Obama’s (Fake) Temper Tantrum
Apparently Obama can fake emotion, and to great effect. He admits to Wolffe that he was acting when he stormed out of a meeting with Democratic leaders in the House and Senate after Nancy Pelosi shot down the Senate’s proposed $15 billion cut to the health-care plan. “I wasn’t really that frustrated,” Obama said of the scene, in which he sputtered, “Dammit, folks, this is history,” and stormed out of the room, telling Rahm to “clean it up.” “The truth was we were very pleased that it was going as well as it was. There are certain points during negotiations where the big issues have really been settled. Everybody knows where the agreement is going to be, and people are then dickering over stuff that is not worth another hour or two of lost sleep.”
Team of Rivals
The appointment of Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton rubbed some of Obama’s most loyal campaign aides the wrong way, but the president insisted they were part of a Lincoln-style “team of rivals.” Gates’ soft-spoken and practical style quickly endeared him to the staff; one Cabinet official called him “Yoda.” Clinton wasn’t welcomed as readily. Though aides said Obama and Clinton’s relationship was respectful and professional, with Clinton “effectively executing” Obama’s foreign policy, some administration aides butted heads with Clinton’s staff, especially her chief of staff, Cheryl Mills. “She behaved as if Obama is illegitimate,” said one senior Obama aide.
Revivalists vs. Survivalists
Instead of the Chicago versus Washington divide much of the media favors in describing Obama’s staff, Wolffe divides them into two groups: the Revivalists and the Survivalists. On the Survivalists’ side were Emanuel, Pete Rouse, Jim Messina, and Phil Schiliro. On the Revivalists’ were Axelrod, Valerie Jarrett, Robert Gibbs, David Plouffe, Anita Dunn, and Dan Pfeiffer. Survivalists, Wolffe quotes one as saying, believe “You can’t get stuff done without some of these special deals to get bills passed. It’s the fault line of naïveté.” The Revivalists dismissed this sort of thinking as capitulation.
Larry Summers, economic adviser to the president and head of the National Economic Council, divided rather than united the economic team. He clashed especially with Peter Orszag at the Budget office and with Christina Romer at the Council of Economic Advisers, and at the end of the administration’s first year, Wolffe writes, “Obama’s senior staff were hoping that Summers would leave of his own accord.” Summers clashed with Obama as well, picking fights over the president’s attempts to increase lending to small businesses. “It was incredibly frustrating for the president,” said one senior aide. Summers even made enemies in the Environmental Protection Agency, when he fought the EPA’s attempt to regulate toxic coal ash, saying the industry couldn’t afford new costs.
Obama Witnesses Enhanced Interrogation
• The Lingering Obama-Clinton Cold War Before he required that all interrogation methods follow the Army Field Manual, Obama watched as Bush’s CIA director, Mike Hayden, demonstrated “enhanced” techniques on an aide, shaking him and slamming him against a wall. Waterboarding was no longer in use at the time. “Mike was trying to establish that they weren’t as onerous as people thought,” said one person at the demonstration. “But I realized I would remember this moment forever.”
Hail Mary on Health Care
Obama was determined to go big with health-care reform, but Rahm Emanuel and Nancy-Ann DeParle, both former Clinton staffers, wanted to go smaller rather than repeat Clinton’s total failure on the health-care front in 1993. Said DeParle, “Both of us had been through the Clinton experience together ... So we made a promise to each other that we weren’t coming out of this with nothing.” Later, after Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy’s seat in Massachusetts, ending the Democratic super-majority, Emanuel pushed for a scaled-down multi-part reform, even enlisting his brother Zeke, a health-care expert in the White House budget office, to draft an alternate bill.
“There’s probably even a certain pride that we took in ignoring the polls because we felt like that wasn’t the right thing to do for the country,” Obama told Wolffe.
“R” Equals Respect
Obama told Wolffe he has grudging respect from a purely political point of view for the Republicans’ strategy on health-care reform: “You have to give the Republicans credit, just from a pure political perspective, that they used every instrument available to them in the Senate to prolong the process in such a way that helped drive down support nationally, that gave everybody a sense that somehow Washington was broken.”
In the midst of the health-care debate, Obama admitted to having waged a poor publicity campaign during his first year. “Thinking more about communications during that first year probably would have been important,” he told Wolffe. “There’s probably even a certain pride that we took in ignoring the polls because we felt like that wasn’t the right thing to do for the country.” Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts “was a good reminder that if you aren’t thinking about public opinion, there’s a lot of good policy that is going to be left on the shelf.”
The administration was caught off-guard by Republican resistance to the Recovery Act, having expected them to come together in support for it during a time of crisis. “What was surprising was the degree to which we got no help from the Republicans. In the entire U.S. Congress, three Republicans stepped forward to support the Recovery Act, and one of them isn’t a Republican anymore,” said David Axelrod. “At every juncture of our history when we were facing a national catastrophe, there were those in the other party who were willing to stand up and risk themselves politically. We didn’t see that.”
Biden, after being sidelined for much of the campaign, was brought into the White House and put in charge of the Recovery Act. Biden went about fighting fraud and waste in the Recovery Act, cutting off funding to groups who didn’t file the proper forms and vetoing projects that he thought weren’t a good use of money. His work policing the Recovery Act earned him the nickname “Sheriff Joe,” jokingly bestowed on him by Obama. Biden also learned to keep his opinions to himself. Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, said, “He can’t ever say now, ‘This is my view, but it’s only my view.’ If the vice president says something, it’s imputed to the administration.”
Richard Wolffe is a Daily Beast columnist and an award-winning journalist. He covered the entire length of Barack Obama's presidential campaign for Newsweek magazine. His book about the election, Renegade: The Making of a President, was a New York Times bestseller in 2009. His new book, Revival: The Struggle for Survival Inside the Obama White House, is published in November.