The day after he signed health care reform into law, and into the history books, Barack Obama was walking the hallways of the West Wing in unusually high spirits. He had just endured the most desperate struggle for political survival since his presidential campaign.
Two months earlier, on the anniversary of his extraordinary inauguration, his presidency was pronounced dead, his political capital spent, his party in disarray. His domestic agenda was lost, along with the Senate seat held by the late Ted Kennedy, who had loudly championed both health care and Obama’s election.
But today he paced through his aides’ offices in his shirtsleeves, with an energy that had been absent from those hallways for the last several weeks. “We’re fired up and ready to go!” he said as he burst out of the office of his press secretary and longtime aide
Robert Gibbs. The next day he would return to Iowa City, for a rally with the students of the University of Iowa, where he had promised to deliver health care reform three years earlier. The young voters of Iowa had believed in him and his candidacy at a time when his campaign was flatlining and even he harbored doubts about his prospects.
Yet Iowa had proved the pundits wrong about the renegade candidate, and health care had done the same for the ambitious new president.
The last two months seemed to mirror the long campaign, with its huge pendulum swings from failure to triumph and back again. Looking back through the prism of his ultimate victory, Obama seemed destined to win. But that was not the reality of the campaign in real time. He was an ingénue until he won in Iowa; then he was an overnight phenomenon. His defeat in New Hampshire turned him into just another fl ash in the pan; then victory in South Carolina turned him into a postracial healer. He was on a winning streak for a month of primaries; then he was a loser who could not close the deal for several months. He united a confident party with Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton in Denver; then he watched his party promptly lose its head for the next several weeks over Sarah Palin.
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His presidency followed the same trajectory: from the historic unity of his inauguration to the determined opposition of congressional Republicans; from the quick passage of the vast Recovery Act to the slow death of health care and the defeat in Massachusetts. Now the pendulum had swung back toward triumph with his signing of health care reform, and he was savoring the moment of delivering on a big campaign promise.
“Hey, what are you doing here?” he asked me, as he glimpsed me sitting in the corner outside Gibbs’s office, waiting to interview one of his aides. “How did you get one of those big fancy passes?” he asked, pointing to the red press pass around my neck.
“Stand up,” one of his staffers whispered to me as she jumped to attention. I looked at her, and looked at him. The president rolled his eyes, and I rolled mine. “Yeah, sorry,” I said, standing up slowly. I asked how it felt to have just made history with health care.
“I’m good,” he said. “This is a big day.”
They were all big days at this stage of his presidency. When he wasn’t confronting Republicans, negotiating with members of Congress, or rallying Democrats, he was confronting the Irani an regime, negotiating with the Israeli prime minister, and rallying allies. All presidents need to balance their domestic and international policies, and they all bounce between the planned events of their agenda and the chaos of the latest crisis. But he was emerging from a series of crises with a spirit of revival and a sense of humor.
“Gibbs, do you know Wolffe is here? Have you all checked the thumb drives?”
This book is the result of more than two months of intensive, daily reporting from the White House, and several more months of extensive interviews with every senior West Wing official from the president and vice president on down. While Obama’s aides did not share their thumb drives, they did share memos, PowerPoints, notes, and many hours of real- time and rearview observations.
The initial idea was to paint a portrait of a White House at work, as it pivoted from governing to campaigning in the midterm elections and beyond. The traditional notion of the first year (or the first one hundred days) seemed totally arbitrary; you could only tell the full story of a presidency after four or eight years. So this book was intended as a picture of a work in progress, covering thirty days of action from the economy to national security. Gibbs identified mid- January to mid- February 2010 as a good month to start the stopwatch, “because health care will be over by then,” he assured me two months earlier. He could not have been more wrong. Health care, along with the presidency, moved from the disaster of the Massachusetts defeat to the realization of a Democratic dream. In a two- month span, around the first anniversary of Obama’s inauguration, you could trace the arc of this presidency. On the journey from near death to rebirth, you could see the near- fatal flaws and the dogged defense, the internal rifts and the instincts that led to recovery.
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More than capturing the behind- the- scenes drama of the West Wing, one of my goals was to examine the core question of this new presidency: how did the president and his staff transition from campaigning to governing? The Obama White House faced a unique version of this age- old challenge. Obama had spent twenty- one months campaigning to be president, far longer than any of his recent predecessors. The campaign was more than just the formative experience of his aides: it was their shared identity. Not until the midterm elections of 2010 had they spent the same length of time inside the White House as on the campaign trail. For a president who had managed nothing of size until his own campaign, this was more than just a question of counting months. His adaptation from electioneering to governing— finding a balance between his campaign spirit and his presidential persona— was the essential challenge inside the Obama White House. Could he bring Change to Washington without Washington changing him?
When you witness how quickly presidents age in office, it is hard to believe they can pass through the Oval Office unchanged. Obama’s fresh candidate face had rapidly grown as scored and worn as his temples had grown gray. Perhaps a president’s core principles survive intact even as he shifts his positions on policies. But even Obama’s closest aides conceded there were changes, if only in his style of decision making. “It’s like watching kids grow. If you’re there every day you don’t really see it,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s senior adviser and chief strategist. “The remarkable thing about him was how natural governing was from the beginning. He looked comfortable in there on the first day. I’m too close to know how he’s changed. When you have to make the kind of decisions he’s made you become wiser. I think the decision- making process becomes easier. You know what you need to make decisions and you know what you need to get there.”
If Axelrod did not know how Obama had changed, other aides confessed they shared the outside world’s incomprehension of Obama’s true feelings. There was an inscrutable quality to his steadiness, which could make him seem calm in a crisis and clinical in a catastrophe. Did he ever enjoy the office of the presidency, which he had worked so long and hard to win? “I would love to know the answer to that question,” said one long- standing aide. “Does he enjoy being president? He doesn’t show it. Other than getting gray hair, there seems no difference to me. He still has a sense of humor. But he’s an amazingly steady guy.”
Others witnessed something other than steadiness: a steeliness when shutting down even close aides, and a soft touch when opening up to others. Senior staff spoke privately of policy discussions that ended with a piercing presidential stare and an icy, abrupt command from Obama: “Next!”
That brusque manner was a stark contrast to the personal attention he paid to those who needed help. He encouraged overweight staffers to shed pounds. He gave one aide a salad for lunch, then listened to him protest that he could take care of his own health. “I love you, man,” Obama said. “I want you to look after yourself. Eat the salad.”
He sympathized with staffers when the media came after them, as they came after him on a regular basis. Axelrod felt miserable when a New York Times profile criticized his own performance after the Massachusetts defeat. Later that day, Obama walked into Axelrod’s office and slumped into his sofa. “It’s just Washington nonsense,” he said. “Don’t worry about it.” Axelrod was surprised that his boss took the time to lift his mood. “He’s not cold and detached,” he said. “He’s the first person to be concerned if you’re having a bad day. He’s attuned to people’s moods in ways you don’t expect.”
For all his self- discipline and steadiness, Obama found it hard to dismiss the Washington nonsense quite so easily himself. Despite his advice to Axelrod, he seemed obsessed by the media coverage and consumed it voraciously. “He reads everything,” said one close aide. “And I mean everything. Every news story, every column. It’s driving everyone crazy.”
As their political fortunes declined around the anniversary of the inauguration, Obama’s aides started to miss the old campaign days of constant travel and uncertainty. “I told the president I long for the carefree days of simply getting him elected to this office,” said Gibbs in the middle of the health care debate. “Everything that comes to me is hard and it hasn’t been solved because it’s hard. Then I understand why the days are so long here. I look at my schedule every morning and there aren’t a lot of things going great. You go to the Situation Room and everything isn’t going great. You feel it at the end of the week.”
The solution for Gibbs and other campaign veterans was to revive the campaign spirit inside the White House. If they did not return to the mood of the 2008 election, they would be facing far more people like Scott Brown, the Republican candidate who won Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in one of the safest Democratic states in the country. “I think in many ways what drove people to vote for Barack Obama in ’08 is the same thing that drove people to vote for Scott Brown in ’10,” Gibbs said. “They’re frustrated with what is happening in this country. People also understand this isn’t going to happen overnight. It’s going to take two years to dig out of this hole. I think people have seen recently somebody who is willing to challenge both sides to get a solution. We have to keep reminding them that the Barack Obama [who] is president of the United States is the same guy who ran. He has the same cares and concerns.”
Perhaps that was true of his politics. But the pressures of the presidency— the constant scrutiny and security— seemed to turn his focus inward once he entered the black gates of the White House. Obama’s circle of friends and confidants shrank rather than expanded. “Our conversations are a little more intimate now because there are very few people he can really talk freely with, without them misreading something into it,” said Obama’s close friend Marty Nesbitt. “He’s more inclined to think out loud when I’m around.”
How and why Obama grew detached from Change— even as he was enacting big changes— is one of the stories at the heart of his White House. It is the paradox of a president who wanted to effect change while seeming unchanged, who entered office on a wave of public emotion while appearing unmoved by it all, who campaigned as an outsider and governed as an insider. In this defining period of his presidency, he was forced to reexamine himself and his team. From the depths of a brutal winter inside the Oval Office to the beginnings of spring in the Rose Garden, this is a tale of despair and discovery, of survival and revival.