Obama at the Edge

The success of Barack Obama and the Democrats during last year’s lame-duck session of Congress gave the President some badly needed stability after the comprehensive “shellacking” (his oft-quoted word) that his party took in the election. The string of eleventh-hour victories—especially the repeal of the military’s don’t ask, don’t tell policy—also reenergized to some extent his liberal base, elements of which had been estranged by the deal to extend the Bush tax cuts that he had struck with Republicans earlier in December.

Sharply in contrast to the unsightly process by which the health care law was passed—the embarrassing deal made with Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson, the camera-ready preening by various senators who were positioned to provide the crucial sixtieth vote—the lame-duck session found Democrats actually carrying out the people’s business in a more or less straightforward fashion. The coordination between the White House and the party’s congressional leaders seemed much stronger than before. Even some Republicans decided to take governing seriously, with an astonishing thirteen of them voting for the “New Start” arms treaty. Citizens were treated to a little two-week reenactment drama of how Congress used to work, back when it worked.

There arose the inevitable speculation about whether this comity could be carried over into the new year, but any serious person recognized that this was largely airtime-filling babble. True, the episode might give the White House an opportunity to say to Republicans such as Lisa Murkowski or Scott Brown at some future point: Remember when you voted with us, and the skies of Alaska or Massachusetts did not in fact fall in? But for the most part, the Republicans were being so cooperative, and the Democrats so hectically productive, because everyone knew that the 112th Congress, sworn in on January 5, would be quite a different creature. The House Republican caucus is augmented by sixty-three members and is, on paper at least, a considerably more hard-line group than even the Republican caucus of the Congress just ended, which gave the President not a single vote on the economic stimulus or health care, and just three on highly popular financial reform legislation.

Republican senators, who threatened filibusters in the last Congress relentlessly, are now forty-seven in number, an increase of five. But because of retirements and “pick-ups” (seats previously held by Democrats), fully thirteen of the forty-seven are fresh faces. Just one, Mark Kirk of Illinois, is considered somewhat moderate. A few others—notably Dan Coats of Indiana and Rob Portman of Ohio—are experienced legislators, meaning that even though they are certainly conservative, they presumably enter with some degree of appreciation for the horse-trading that makes legislatures work. But at least seven are Tea Party–supported ultras, notably Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. They did not come to Washington to horse-trade with Barack Obama.

All this change has taken place at the precise moment when establishment Washington has decided that action must be taken on what is usually called “our long-term fiscal solvency,” which means the budget, which in turn really means Social Security and Medicare. Also looming sometime this spring is a vote to raise the country’s debt ceiling. Failure to do so would reduce the rating of Treasury bonds, which are held by every major economic power in the world; the implication would be that “the full faith and credit” of the United States was no longer guaranteed, which could set off anything from global wariness to global meltdown.

Members of Congress, particularly of the opposition party, have always groused about raising the debt ceiling, and some have voted against it. Democrats—including then-Senator Barack Obama, in March 2006—did so when George W. Bush was president. The difference now is that Republicans are using the threat of a vote against raising the ceiling as leverage to cut spending, and they sound serious. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham—considered too accommodationist by the Tea Party wing, and therefore perhaps out to reestablish his conservative credentials—laid out the likely Republican position to David Gregory on Meet the Press on January 2:

GREGORY: You talk about the budget. You talk about spending. How will you vote on the debt ceiling? Will you vote to raise it, which is a vote that will come up in relatively short order?
GRAHAM: Well, to not raise the debt ceiling could be a default of the United States’ bond and treasury obligations. That would be very bad for the position of the United States in the world at large, but this is an opportunity to make sure that government is changing its spending ways.
I will not vote for the debt ceiling increase until I see a plan in place that will deal with our long-term debt obligations, starting with Social Security, a real bipartisan effort to make sure that Social Security stays solvent, adjusting the age, looking at means tests for benefits. On the spending side, I’m not going to vote for a debt ceiling increase unless we go back to 2008 spending levels, cutting discretionary spending….

That’s the relatively reasonable Republican view; the position of many Tea Party Republicans is simply to vote no, damn the consequences. The question is what position the White House will stake out here. Even as Obama was enjoying the success of the lame-duck session, speculation in Washington had commenced—worried speculation, it must be said, on the part of many liberals—on how firmly he would stand his ground. A deal on spending for entitlements is sometimes referred to as a “grand bargain” between the two sides. But “bargain” implies that each side gives a little. What will Obama—who in Senator Al Franken’s estimation “punted on first down” in the negotiations over the Bush tax cuts—make the Republicans give up in exchange for, say, bumping up the retirement age, a move that many liberals regard as essentially a benefits cut? And how hard will he fight?

The stakes are high: for his own political survival, for the fate of liberalism’s major achievement of the twentieth century—Social Security—and for the direction of the country in the coming years. This year’s State of the Union address, to be delivered on January 25, will be the most substantively important one in many years. What lines in the sand will Obama draw on spending, taxation (he said, while agreeing to the extension of the Bush tax cuts, that he wants to pursue comprehensive tax reform), investment, and entitlements? And most importantly, how will the White House and the diminished Democratic caucuses in the Senate and House, not models of political agility these last two years, find a strategy that could wring some concessions from the GOP?

Richard Wolffe, the former Newsweek correspondent who writes now for The Daily Beast and who should be familiar to watchers of MSNBC, where he appears frequently as a commentator, was in a unique position to give us clues as to how Obama and the people around him might tackle these challenges. Wolffe covered the Obama campaign and clearly became an admirer of the candidate. His book Renegade, an inside account of the campaign, was a New York Times best seller; he has also coauthored two books with José Andrés, the Washington-based celebrity chef who has helped popularize tapas in America. The Obama team, and Obama himself, came to trust Wolffe, and so he was given unique access to the White House to see how things worked and write up the results.

This is the kind of book that would have made for fascinating reading in 1982 or 1994. In those days, a contemporaneous peek behind the curtain was a rarer thing and could create a political earthquake—think of William Greider’s 1981 interview with David Stockman from The Atlantic, in which Stockman acknowledged the prestidigitation involved in making supply-side economics look like it was doing all the fine things Ronald Reagan had claimed it would. Bob Woodward’s Veil (1987), about the CIA under Bill Casey, was among the first prominent insider-account books that came out while many of the principals still held power. Today, though, we have more contemporaneous accounts than we can possibly read, and an unremitting political-media culture in which nothing stays secret for long and in which, as we have recently seen, even sensitive classified documents are scattered into the air like confetti.

The schedule by which the publishing industry operates only adds to the difficulty. Wolffe was given access to the West Wing and the people in it for a one-month period that spanned January and February of 2010. It is no fault of Wolffe’s, of course, that his book did not find its way to shelves until recently (the official publication date was November 16). But what is the interest, a year after the fact, in learning how the Obama team dealt with Scott Brown’s surprise win over Martha Coakley in the Massachusetts Senate race, or how the White House responded to the earthquake in Haiti?

The answer depends on just what is revealed. And here I don’t mean gossip about Obama’s inner circle as much as genuine insight that is useful to us now, transferable from those events to the ones Obama and his people are grappling with today. Whether those kinds of insights can be reached depends to some extent on the book’s animating idea. Here is Wolffe’s:

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?… [Obama’s] 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?

The transition dilemma is certainly a question, but is it the central question? It would seem more interesting to ask how well the President and his staff have been handling the various crises the country faced. One can understand why a journalist who wrote a book about the campaign and returned more than a year later to check in on his old sources would think of things this way. But it shaped the questions he asked, and the points he chose to emphasize and ignore. The result is a book that often seeks to impose a narrative of struggle and triumph on a set of real-world events that were in fact far messier. It’s not merely bad luck or the fault of the publishing industry’s typewriter-age timetable that the last sentence of Wolffe’s epilogue, in a book that hit stores two weeks after Obama suffered the worst midterm electoral defeat for any president in seven decades, concludes with the words: “Obama was a true believer in his own revival.”

The book is organized into five long chapters with stark, one-word titles (“Redemption,” “Recovery,” “Survival”). The story of the health care reform battle dominates much of the book, and properly so since Wolffe was in the White House in the dramatic weeks between Scott Brown’s Massachusetts victory and the House’s passage on March 21 of the Senate version of the bill. Wolffe is interesting on the disarray in Democratic ranks after Brown’s win. In his telling, it was Nancy Pelosi who fought hardest among the three top Democrats to keep ambitious plans for reform alive and who barked orders to Obama and Senate leader Harry Reid two weeks after Brown’s victory: “I need time. I have to bring people along. People have to get over the shock.”

Barack Obama; drawing by John Springs

Obama needed more time to come around to Pelosi’s view—Wolffe confirms earlier press accounts that Rahm Emanuel began pushing Obama to scale back to a more modest package of health reforms. But he finally went along with Pelosi’s insistence on large-scale reform prodded also by White House staffers like health czar Nancy-Ann DeParle. Wolffe provides glimpses of Obama’s leadership style during the negotiations over the bill. He argued—politely—with Anna Burger of the Service Employees International Union about taxing high-end health plans, which the union vehemently opposed, and the tax stayed in the bill. At one point, with senators and House members at an impasse over a mere $15 billion, Obama stormed out of the room, saying, “Rahm, clean it up.”

Wolffe treats health care’s passage as an unalloyed victory. But substantively, it’s still far too early to say that. The bill is under attack right now in the House, where a repeal vote was scheduled even before the Republicans officially took over. The legal challenges could lead to the Supreme Court declaring the individual mandate unconstitutional (it might come down to how Anthony Kennedy, who constitutes the Court’s current swing “bloc,” feels about the matter). Just lately comes news of yet another effort in the making, for states to form a “compact” and assume control over health care programs from the federal government.1 Even if the law survives all these challenges, the new system still has to work: Can it cover the uninsured, make coverage affordable, drive costs down? These questions are open ones. Obama’s decision to risk immense political capital on passing health care early was in some sense courageous, but it may yet turn out to have been a terrible misjudgment of the scope of his mandate.

The portraits of Washington we get in Revival hew pretty much to what we have learned already from the press. Obama wants to go deeply into the substance of issues that other leaders might leave to their staff. A tantalizing question about which I’ve often wondered, which Wolffe raises early in the book but never returns to in a satisfying way, is whether he likes the job:

“I would love to know the answer to that question,” said one longstanding 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.”

David Axelrod, the chief political adviser, tends to be passive and fatalistic. Here, as elsewhere, Axelrod observes that given the condition of the economy and the fact that the Democratic advantages in Congress were aberrantly high after the 2006 and 2008 elections, the situation was always going to be a difficult one.

Rahm Emanuel and Larry Summers come across as the heavy characters in the administration. Wolffe seems to have had far more access to the former than the latter, and while he credits Emanuel’s aggressive style as helping to pass major legislation, he amply quotes other sources arguing that Emanuel was somehow disruptive of the chemistry of those, like Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett, who had worked on the campaign. With Summers, the problem in Wolffe’s telling is that he perceived himself to be, as chairman of the National Economic Council, an honest broker of policy differences but was widely perceived by others as someone who, as one aide put it, “comes in with his point of view and tries to drive it.”

Wolffe discusses but never quite pins down one of the administration’s crucial shortcomings—its inability to put across its message to the voters in the face of the public relations onslaught from the other side. Though press secretary Robert Gibbs is quoted a few times in the book, we never hear him directly answering challenging questions from the author about strategy. Likewise, the pollster Joel Benenson, another important shaper of political strategy, is quoted just once, but that remark concerns the campaign.

Wolffe does quote the press aide Dan Pfeiffer. On the economy, Pfeiffer strikes a note of Axelrodian fatalism, saying, “I think the economy isn’t something you can spin your way out of.” That seems true, although one can’t help wondering which subjects he believes can be spun. A number of valid criticisms have been leveled at the White House’s public performance concerning, for example, the mixed messages on health care reform and the apparent decision not to strongly challenge the wild claims made about Obama on the right. Wolffe reports on these matters, but not as informatively as he might have, given how central a problem they have been.

We may conclude from Revival that, with Emanuel and Summers gone, and with David Plouffe—portrayed favorably in the book—back in a central role, maybe the White House will be a better-run organization. (The thought occurs: Could there be any correlation between Obama’s legislative successes during the lame-duck session and Emanuel’s absence?) What remains a bit of a mystery is what Obama himself has learned over his first two years. This may not be Wolffe’s fault. As the quote about whether Obama enjoys being president suggests, he apparently remains inscrutable even to aides. I can well imagine that it was frustrating for Wolffe to get exclusive face time with Obama and then wilt as he said…pretty much the same things that have been published by others. (I know the feeling, from talks with Hillary Clinton.) Politicians such as JFK may have once shared secrets with reporters they liked, but in this era of people like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, who exist to pounce on and twist every word someone like Obama says, those days are long gone.

House Republicans say they want to cut $100 billion from domestic spending this year. Even by federal budget standards, that’s a lot: it would mean cuts in education, environmental protection, scientific research, transportation, and other areas amounting to 20 percent of total expenditures.2 This will not happen, as House GOP aides began to concede to reporters on background even before the congressional session began. Their fellow Republicans in the Senate won’t go along with that, let alone the Senate’s Democratic majority. The same goes for many Republican governors and mayors, who are counting on every federal dollar they can get at a time when many states face deep financial crises.

The American public won’t go along with it either. A poll released on January 2 by 60 Minutes and Vanity Fair asked respondents how they would balance the budget. Answers: increase taxes on the wealthy, 61 percent; cut defense spending, 20 percent; cut Medicare, 4 percent; cut Social Security, 3 percent. Evidently the American people are socialists.

So the Republicans face their own dilemma. They know very well that their proposals are unpopular in general. But their conservative base is demanding that they carry out their plans, and the Tea Party–backed candidates in Congress say they will not compromise. It is that threat that gives the House Republicans a great deal of leverage here, especially with the debt ceiling vote. There is good reason to think they will push matters right to the cliff’s edge—it’s Obama, after all, who can’t afford to let a potential financial meltdown happen while he’s in the White House. So there will be cuts. The questions are how equitably they’ll be distributed (that is, how much they will reduce defense programs, not just domestic ones3); whether they’ll be balanced by revenue (raising rates on the upper brackets); and what Obama will do about entitlements (where any compromise on Social Security or Medicare will anger many liberal Democrats). This will perhaps be a bigger challenge than passing health care. And remember, in the background, the administration will be dealing with the many hearings and investigations promised by such GOP representatives as Darryl Issa, and will have little chance to advance any positive legislative agenda of its own.

The administration has retooled, bringing in centrist Clinton-era veterans Bill Daley and Gene Sperling, with more changes expected. It’s not clear that their presence portends a major change in policy direction—broadly speaking, they are centrists replacing centrists. But they’re less prickly personalities. Sperling in particular is a well-liked member of Washington’s center-left policy elite in a way that Larry Summers certainly was not; so if nothing else, the capital’s legion of Democratic policy insiders will probably feel less condescended to, for whatever that’s worth. In addition, the economy shows slight signs of improving. Obama was back at 50 percent in the polls, his job-approval rating in positive territory for the first time in six months. His January 12 speech in Tucson at the memorial service for those killed and injured in the Gabrielle Giffords shooting incident was very well received—the shooting unleashed precisely the sort of emotions that Americans elected Obama to calm, and he rose to the occasion with eloquence. Even so, brutal challenges lie ahead, and Obama will almost certainly never again have the legislative majorities he had. Talk of revival seems a bit premature.

—January 13, 2011

  1. 1

    See Fred Barnes, “Nullifying Obamacare,” The Weekly Standard, January 3, 2011. 

  2. 2

    It’s worth recalling that according to the projections of the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, as summarized by Paul Krugman, making all the Bush tax cuts permanent, as opposed to Obama’s proposal, would cost the federal government $680 billion over the next ten years. 

  3. 3

    Defense Secretary Robert Gates unveiled roughly $100 billion in Pentagon cuts in early January, but of course Congress must approve them, and many of the cuts are likely to be opposed by the members whose districts are affected by them.