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Obama at the Edge

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. 

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