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Presidency on the Line

Last week was the worst of his time in office, Obama’s aides admit. Richard Wolffe on the last-minute White House cramming for the State of the Union—and why the Senate upset was overrated.

01.26.10 10:52 PM ET

Last week was the worst of Obama's time in office, his aides admit. Richard Wolffe on the last-minute cramming for the State of the Union—and why the Senate upset was overrated.

His presidency may be on the line. But Barack Obama—law professor, student extraordinaire—is taking a last-minute cramming approach to writing his State of the Union address.

Previous presidents have entered the rehearsal phase of their State of the Union preparation several days before traveling to Capitol Hill. But with less than 48 hours to go, Obama’s speechwriting and message teams were still rewriting and cutting the text of the speech heavily, according to White House officials.

“The budget went to print two weeks ago,” said another senior aide. “This idea that the spending freeze has something to do with Massachusetts is totally crazy.”

Such delays and compressed timetables are uncomfortably familiar to Obama’s aides, who have faced intense last-minute pressure to complete other landmark addresses, including his acceptance speech at the Democrats’ 2008 convention.

The method may be familiar, but the terrain is new—and rather unsettling. This White House has not seen this kind of crisis atmosphere before. As it seeks to pivot from the shocking upset loss of the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat to the GOP last week and regain momentum with yet another most-important-speech-of-his-career moment, Team Obama is in uncharted territory.

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Inside the West Wing, Obama’s aides concede that last week was the worst of their term. But they dispute the notion that the State of the Union represents a moment of reinvention for the presidency.

“Last week was really bad,” said one senior White House official, who requested anonymity discussing sensitive matters. “I mean, we lost Massachusetts. It was a big deal.

“But you’ll find no one to say this speech is a reset opportunity. It does offer a pivot point for Democrats to see what our priorities are and the values that are behind them. It also gives Republicans a chance to see where they can work with us and where they want to oppose us. It is by definition a place where the conversation pivots to a new place.”

Obama’s aides reject the conventional wisdom that the White House is scaling back its ambitions in this State of the Union, in line with President Clinton’s 1996 message that the era of big government was over. “The discretionary spending freeze isn’t a small measure,” said the senior official. “If it was, the liberals wouldn’t be freaking out.”

Obama’s aides also dismiss the notion that the spending freeze is a response to the loss of the Massachusetts seat and the president’s declining polls. “The budget went to print two weeks ago,” said another senior aide. “This idea that the spending freeze has something to do with Massachusetts is totally crazy.”

Coverage of the address, which is being prepared by speechwriters Jon Favreau and Ben Rhodes, top political aide David Axelrod, with input from senior staff, has focused on new elements in the big speech, such as the spending freeze and additional help for the middle class. But White House officials say much of the State of the Union address will detail Obama’s current agenda. At the top of that list is the economy, and the new jobs assistance package the president outlined in December.

“These new initiatives are not our entire agenda for 2010,” said the senior aide. “Our agenda from last year’s address is our agenda for the first term. Energy, regulatory reform, health care: Everything is continuing. The idea that we’re going to scrap our entire agenda and announce different priorities for the year is patently absurd.”

Richard Wolffe is Daily Beast columnist and an award-winning journalist. He covered the entire length of Barack Obama's presidential campaign for Newsweek magazine. His book, Renegade: The Making of a President, was published by Crown in June.