far as Rahm was concerned, the sooner we got such a “Wall Street reform” bill drafted and up for a vote, the better.
“It puts us back on the side of the angels,” he said. “And if the Republicans try to block it, we’ll shove it up their ass.”
There was every reason to expect that Mitch McConnell would fight us on new financial regulations. After all, he’d made a career of opposing any and all forms of government regulation (environmental laws, labor laws, workplace safety laws, campaign finance laws, consumer protection laws) that might constrain corporate America’s ability to do whatever it damn well pleased. But McConnell also understood the political hazards of the moment—voters still associated the Republican Party with big business and yacht-owning billionaires—and he didn’t plan on letting his party’s standard anti-regulation position get in the way of his quest for the Senate majority. And so, while he made no secret of his intention to filibuster my agenda at every turn, a task made easier after Scott Brown’s victory in the Massachusetts Senate race deprived Democrats of their sixtieth vote, he let Tim know in a meeting in his office on Capitol Hill that he’d make an exception for Wall Street reform. “He’s going to vote against whatever we propose,” Tim told us after returning from the meeting, “and so will most of his caucus. But he said we should be able to find five or so Republicans who’ll work with us and he won’t do anything to stop them.” “Anything else?” I asked.
“Only that obstruction is working for them,” Tim said. “He seemed pretty pleased with himself.”
McConnell’s concession to the public mood was significant, but it didn’t mean we’d have an easy time getting Wall Street reform through Congress. Banking industry executives continued to show no remorse for the economic havoc they’d caused. Nor did bankers show gratitude for all we’d done to yank them out of the fire (accusations that I was “anti-business” had become a regular feature in the financial press). On the contrary, they viewed our efforts to tighten regulations on their operations as unacceptably burdensome, if not downright offensive. They also retained one of the most powerful lobbying operations in Washington, with influential constituencies in every state and the deep pockets to spread campaign donations across both parties.
Beyond all-out opposition from the banks, we had to confront the sheer complexity of trying to regulate the modern financial system. Gone were the days when most of America’s money ran in a simple, circular loop, with banks taking in customers’ deposits and using that money to make plain vanilla loans to families and businesses. Trillions of dollars now moved across multiple borders in the blink of an eye. The holdings of nontraditional financial operations like hedge funds and private equity firms rivaled those of many banks, while computer-driven trading and exotic products like derivatives had the power to make or break markets. Within the United States, oversight of this diffuse system was split among an assortment of federal agencies (the Fed, Treasury, FDIC, SEC, CFTC, OCC), most of which operated independently and fiercely protected their turf. Effective reform meant corralling these different players under a common regulatory framework; it also meant syncing up U.S. efforts with those made by regulators in other countries so that firms couldn’t simply run their transactions through overseas accounts to avoid more stringent rules.
Finally we had to contend with sharp differences within the Democratic Party about both the shape and scope of reform. For those who leaned closer to the political center (and that included Tim and Larry as well as the majority of Democrats in Congress), the recent crisis had revealed serious but fixable flaws in an otherwise solid financial system. Wall Street’s status as the world’s preeminent financial center depended on growth and innovation, the argument went, and cycles of boom and bust—with corresponding swings between irrational exuberance and irrational panic—were built-in features not only of modern capitalism but of the human psyche. Since it was neither possible nor even desirable to eliminate all risk to investors and firms, the goals of reform were defined narrowly: Put guardrails around the system to reduce the most excessive forms of risk-taking, ensure transparency in the operations of major institutions, and “make the system safe for failure,” as Larry put it, so that those individuals or financial institutions that made bad bets didn’t drag everyone else down with them.
To many on the left, this sort of targeted approach to reform fell woefully short of what was needed and would merely put off a long-overdue reckoning with a system that failed to serve the interests of ordinary Americans. They blamed some of the economy’s most troubling trends on a bloated, morally suspect financial sector—whether it was the corporate world’s preference for cost cutting and layoffs over long-term investments as a way of boosting short-term earnings, or the use of debt-financed acquisitions by certain private equity firms to strip down existing businesses and resell their spare parts for undeserved profit, or the steady rise in income inequality and the shrinking share of taxes paid by the über-rich. To reduce these distorting effects and stop the speculative frenzies that so often triggered financial crises, they urged, we should consider a more radical overhaul of Wall Street. The reforms they favored included capping the size of U.S. banks and reinstating Glass-Steagall, a Depression-era law that had prohibited FDIC-insured banks from engaging in investment banking, which had been mostly repealed during the Clinton administration.
In a lot of ways, these intraparty divisions on financial regulation reminded me of the healthcare debate, when advocates of a single-payer system had dismissed any accommodations to the existing private insurance system as selling out. And just as had been true in the healthcare debate, I had some sympathy for the Left’s indictment of the status quo. Rather than efficiently allocate capital to productive uses, Wall Street really did increasingly function like a trillion-dollar casino, its outsized profits and compensation packages overly dependent on ever-greater leverage and speculation. Its obsession with quarterly earnings had warped corporate decision-making and encouraged short-term thinking. Untethered to place, indifferent to the impact of globalization on particular workers and communities, the financial markets had helped accelerate the offshoring of jobs and the concentration of wealth in a handful of cities and economic sectors, leaving huge swaths of the country drained of money, talent, and hope.
Big, bold policies could make a dent in these problems, most of which had to do with rewriting the tax code, strengthening labor laws, and changing the rules of corporate governance. All three items were high on my to-do list.
But when it came to regulating the nation’s financial markets to make the system more stable, the Left’s prescription missed its mark. The evidence didn’t show that limiting the size of U.S. banks would have prevented the recent crisis or the need for federal intervention once the system began to unravel. JPMorgan’s assets dwarfed those of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, but it was those smaller firms’ highly leveraged bets on securitized subprime mortgages that had set off a panic. The last major U.S. financial crisis, back in the 1980s, hadn’t involved big banks at all; instead, the system had been rocked by a deluge of high-risk loans by thousands of small, poorly capitalized regional savings and loan associations (S&Ls) in cities and small towns across the country. Given the scope of their operations, we thought it made sense for regulators to give mega-banks like Citi or Bank of America extra scrutiny—but cutting their assets in half wouldn’t change that. And since the banking sectors of most European and Asian countries were actually more concentrated than they were here, limiting the size of U.S. banks would put them at a big disadvantage in the international marketplace, all without eliminating the overall risk to the system.
For similar reasons, the growth of the non-bank financial sector made Glass-Steagall’s distinction between investment banks and FDIC-insured commercial banks largely obsolete. The largest bettors on subprime mortgage securities—AIG, Lehman, Bear, Merrill, as well as Fannie and Freddie—weren’t commercial banks backed by federal guarantees. Investors hadn’t cared about the absence of guarantees and poured so much money into them anyway that the entire financial system was threatened when they started to fail. Conversely, traditional FDIC-insured banks like Washington Mutual and IndyMac got into trouble not by behaving like investment banks and underwriting high-flying securities but by making tons of subprime loans to unqualified buyers in order to drive up their earnings. Given how easily capital now flowed between various financial entities in search of higher returns, stabilizing the system required that we focus on the risky practices we were trying to curb rather than the type of institution involved.
And then there were the politics. We didn’t have anything close to the votes in the Senate for either reviving Glass-Steagall or passing legislation to shrink U.S. banks, any more than we’d had the votes for a single-payer healthcare system. Even in the House, Dems were anxious about any perception of overreaching, especially if it caused the financial markets to pull in their horns again and made the economy worse. “My constituents hate Wall Street right now, Mr. President,” one suburban Democrat told me, “but they didn’t sign up for a complete teardown.” FDR may have once had a mandate from voters to try anything, including a restructuring of American capitalism, after three wrenching years of the Depression, but partly because we’d stopped the situation from ever getting that bad, our mandate for change was a whole lot narrower. Our best chance for broadening that mandate, I figured, was to notch a few wins while we could.
IN JUNE 2009, after months of fine-tuning, our draft legislation for financial reform was ready to take to Congress. And while it didn’t contain all the provisions the Left had been looking for, it remained a massively ambitious effort to revamp twentieth-century regulations for the twenty-first-century economy.
At the core of the package was a proposal to increase the percentage of capital that all financial institutions of “systemic” importance—whether banks or non-banks—were required to hold. More capital meant less borrowing to finance risky bets. Greater liquidity meant these institutions could better weather sudden runs during a market downturn. Forcing Wall Street’s main players to maintain a bigger capital cushion against losses would fortify the system as a whole; and to make sure these institutions hit their marks, they’d have to regularly undergo the same kind of stress test we’d applied at the height of the crisis.
Next we needed a formal mechanism to allow any single firm, no matter how big, to fail in an orderly way, so that it wouldn’t contaminate the entire system. The FDIC already had the power to put any federally insured bank through what amounted to a structured bankruptcy proceeding, with rules governing how assets were liquidated and how claimants divvied up whatever remained. Our draft legislation gave the Fed a comparable “resolution authority” over all systemically important institutions, whether they were banks or not.
To improve consistency of enforcement, we proposed streamlining the functions and responsibilities of various federal agencies. To facilitate quicker responses in the event of a major market disruption, we formalized authority for many of the emergency actions—“foam on the runway,” our economic team called it—that the Fed and Treasury had deployed during the recent crisis. And to catch potential problems before they got out of hand, our draft legislation tightened up rules governing the specialized markets that constituted much of the financial system’s plumbing. We paid particular attention to the buying and selling of derivatives, those often impenetrable forms of securities that had helped intensify losses across the system once the subprime mortgage market collapsed. Derivatives had legitimate uses—all sorts of companies used them to hedge their risk against big swings in currency or commodity prices. But they also offered irresponsible traders some of the biggest opportunities for the kinds of high-stakes gambling that put the entire system at risk. Our reforms would push most of these transactions into a public exchange, allowing for clearer rules and greater supervision.
The bulk of these proposals were highly technical, involving aspects of the financial system that were hidden from public view. But there was a final element of our draft legislation that had less to do with high finance and more to do with people’s everyday lives. The crisis on Wall Street couldn’t have happened without the explosion of subprime mortgage lending. And although plenty of those loans went to sophisticated borrowers—those who understood the risks involved with adjustable rate mortgages and balloon payments as they flipped Florida condos or purchased Arizona vacation homes—a larger percentage had been marketed and sold to working-class families, many of them Black and Hispanic, people who believed they were finally gaining access to the American Dream only to see their homes and their savings snatched away in foreclosure proceedings.
The failure to protect consumers from unfair or misleading lending practices wasn’t restricted to mortgages. Perpetually short on cash no matter how hard they worked, millions of Americans regularly found themselves subject to exorbitant interest rates, hidden fees, and just plain bad deals at the hands of credit card issuers, payday lenders (many of them quietly owned or financed by blue-chip banks), used-car dealers, cut-rate insurers, retailers selling furniture on installment plans, and purveyors of reverse mortgages. Often they found themselves in a downward spiral of compounding debt, missed payments, shot credit, and repossessions that left them in a deeper hole than where they’d started. Across the country, sketchy financial-industry practices contributed to rising inequality, reduced upward mobility, and the kinds of hidden debt bubbles that made the economy more vulnerable to major disruptions.
Having already signed legislation reforming the credit card industry, I agreed with my team that the aftermath of the crisis offered us a unique chance to make more progress on the consumer protection front. As it happened, Harvard law professor and bankruptcy expert Elizabeth Warren had come up with an idea that might deliver the kind of impact we were looking for: a new consumer finance protection agency meant to bolster the patchwork of spottily enforced state and federal regulations already in place and to shield consumers from questionable financial products the same way the Consumer Product Safety Commission kept shoddy or dangerous consumer goods off the shelves.
I was a longtime admirer of Warren’s work, dating back to the 2003 publication of her book The Two-Income Trap, in which Warren and her coauthor, Amelia Tyagi, provided an incisive and passionate description of the growing pressures facing working families with children. Unlike most academics, Warren showed a gift for translating financial analysis into stories that ordinary folks could understand. In the intervening years, she had emerged as one of the financial industry’s most effective critics, prompting Harry Reid to appoint her as chair of the congressional panel overseeing TARP.
Tim and Larry were apparently less enamored with Warren than I was, each of them having been called to make repeated appearances before her committee. Although they appreciated her intelligence and embraced her idea of a consumer finance protection agency, they saw her as something of a grandstander.
“She’s really good at taking potshots at us,” Tim said in one of our meetings, “even when she knows there aren’t any serious alternatives to what we’re already doing.”
I looked up in mock surprise. “Well, that’s shocking,” I said. “A member of an oversight committee playing to the crowd? Rahm, you ever heard of such a thing?”
“No, Mr. President,” Rahm said. “It’s an outrage.”
Even Tim had to crack a smile.
THE PROCESS OF getting Wall Street reform through Congress was no less laborious than our adventures with the Affordable Care Act, but it didn’t receive nearly as much attention. Partly this had to do with the subject matter. Even members and lobbyists intent on killing the legislation kept a relatively low profile, not wanting to be seen as defenders of Wall Street so soon after the crisis, and many of the bill’s finer points were too arcane to generate interest in the popular press.
One issue that did capture headlines involved a proposal by former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker to prohibit FDIC-insured banks from trading on their own accounts or operating their own hedge funds and private equity shops. According to Volcker, this sort of provision offered a simple way to restore some of the prudential boundaries that Glass-Steagall had placed around commercial banks. Before we knew it, our willingness to include the “Volcker Rule” in our legislation became a litmus test among many on the left for how serious we were about Wall Street reform. Volcker, a gruff, cigar-smoking, six-foot-seven economist by training, was an unlikely hero for progressives. In 1980, as Fed chairman, he’d hiked U.S. interest rates to an unprecedented 20 percent in order to break the back of America’s then-raging inflation, resulting in a brutal recession and 10 percent unemployment. The Fed’s painful medicine had angered unions and many Democrats at the time; on the other hand, it had not only tamed inflation but helped lay the groundwork for stable economic growth in the 1980s and ’90s, making Volcker a revered figure in both New York and Washington.
In recent years, Volcker had grown bluntly critical of Wall Street’s worst excesses, gaining some liberal admirers. He’d endorsed my campaign early, and I’d come to value his counsel enough that I appointed him to chair an advisory group on the economic crisis. With his no-nonsense demeanor, and his belief in free-market efficiency as well as in public institutions and the common good, he was something of a throwback (my grandmother would have liked him), and after hearing him out in a private meeting in the Oval, I was persuaded that his proposal to curb proprietary trading made sense. When I discussed the idea with Tim and Larry, though, they were skeptical, arguing that it would be difficult to administer and might impinge on legitimate services that banks provided their customers. To me, their position sounded flimsy—one of the few times during our work together when I felt they harbored more sympathy for the financial industry’s perspective than the facts warranted—and for weeks I continued to press them on the matter. At the start of 2010, as Tim grew concerned that momentum for Wall Street reform was beginning to lag, he finally recommended we make a version of the Volcker Rule part of our legislative package.
“If it helps us get the bill passed,” Tim said, “we can find a way to make it work.”
For Tim, it was a rare concession to political optics. Axe and Gibbs, who’d been filling my in-box with polls showing that 60 percent of voters thought my administration was too friendly toward the banks, were thrilled with the news; they suggested that we announce the proposal at the White House with Volcker on hand. I asked if the general public would understand such an obscure rule change.
“They don’t need to understand it,” Gibbs said. “If the banks hate it, they’ll figure it must be a good thing.”
With the basic parameters of our legislation set, it fell to House Financial Services Committee chairman Barney Frank and Senate Banking Committee chairman Chris Dodd, both twenty-nine-year veterans of Congress, to help get it passed. They were an unlikely pair. Barney had made his name as a liberal firebrand and the first member of Congress to come out as gay. His thick glasses, disheveled suits, and strong Jersey accent lent him a workingman’s vibe, and he was as tough, smart, and knowledgeable as anyone in Congress, with a withering, rapid-fire wit that made him a favorite of reporters and a headache for political opponents. (Barney once spoke to one of my classes while I was a student at Harvard Law, during which he dressed me down for asking what he apparently considered a dumb question. I didn’t think it was that dumb. Thankfully, he didn’t remember our first encounter.) Chris Dodd, on the other hand, came off as the consummate Washington insider. Immaculately dressed, his silver hair as shiny and crisp as a TV news anchor’s, always ready to roll out a bit of Capitol Hill gossip or an Irish tall tale, he’d grown up in politics—the son of a former U.S. senator, one of Ted Kennedy’s best friends, pals with any number of industry lobbyists despite his liberal voting record. We’d developed a warm relationship while I was in the Senate, based in part on Chris’s good-natured acknowledgment of the absurdity of the place (“You didn’t think this was actually on the level, did you?” he’d say with a wink after some colleague made an impassioned plea on behalf of a bill while actively trying to undermine said bill behind the scenes). But he took pride in his effectiveness as a legislator, and had been one of the driving forces behind such impactful laws as the Family and Medical Leave Act.
Together, they made a formidable team, each perfectly suited for the politics of their chamber. In the House, a dominant Democratic majority meant that passing a financial-reform bill was never in question. Instead, our main task was keeping our own members on track. Not only did Barney have a firm command of the legislative details; he had the credibility inside the Democratic caucus to temper impractical demands from fellow progressives, as well as the clout to ward off efforts by more transactional Democrats to water down the legislation on behalf of special interests. In the Senate, where we needed every vote we could find, Chris’s patient bedside manner and willingness to reach out to even the most recalcitrant Republicans helped soothe the nerves of conservative Democrats; he also gave us a useful conduit to industry lobbyists who opposed the bill but didn’t find Chris scary.
Despite these advantages, moving what came to be known as “Dodd-Frank” involved the same kind of sausage-making that had been required to pass the healthcare bill, with a flurry of compromises that often left me privately steaming. Over our strong objections, the car dealers won an exemption from our new consumer protection agency’s oversight: With prominent dealerships in every congressional district, many of them considered pillars of the community for their sponsorship of Little League teams or donations to the local hospital, even the most regulation-happy Democrat ran scared of potential blowback. Our effort to streamline the number of regulatory agencies overseeing the financial system died an inglorious death; with each agency subject to the jurisdiction of a different congressional committee (the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, for example, reported to the House and Senate Agriculture Committees), Democratic committee chairs fiercely resisted the idea of giving up their leverage over some part of the financial industry. As Barney explained to Tim, we could conceivably consolidate the SEC and the CFTC: “Just not in the United States.” In the Senate, where the need to get to the sixty-vote threshold in order to overcome a filibuster gave every senator leverage, we were left to contend with all sorts of individual requests. Republican Scott Brown, fresh off a victorious campaign in which he’d railed against Harry Reid’s various “backroom deals” to get the healthcare bill passed, indicated a willingness to vote for Wall Street reform—but not without a deal of his own, asking if we could exempt a pair of favored Massachusetts banks from the new regulations. He saw no irony in this. A group of left-leaning Democrats introduced with much fanfare an amendment that they claimed would make the Volcker Rule’s restrictions on proprietary trading even tougher. Except that when you read the fine print, their amendment carved out loopholes for a smorgasbord of interests—the insurance industry, real estate investments, trusts, and on and on—that did big business in these senators’ individual states.
“Another day in the world’s greatest deliberative body,” Chris said.
At times, I felt like the fisherman in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, sharks gnawing at my catch as I tried to tow it to shore. But as the weeks passed, the core of our reforms survived the amendment process remarkably intact. A number of provisions introduced by congressional members—including improved disclosure of executive compensation in public companies, increased transparency in credit-rating agencies, and new claw-back mechanisms to prevent Wall Street executives from walking away with millions in bonuses as a result of questionable practices—actually made the bill better. Thanks to strong cooperation between our two lead sponsors, the conference to reconcile differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill saw none of the intraparty squabbling that had played out during the negotiations over healthcare. And in mid-July 2010, after a vote of 237–192 in the House and 60–39 in the Senate (with three Republicans voting “aye” in each chamber), we held a White House ceremony where I signed into law the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.
It was a significant triumph: the most sweeping change to the rules governing America’s financial sector since the New Deal. The law had its warts and unwanted compromises, and it certainly wouldn’t put an end to every instance of foolishness, greed, shortsightedness, or dishonesty on Wall Street. But by establishing the equivalent of “better building codes, smoke detectors, and sprinkler systems,” as Tim liked to describe it, Dodd-Frank would check a number of reckless practices, give regulators the tools to put out financial fires before they got out of hand, and make crises on the scale we’d just seen far less likely. And in the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), American families now had a powerful advocate in their corner. Through its work, they could expect a fairer, more transparent credit market, and real savings as they tried to buy a house, finance a car, deal with a family emergency, send their kids to college, or plan for retirement.
But if my team and I could take pride in the substance of what we’d achieved, we also had to acknowledge what had become obvious even before the bill was signed: Dodd-Frank’s historic reforms weren’t going to give us much of a political lift. Despite valiant efforts by Favs and the rest of my speechwriters, it was hard to make “derivative clearinghouses” and “proprietary trading bans” sound transformational. Most of the law’s improvements to the system would remain invisible to the public—more a matter of bad outcomes prevented than tangible benefits gained. The idea of a consumer agency for financial products was popular with voters, but the CFPB would take time to set up, and people were looking for help right away. With conservatives denouncing the legislation as a guarantee of future bailouts and another step toward socialism, and with progressives unhappy that we hadn’t done more to remake the banks, it was easy for voters to conclude that the sound and fury around Dodd-Frank signified nothing more than the usual Washington scrum—especially since, by the time it passed, all anybody wanted to talk about was a gaping, gushing hole at the bottom of the ocean.
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