Observers applaud in the East Room of the White House on March 23, the day President Obama signed the health care bill. Author Richard Wolffe writes that Obama was holding back tears amid the "hullabaloo" — and that moment helps explain why the president insisted on moving forward on the bill when senior advisers thought it was "insane."
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Democrats are still deciding the direction to take following what President Obama described as a shellacking.
Richard Wolffe, for one, knows something about the way they operate from the inside. He interviewed Obama and the president's senior staff for his new book, Revival: The Struggle for Survival Inside the Obama White House, which tracks an intense period around the president's first anniversary in office.
Wolffe has spoken to people in the White House since the midterms about where they think they went wrong.
Revival: The Struggle for Survival Inside the Obama White House By Richard Wolffe Hardcover, 320 pages Crown Publishing List Price: $26
"Their feeling is that they haven't been able to connect properly with voters — they haven't been able to say what they're trying to do, either on the economy, in terms of the Recovery Act, or about heath care — and they got outmaneuvered in any number of different ways," Wolffe tells Morning Edition co-host Steve Inskeep. "Now, as many people say, these are people with considerable communications skills — there's no shortage of talent inside the White House, and they have a huge communications staff. So, the question is: Why?
"And that comes down to identity: Who are these people? What are they trying to do? That's an unresolved debate for them. And until you can resolve that, you can't communicate properly."
While a failure to communicate may sound like an easy answer, Wolffe says, there are poll data to suggest that the public is really confused.
"Polling shows that people blame the Bush administration and Wall Street for the economy, but they don't think that the president has a clear idea about how to create jobs," he says. "On health care — which was supposed to have been the big conclusion coming out of this election — opinion is pretty much divided."
In addition, Wolffe says, while a third of the $800 billion-plus stimulus bill the president supported was for tax cuts, "there are lots of people who got those tax cuts and that had no idea where the money was coming from — they thought it came from their employers.
"So, you know, here is a situation where you're trying to be all things to all people and you end up being nothing much to anyone."
'Two Rival Camps'
The identity problem, Wolffe says, can be traced to "two rival camps" in the White House, "competing for attention, for message, for direction — and that debate goes on in the president's head, too."
Author Richard Wolffe says there are two rival camps in the White House — the "Revivalists," who want to return to the spirit of the Obama campaign, and the "Survivialists," who believe in making deals to get things done in Washington.
Wolffe calls them the "Revivalists" and the "Survivalists." The former group wants "a revival of the campaign spirit" and feels that they have lost "that brand, that vision, that sense of reform — that sense of being an outsider." The Survivalists, on the other hand, are "the Washington crowd who believe that you had to compromise, you had to make deals — the backroom deals — you had to do whatever it took.
"And these two pieces of the White House have left the grand message, the grand identity questions, unresolved. And I think they're unresolved because the president hasn't resolved them — he has a foot in both camps."
For an example of a Survivalist official in the White House, Wolffe points to former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.
" 'He was 100 percent loyal ' — this is a quote — '100 percent loyal to the president but he thought half of his decisions were insane,' " Wolffe says. "Their idea here was: Here was a guy who understood Washington, who would make these deals, who would compromise, and yet, they didn't figure out that he could not bend to the ways of the campaign, didn't understand it, and in their view — in the Revivalists' view — he sought to undermine what they'd done in the campaign."
In the other camp, Wolffe says, were people like campaign strategist David Plouffe and, "to some degree," White House senior adviser David Axelrod.
"There were real tensions for [Axelrod]. He felt that, much like the president, they had to shift from campaigning to governing," Wolffe says. "And what they woke up too late to was the fact that the other side, the Republicans, never stopped campaigning."
So, how does Obama, who could be seen as trying to do too much, stack up against his predecessor, President George W. Bush, who was accused of oversimplifying things but also was clear about what he stood for?
"What the White House would say is they achieved a lot in that first year — maybe people don't know about it. So, on the domestic basis, clearly they have an impressive record by any standards of recent presidents," Wolffe says. "But in terms of the messaging, in terms of the mission, if you go around asking people, 'What did President Bush stand for?' — they'd come up with some kind of variation on 'Killing the terrorists,' 'war on terror.'
"If you asked people now, if you asked Democrats, 'What does this White House stand for?' — they're struggling. And I do think that comes back to this identity question of the revival of the campaign versus the people who wanted to just survive and get by."
'Here To Do Big Stuff'
Wolffe writes that Obama was holding back tears when he finally signed the health care bill. He says that it helps answer an important question: why Obama stubbornly insisted on moving forward with the health care overhaul when others advised against it.
"This was clearly a decision that his own chief of staff didn't agree with, and there were other senior advisers who thought this was insane, lunatic, to risk the presidency on it," Wolffe says. "And it comes down to the memory of his mother.
"So, his mother passed away because of cancer. Her experience in her final days and months was about struggling with insurance companies over ... the question of pre-existing conditions. And if you listen to the president, what does he talk about most?" Wolffe says. "It's about insurance companies quibbling with patients about pre-existing conditions.
"And he tears up — it's strange that people didn't kind of notice it — in all of the hullabaloo around the signing in the East Room, he can barely keep it together. And that's very, very rare — to see a president, especially this president, who is struggling, fighting with himself, to hold back the tears."
Although the health care overhaul may have hurt Democrats at the polls, it wouldn't have been Obama's style not to go for it, Wolffe says.
"He goes around telling people that he would rather do big stuff and be a one-term president than small stuff and be a second-term. So all those people who say he should be more like Clinton — he should have gone small, not done health care, backed away — that's not his self-image," Wolffe says. "In that sense, and this is not going to please partisans on either side, he's kind of like President Bush — the stubborn self-image of saying, 'I'm here to do big stuff; I don't care what the price is.'
"The difference ... is that Bush had a simple, clear message and he would repeat it until everyone was sick of it, including himself. This president feels like everyone's heard it already — 'You know about this stuff, right? You know what's in health care or the Recovery Act.'
"Well, it turns out people don't."
by Richard Wolffe
Revival: The Struggle for Survival Inside the Obama White House By Richard Wolffe Hardcover, 320 pages Crown Publishing List Price: $26
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 ingenue until he won in Iowa; then he was an overnight phenomenon. His defeat in New Hampshire turned him into just another flash 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.
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 Iranian 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.
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?
Excerpted from Revival: The Struggle for Survival Inside the Obama White House by Richard Wolffe Copyright 2010 by Richard Wolffe. Excerpted by permission of Crown Publishers, a division of Random House Inc.