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NO MATTER WHAT YOU MIGHT tell yourself, no matter how much you’ve read or how many briefings you’ve received or how many veterans of previous administrations you’ve recruited, nothing entirely prepares you for those first weeks in the White House. Everything is new, unfamiliar, fraught with import. The vast majority of your senior appointees, including cabinet secretaries, are weeks or sometimes months away from being confirmed. Across the White House complex, staffers can be seen securing the requisite IDs, asking where to park, learning how to operate the phones, figuring out where the bathrooms are, and schlepping boxes into the cramped warren of offices in the West Wing or the more capacious rooms in the nearby Eisenhower Executive Office Building (EEOB), all while trying not to look completely overwhelmed. It’s like moving-in day on a college campus, except a large percentage of the people involved are middle-aged, in suits, and, along with you, charged with running the most powerful nation on earth.
I didn’t have to worry about moving myself in, but my days were a whirlwind. Having witnessed how stumbles out of the gate had hobbled Bill Clinton throughout his first two years in office, Rahm was intent on taking advantage of our postelection honeymoon period to get some things done.
“Trust me,” he said. “The presidency is like a new car. It starts depreciating the minute you drive it off the lot.”
To build early momentum, he had instructed our transition team to identify campaign promises I could fulfill with the stroke of a pen. I signed an executive order banning torture and launched what was supposed to be a year-long process to close the U.S. military detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. We instituted some of the toughest ethics rules in White House history, including tightening restrictions on lobbyists. A couple of weeks later, we finalized an agreement with congressional leaders to cover four million more kids under the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and shortly after that, we lifted President Bush’s moratorium on federally funded embryonic stem-cell research.
I signed my first bill into law on my ninth day in office: the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. The legislation was named after an unassuming Alabaman who, deep into a long career at the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, had discovered that she’d routinely been paid less than her male counterparts. As discrimination cases go, it should have been a slam dunk, but in 2007, defying all common sense, the Supreme Court had disallowed the lawsuit. According to Justice Samuel Alito, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act required Ledbetter to have filed her claim within 180 days of when the discrimination first occurred—in other words, six months after she received her first paycheck, and many years before she actually discovered the pay disparity. For over a year, Republicans in the Senate had blocked corrective action (with President Bush promising to veto it if it passed). Now, thanks to quick legislative work by our emboldened Democratic majorities, the bill sat on a small ceremonial desk in the East Room.
Lilly and I had become friends during the campaign. I knew her family, knew her struggles. She stood next to me that day as I put my signature on the bill, using a different pen for each letter of my name. (The pens would serve as keepsakes for Lilly and the bill’s sponsors—a nice tradition, though it made my signature look like it had been written by a ten-year-old.) I thought not just about Lilly but also about my mother, and Toot, and all the other working women across the country who had ever been passed over for promotions or been paid less than they were worth. The legislation I was signing wouldn’t reverse centuries of discrimination. But it was something, a step forward.
This is why I ran, I told myself. This is what the office can do.
We would roll out other comparable initiatives in those first few months, some attracting modest press attention, others noticed only by those directly affected. In normal times, this would have been enough, a series of small wins as our bigger legislative proposals—on healthcare, immigration reform, and climate change—began to work their way through Congress.
But these were not normal times. For the public and the press, for me and my team, only one issue truly mattered: What were we going to do to halt the economy’s collapse?
AS DIRE AS the situation had seemed before the election, it wasn’t until a mid-December meeting in Chicago with my new economic team, just over a month before I was sworn in, that I had begun to appreciate the scope of what we were dealing with. Christy Romer, whose cheery demeanor and sensible style brought to mind a 1950s TV-sitcom mom, opened her presentation with a line she’d heard Axelrod use in an earlier meeting.
“Mr. President-Elect,” she said, “this is your holy-shit moment.”
The chuckles quickly subsided as Christy took us through a series of charts. With over half of America’s twenty-five largest financial institutions having either failed, merged, or restructured to avoid bankruptcy during the previous year, what had begun as a crisis on Wall Street had now thoroughly infected the broader economy. The stock market had lost 40 percent of its value. There were foreclosure filings on 2.3 million homes. Household wealth had dropped 16 percent, which, as Tim would later point out, was more than five times the percentage loss that occurred in the aftermath of the 1929 market crash. All this on top of an economy that was already suffering from persistently high levels of poverty, a decline in the share of working-age men who were actually working, a fall in productivity growth, and lagging median wages.
And we had yet to reach the bottom. As people had felt poorer, they’d stopped spending, just as mounting losses had caused banks to stop lending, imperiling more businesses and more jobs. A number of major retailers already had gone belly-up. GM and Chrysler were headed in the same direction. News stations now carried daily reports of mass layoffs at blue-chip companies like Boeing and Pfizer. According to Christy, all arrows pointed in the direction of the deepest recession since the 1930s, with job losses—estimated at 533,000 in November alone—likely to get worse.
“How much worse?” I asked.
“We’re not sure,” Larry chimed in, “but probably in the millions.” He explained that unemployment was typically a “lagging indicator,” meaning the full scale of job losses during recessions didn’t show up right away, and usually continued well after an economy started growing again. Moreover, economies typically recovered much more slowly from recessions triggered by financial crises than from those caused by fluctuations in the business cycle. In the absence of quick and aggressive intervention by the federal government, Larry calculated, the chances of a second Great Depression were “about one in three.” “Jesus,” Joe Biden muttered. I looked out the window of the downtown conference room. A heavy snow swirled soundlessly through a gray sky. Images of tent cities and people lined up at soup kitchens materialized in my head.
“All right, then,” I said, turning back to the team. “Since it’s too late to ask for a recount, what can we do to lower those odds?”
We spent the next three hours mapping out a strategy. Job one was reversing the cycle of contracting demand. In an ordinary recession, monetary policy would be an option: By lowering interest rates, the Federal Reserve could help make the purchase of everything from homes to cars to appliances significantly cheaper. But while Chairman Ben Bernanke was committed to trying out a range of unorthodox strategies to douse the financial panic, Tim explained, the Fed had used up most of its bullets over the course of the previous year: With interest rates already close to zero, neither businesses nor consumers, already badly overleveraged, showed any inclination to take on more debt.
Our conversation therefore focused on fiscal stimulus, or, in layperson’s terms, having the government spend more money. Though I hadn’t majored in economics, I was familiar enough with John Maynard Keynes, one of the giants of modern economics and a theoretician of the causes of the Great Depression. Keynes’s basic insight had been simple: From the perspective of the individual family or firm, it was prudent to tighten one’s belt during a severe recession. The problem was that thrift could be stifling; when everyone tightened their belts at the same time, economic conditions couldn’t improve.
Keynes’s answer to the dilemma was just as simple: A government needed to step in as the “spender of last resort.” The idea was to pump money into the economy until the gears started to turn again, until families grew confident enough to trade in old cars for new ones and innovative companies saw enough demand to start making new products again. Once the economy was kick-started, the government could then turn off the spigot and recoup its money through the resulting boost in tax revenue. In large part, this was the principle behind FDR’s New Deal, which took shape after he took office in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression. Whether it was young men in the Civilian Conservation Corps put to work building trails in America’s national parks, or farmers receiving government payments for surplus milk, or theater troupes performing as part of the Works Progress Administration, the New Deal’s programs helped unemployed Americans get desperately needed paychecks and companies sustain themselves with government orders for steel or lumber, all of which helped bolster private enterprise and stabilize the faltering economy.
As ambitious as it was at the time, New Deal spending actually proved too modest to fully counteract the Great Depression, especially after FDR succumbed to 1936 election-year pressures and pulled back too early on what was then seen by many elite opinion makers as government profligacy. It would take the ultimate stimulus of World War II, when the entire nation mobilized to build an Arsenal of Democracy, to finally break the Depression once and for all. But the New Deal had kept things from getting worse, and Keynesian theory had come to be widely accepted among economists, including politically conservative ones (although Republican-leaning economists typically preferred stimulus in the form of tax cuts rather than government programs).
So we needed a stimulus package. To deliver the necessary impact, how big did it need to be? Before the election, we’d proposed what was then considered an ambitious program of $175 billion. Immediately after the election, examining the worsening data, we had raised the number to $500 billion. The team now recommended something even bigger. Christy mentioned a trillion dollars, causing Rahm to sputter like a cartoon character spitting out a bad meal.
“There’s no fucking way,” Rahm said. Given the public’s anger over the hundreds of billions of dollars already spent on the bank bailout, he said, any number that began “with a t” would be a nonstarter with lots of Democrats, not to mention Republicans. I turned to Joe, who nodded in assent.
“What can we get passed?” I asked.
“Seven, maybe eight hundred billion, tops,” Rahm said. “And that’s a stretch.”
There was also the question of how stimulus dollars would be used. According to Keynes, it didn’t matter much what the government spent the money on, so long as it generated economic activity. But since the levels of spending we were talking about would likely preclude funding for other priorities well into the future, I pushed the team to think about high-profile, high-yield projects—modern versions of the Interstate Highway System or the Tennessee Valley Authority that would not only give the economy an immediate boost but could transform America’s longer-term economic landscape. What about a national smart grid that would make the delivery of electricity more secure and efficient? Or a new, highly integrated air traffic control system that would enhance safety and reduce fuel costs and carbon emissions?
Folks around the table were not encouraging. “We’ve already started asking federal agencies to identify high-impact projects,” Larry said, “but I have to be honest, Mr. President-Elect. Those kinds of projects are extremely complicated. They take time to develop…and unfortunately time is not on our side.” The most important thing was to get the money into people’s pockets as quickly as possible, and that aim was best served by providing food stamps and extended unemployment insurance, as well as middle-class tax cuts and aid to states to help them avoid having to lay off teachers, firefighters, and police officers. Studies had shown that spending on infrastructure provided the biggest bang for the buck—but, Larry suggested, even there we should focus on more prosaic undertakings like road repair and patching up aging sewer systems, projects that local governments could use to put people to work right away.
“It’s going to be hard to get the public excited about food stamps and repaving roads,” Axe said. “Not real sexy.”
“Neither’s a depression,” Tim tartly replied.
Tim was the one person among us who’d already spent a stomach-churning year on the front lines of the crisis. I could hardly blame him for refusing to be swept up in any starry-eyed plans. His biggest concern was that mass unemployment and bankruptcies were further weakening the financial system, creating what he described as “an adverse feedback loop.” As Larry took the lead on the stimulus package, Tim and his team would in the meantime try to come up with a plan to unlock the credit markets and stabilize the financial system once and for all. Tim admitted that he wasn’t yet sure exactly what would work—or whether the remaining $350 billion in TARP money would be enough to cover it.
And that wasn’t the end of our to-do list. A talented team—including Shaun Donovan, the former head of New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development and my nominee for housing and urban development secretary, as well as Austan Goolsbee, my longtime economic advisor and a University of Chicago professor, whom I would appoint to the Council of Economic Advisers—had already begun work on plans to shore up the housing market and reduce the flood of foreclosures. We recruited prominent finance whiz Steve Rattner and Ron Bloom, a former investment banker who represented unions in corporate restructurings, to generate strategies to save the auto industry. And my soon-to-be budget director, Peter Orszag, was given the unenviable task of coming up with a plan to pay for the stimulus in the short term while putting the federal budget on a more sustainable path for the long term—this at a time when high levels of emergency spending and lower tax revenues had already driven the federal deficit to more than $1 trillion for the first time in history.
In exchange for Peter’s troubles, we wrapped up the meeting by bringing in a cake to celebrate his fortieth birthday. As people gathered around the table to watch him blow out the candles, Goolsbee—whose tweedy name always seemed incongruous with his Jimmy Olsen looks, ebullient humor, and Waco, Texas, twang—appeared beside me.
“That’s definitely the worst briefing any incoming president has gotten since FDR in 1932!” he said. He sounded like a boy impressed by the sight of a particularly grisly wound.
“Goolsbee,” I said, “that’s not even my worst briefing this week.”
I WAS ONLY half-joking; outside of economic briefings, I was spending much of my transition time in windowless rooms, getting the classified details on Iraq, Afghanistan, and multiple terrorist threats. Still, I remember leaving the meeting on the economy more energized than despondent. Some of my confidence was a matter of postelection adrenaline, I suppose—the untested, maybe delusional belief that I was up for the task at hand. I also felt good about the team I’d assembled; if anyone could come up with the answers we needed, I figured this group could.
Mostly, though, my attitude was a necessary acknowledgment of how life’s fortunes balance out. Given all that had gone my way during the campaign, I could hardly complain now about the bad cards we’d been dealt. As I’d remind my team more than once over the course of the next few years, the American people probably wouldn’t have taken a chance on electing me if things hadn’t been spinning out of control. Our job now was to get the policy right and do what was best for the country, regardless of how tough the politics might be.
That’s what I told them, anyway. Privately, I knew that the politics weren’t just going to be tough.
They were going to be brutal.
In the days leading up to the inauguration, I had read several books on FDR’s first term and the implementation of the New Deal. The contrast was instructive, though not in a good way for us. By the time Roosevelt was elected in 1932, the Great Depression had been wreaking havoc for more than three years. A quarter of the country was unemployed, millions were destitute, and the shantytowns that dotted the American landscape were commonly referred to as “Hoovervilles”—a fair reflection of what people thought of Republican president Herbert Hoover, the man FDR was about to replace.
So widespread was the hardship, so discredited were Republican policies, that when a new bout of bank runs occurred during what was then a four-month transition between presidencies, FDR made a point of rebuffing Hoover’s efforts to enlist his help. He wanted to make sure that in the public’s mind, his presidency marked a clean break, untarnished by past blunders. And when, in a stroke of luck, the economy showed signs of life just a month after he took office (before his policies had been even put into effect), FDR was happy not to share the credit with the previous administration.
We, on the other hand, were not going to have the benefit of such clarity. After all, I had already made the decision to help President Bush with his necessary though wildly unpopular response to the banking crisis, placing my hand on the proverbial bloody knife. To further stabilize the financial system, I knew, I’d likely have to do more of the same. (I was already having to twist the arms of some Senate Democrats just to get them to vote for the release of the second, $350 billion tranche of TARP funds.) As voters watched the situation get worse, which Larry and Christy said was all but assured, my popularity—along with that of the Democrats who now controlled Congress—was sure to plummet.
And despite the turmoil of the previous months, despite the horrific headlines of early 2009, nobody—not the public, not Congress, not the press, and (as I’d soon discover) not even the experts—really understood just how much worse things were about to get. Government data at the time was showing a severe recession, but not a cataclysmic one. Blue-chip analysts predicted that the unemployment rate would top out at 8 or 9 percent, not even imagining the 10 percent mark it would eventually reach. When, several weeks after the election, 387 mostly liberal economists had sent a letter to Congress, calling for a robust Keynesian stimulus, they’d put the price tag at $300 to $400 billion—about half of what we were about to propose, and a good indicator of where even the most alarmist experts had the economy pegged. As Axelrod described it, we were about to ask the American public to spend close to a trillion dollars on sandbags for a once-in-a-generation hurricane that only we knew was coming. And once the money was spent, no matter how effective the sandbags proved to be, a whole lot of folks would be flooded out anyway.
“When things are bad,” Axe said, walking next to me as we left the December meeting, “no one cares that ‘things could have been worse.’ ”
“You’re right,” I agreed.
“We’ve got to level-set people’s expectations,” he said. “But if we scare them or the markets too much, that will just add to the panic and do more economic damage.”
“Right again,” I said.
Axe shook his head dolefully. “It’s going to be one hell of a midterm election,” he said.
This time I said nothing, admiring his occasional, almost endearing ability to state the obvious. As it was, I didn’t have the luxury of thinking that far ahead. I had to focus on a second, more immediate political problem.
We had to get the stimulus bill through Congress right away—and Congress didn’t work very well.
THERE WAS A pervasive nostalgia in Washington, both before I was elected and during my presidency, for a bygone era of bipartisan cooperation on Capitol Hill. And the truth is that throughout much of the post–World War II era, the lines separating America’s political parties really had been more fluid.
By the 1950s, most Republicans had accommodated themselves to New Deal–era health and safety regulations, and the Northeast and the Midwest produced scores of Republicans who were on the liberal end of the spectrum when it came to issues like conservation and civil rights. Southerners, meanwhile, constituted one of the Democratic Party’s most powerful blocs, combining a deep-rooted cultural conservatism with an adamant refusal to recognize the rights of African Americans, who made up a big share of their constituency. With America’s global economic dominance unchallenged, its foreign policy defined by the unifying threat of communism, and its social policy marked by a bipartisan confidence that women and people of color knew their place, both Democrats and Republicans felt free to cross party lines when required to get a bill passed. They observed customary courtesies when it came time to offer amendments or bring nominations to a vote and kept partisan attacks and hardball tactics within tolerable bounds.
The story of how this postwar consensus broke down—starting with LBJ’s signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and his prediction that it would lead to the South’s wholesale abandonment of the Democratic Party—has been told many times before. The realignment Johnson foresaw ended up taking longer than he had expected. But steadily, year by year—through Vietnam, riots, feminism, and Nixon’s southern strategy; through busing, Roe v. Wade, urban crime, and white flight; through affirmative action, the Moral Majority, union busting, and Robert Bork; through assault weapons bans and the rise of Newt Gingrich, gay rights and the Clinton impeachment—America’s voters and their representatives became more and more polarized.
Political gerrymandering fortified these trends, as both parties, with the help of voter profiles and computer technology, drew congressional districts with the explicit aim of entrenching incumbency and minimizing the number of competitive districts in any given election. Meanwhile, the splintering of the media and the emergence of conservative outlets meant voters were no longer reliant on Walter Cronkite to tell them what was true; instead, they could hew to sources that reinforced, rather than challenged, their political preferences.
By the time I took office, this “big sort” between red and blue was close to complete. There were still holdouts in the Senate—a dozen or so moderate-to-liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats who were open to collaboration—but most of them were hanging on to their seats for dear life. In the House, wave elections in 2006 and 2008 had swept a dozen or so conservative Democrats from traditionally GOP districts into office. But on the whole, House Democrats skewed liberal, especially on social issues, with white southern Democrats an endangered species. The shift among House Republicans was even more severe. Purged of just about all of the remaining moderates, their caucus leaned further right than any in modern history, with old-school conservatives jockeying for influence with the newly emboldened breed of Gingrich disciples, Rush Limbaugh bomb throwers, Sarah Palin wannabes, and Ayn Rand acolytes—all of whom brooked no compromise; were skeptical of any government action not involving defense, border security, law enforcement, or the banning of abortion; and appeared sincerely convinced that liberals were bent on destroying America.
On paper, at least, none of this would necessarily stop us from getting a stimulus bill passed. After all, Democrats enjoyed a seventy-seven-seat majority in the House and a seventeen-seat majority in the Senate. But even in the best of circumstances, trying to get the largest emergency spending bill in history through Congress in record time would be a little like getting a python to swallow a cow. I also had to contend with a bit of institutionalized procedural mischief—the Senate filibuster—which in the end would prove to be the most chronic political headache of my presidency.
The filibuster isn’t mentioned anywhere in the Constitution. Instead, it came into being by happenstance: In 1805, Vice President Aaron Burr urged the Senate to eliminate the “motion to proceed”—a standard parliamentary provision that allows a simple majority of any legislature to end debate on a piece of business and call for a vote. (Burr, who seems never to have developed the habit of thinking things through, reportedly considered the rule a waste of time.) It didn’t take long for senators to figure out that without a formal way to end debate, any one of them could bring Senate business to a halt—and thereby extract all sorts of concessions from frustrated colleagues—simply by talking endlessly and refusing to surrender the floor. In 1917, the Senate curbed the practice by adopting “cloture,” allowing a vote of two-thirds of senators present to end a filibuster. For the next fifty years the filibuster was used only sparingly—most notably by southern Democrats attempting to block anti-lynching and fair-employment bills or other legislation that threatened to shake up Jim Crow. Gradually, though, the filibuster became more routinized and easier to maintain, making it a more potent weapon, a means for the minority party to get its way. The mere threat of a filibuster was often enough to derail a piece of legislation. By the 1990s, as battle lines between Republicans and Democrats hardened, whichever party was in the minority could—and would—block any bill not to their liking, so long as they remained unified and had at least the 41 votes needed to keep a filibuster from being overridden.
Without any constitutional basis, public debate, or even the knowledge of most Americans, passing legislation through Congress had come to effectively require 60 votes in the Senate, or what was often referred to as a “supermajority.” By the time I was elected president, the filibuster had become so thoroughly integrated into Senate practice—viewed as an essential and time-honored tradition—that nobody much bothered to discuss the possibility of reforming or doing away with it altogether.
And that is why—having just won an election by an overwhelming electoral margin and with the support of the largest congressional majority in many years—I still couldn’t rename a post office, much less pass our stimulus package, without winning a few Republican votes.
How hard could that be?
A MAJOR WHITE HOUSE initiative can take months to prepare. There are scores of meetings involving multiple agencies and perhaps hundreds of staffers. There are extensive consultations with interested stakeholders. The White House communications team is charged with choreographing a tightly managed campaign to sell the idea to the public, and the machinery of the entire executive branch is marshaled to pull in key committee chairs and ranking members. All of this takes place long before actual legislation is drafted and introduced.
We had no time for any of that. Instead, before I even took office, my still-unofficial and largely unpaid economic team worked nonstop through the holidays to flesh out the key elements of what would become the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (apparently “stimulus package” wouldn’t go over well with the public).
We proposed that nearly $800 billion be divided into three buckets of roughly equal size. In bucket one, emergency payments like supplementary unemployment insurance and direct aid to states to slow further mass layoffs of teachers, police officers, and other public workers. In bucket two, tax cuts targeted at the middle class, as well as various business tax breaks that gave companies a big incentive to invest in new plants or equipment now instead of later. Both the emergency payments and the tax cuts had the advantage of being easy to administer; we could quickly get money out the door and into the pockets of consumers and businesses. Tax cuts also had the added benefit of potentially attracting Republican support.
The third bucket, on the other hand, contained initiatives that were harder to design and would take longer to implement but might have a bigger long-term impact: not just traditional infrastructure spending like road construction and sewer repair but also high-speed rail, solar and wind power installation, broadband lines for underserved rural areas, and incentives for states to reform their education systems—all intended not only to put people to work but to make America more competitive.
Considering how many unmet needs there were in communities all across the country, I was surprised by how much work it took for our team to find worthy projects of sufficient scale for the Recovery Act to fund. Some promising ideas we rejected because they would take too long to stand up or required a huge new bureaucracy to manage. Others missed the cut because they wouldn’t boost demand sufficiently. Mindful of accusations that I planned to use the economic crisis as an excuse for an orgy of wasteful liberal boondoggles (and because I in fact wanted to prevent Congress from engaging in wasteful boondoggles, liberal or otherwise), we put in place a series of good-government safeguards: a competitive application process for state and local governments seeking funding; strict audit and reporting requirements; and, in a move we knew would draw howls from Capitol Hill, a firm policy of no “earmarks”—to use the innocuous name for a time-honored practice in which members of Congress insert various pet projects (many dubious) into must-pass legislation.
We had to run a tight ship and maintain high standards, I told my crew. With any luck, the Recovery Act wouldn’t just help avert a depression. It could also serve to restore the public’s faith in honest, responsible government.
By New Year’s Day, most of our initial work was finished. Armed with our proposal and knowing we couldn’t afford to work on a conventional timetable, Joe Biden and I traveled to the Capitol on January 5—two weeks before my inauguration—to meet with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, House Republican leader John Boehner, and the other key leaders of the newly installed 111th Congress whose support we’d need to get a bill passed.
Of the four key leaders, I knew Harry best, but I’d had my share of interactions with McConnell during my few years in the Senate. Short, owlish, with a smooth Kentucky accent, McConnell seemed an unlikely Republican leader. He showed no aptitude for schmoozing, backslapping, or rousing oratory. As far as anyone could tell, he had no close friends even in his own caucus; nor did he appear to have any strong convictions beyond an almost religious opposition to any version of campaign finance reform. Joe told me of one run-in he’d had on the Senate floor after the Republican leader blocked a bill Joe was sponsoring; when Joe tried to explain the bill’s merits, McConnell raised his hand like a traffic cop and said, “You must be under the mistaken impression that I care.” But what McConnell lacked in charisma or interest in policy he more than made up for in discipline, shrewdness, and shamelessness—all of which he employed in the single-minded and dispassionate pursuit of power.
Harry couldn’t stand him.
Boehner was a different animal, an affable, gravel-voiced son of a bartender from outside Cincinnati. With his chain-smoking and perpetual tan, his love of golf and a good merlot, he felt familiar to me, cut from the same cloth as many of the Republicans I’d gotten to know as a state legislator in Springfield—regular guys who didn’t stray from the party line or the lobbyists who kept them in power but who also didn’t consider politics a blood sport and might even work with you if it didn’t cost them too much politically. Unfortunately these same human qualities gave Boehner a tenuous grip on his caucus; and having experienced the humiliation of being stripped of a leadership post as a result of insufficient fealty to Newt Gingrich in the late 1990s, he rarely deviated from whatever talking points his staff had prepared for him, at least not in public. Unlike the relationship between Harry and McConnell, however, there was no real enmity between Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Boehner, just mutual frustration—on Nancy’s part because of Boehner’s unreliability as a negotiating partner and his frequent inability to deliver votes; on Boehner’s part because Nancy generally outmaneuvered him.
Boehner wasn’t the first to be outflanked by the Speaker. On the surface, Nancy, in her designer suits, matching shoes, and perfectly coiffed hair, looked every bit the wealthy San Francisco liberal she was. Though she could talk a mile a minute, she wasn’t particularly good on TV at the time, with a tendency to deliver Democratic nostrums with a practiced earnestness that called to mind an after-dinner speech at a charity gala.
But politicians (usually men) underestimated Nancy at their own peril, for her ascent to power had been no fluke. She’d grown up in the East, the Italian American daughter of Baltimore’s mayor, tutored from an early age in the ways of ethnic ward bosses and longshoremen, unafraid to play hardball politics in the name of getting things done. After moving to the West Coast with her husband, Paul, and staying home to raise their five kids while he built a successful business, Nancy eventually put her early political education to good use, rising steadily through the ranks of the California Democratic Party and Congress to become the first female Speaker in American history. She didn’t care that Republicans made her their favorite foil; nor was she fazed by the occasional grousing of her Democratic colleagues. The fact was, nobody was tougher or a more skilled legislative strategist, and she kept her caucus in line with a combination of attentiveness, fundraising prowess, and a willingness to cut off at the knees anyone who failed to deliver on commitments they’d made.
Harry, Mitch, Nancy, and John. The Four Tops, we sometimes called them. For most of the next eight years, the dynamics among these individuals would play a key role in shaping my presidency. I became accustomed to the ritualistic quality of our joint meetings, the way they’d file into the room one at a time, each offering a handshake and a muted acknowledgment (“Mr. President…Mr. Vice President…”); how, once we were all seated, Joe and I and sometimes Nancy would attempt some lighthearted banter, considering ourselves lucky if we got a tepid smile from the other three, while my staff brought in the press pool for the obligatory photo op; how, once the press had been ushered out and we got down to business, the four of them would take care not to show their cards or make firm commitments, their comments often sprinkled with thinly veiled recrimination directed at their counterparts, all of them unified only in their common desire to be somewhere else.
Perhaps because it was our first meeting since the election, perhaps because we were joined by their respective whips and deputies, and perhaps because of the gravity of what lay before us, the Four Tops were all on their best behavior when we gathered that day in early January in the opulent LBJ Room, just off the Senate chamber, along with other congressional leaders. They listened with studied attentiveness as I made the case for the Recovery Act. I mentioned that my team had already reached out to their staffs for input on actual legislation and that we welcomed any suggestions to make the stimulus package more effective. I noted that I also hoped to visit with each of their caucuses immediately after the inauguration to answer further questions. But given the rapidly worsening situation, I said, speed was of the essence: We needed a bill on my desk not in one hundred days but in thirty. I closed by telling those gathered that history would judge all of us by what we did in this moment and that I hoped we could muster the kind of bipartisan cooperation that would restore the confidence of an anxious and vulnerable public.
Considering what I was asking congressional leaders to do—to compress what might normally be a year-long legislative process into one month—the reaction around the room was relatively subdued. My longtime friend Dick Durbin, the Senate whip, asked about increasing the portion of stimulus dollars dedicated to infrastructure. Jim Clyburn, the House majority whip, offered a pointed history lesson on all the ways the New Deal had bypassed Black communities, asking how we were going to prevent the same thing from happening in places like his home state of South Carolina. Virginian Eric Cantor, the second-ranking Republican in the House and one of the conservative Young Turks known to be gunning for Boehner’s job, praised some of the tax cut proposals we had included in the package but asked whether a bigger, permanent tax cut wouldn’t work better than spending on what he considered failed liberal programs like food stamps.
It was, however, the comments from Harry, Mitch, Nancy, and John, delivered with teeth-clenching civility and requiring a bit of deciphering, that gave me and Joe our best sense of the real state of play.
“Well, Mr. President-Elect,” said Nancy, “I think the American people are pretty clear that you inherited a terrible mess. Just terrible. And of course our caucus is prepared to do the responsible thing to clean up this mess that you inherited. But I just hope our friends on the other side of the aisle remember how it was the Democrats, including you, Mr. President-Elect, who stepped up to the plate…Despite what we all know was bad politics…it was Democrats who were willing to help President Bush with TARP. I hope our Republican friends take the same responsible approach in what, as you said, is a very critical moment.” Translation: Don’t think for a minute that we won’t be reminding the American people every single chance we get that Republicans caused the financial crisis.
“Our caucus won’t like it,” Harry said, “but we don’t have much choice, so we’ll just have to get it done, okay?”
Translation: Don’t expect Mitch McConnell to lift a finger to help.
“Well, we’re happy to listen, but with all due respect, I don’t think the American people are looking for more big spending and bailouts,” Boehner said. “They’re tightening their belts, and they expect us to do the same.” Translation: My caucus will crucify me if I say anything that sounds cooperative.
“I can’t tell you there’s much of an appetite for what you’re proposing, Mr. President-Elect,” McConnell said, “but you’re welcome to come to our weekly luncheon to make your case.”
Translation: You must be under the mistaken impression that I care.
On our way down the stairs after the meeting was over, I turned to Joe.
“Well, that could have been worse,” I said.
“Yeah,” Joe said. “No fistfights broke out.”
I laughed. “See there? That’s progress!”
GIVEN HOW HECTIC everything was in the first few weeks after I took office, I barely had time to dwell on the pervasive, routine weirdness of my new circumstances. But make no mistake, it was weird. There was the way everyone now stood up anytime I walked into a room. “Sit down,” I’d growl, telling my team that those kinds of formalities weren’t my style. They’d smile and nod—and then do the exact same thing the next time we met.
There was the way my first name all but disappeared, used by nobody but Michelle, our families, and a few close friends, like Marty. Otherwise, it was “Yes, Mr. President” and “No, Mr. President,” although over time my staff at least adopted the more colloquial “POTUS” (president of the United States) when talking to or about me inside the White House.
There was the way my daily schedule had suddenly become a behind-the-scenes tug-of-war between various staffers, agencies, and constituencies, each one wanting their causes highlighted or their issues addressed, outcomes spit out through a hidden machinery that I never fully understood. Meanwhile, I discovered that whenever the Secret Service agents whispered into their wrist microphones, they were broadcasting my movements over a staff-monitored radio channel: “Renegade heading to residence” or “Renegade to Situation Room” or “Renegade to Secondary Hold,” which was their discreet way of saying I was going to the bathroom.
And there was the ever-present traveling press pool: a herd of reporters and photographers who needed to be alerted anytime I left the White House complex and would follow me in a government-provided van. The arrangement made sense when we traveled on official business, but I soon discovered that it applied in all circumstances, whether Michelle and I were going out to a restaurant or I was heading to a gym to play basketball or planning to watch one of the girls’ soccer games at a nearby field. As Gibbs, who was now my press secretary, explained, the rationale was that a president’s movements were inherently newsworthy and that the press needed to be on the scene in case something consequential happened. And yet I can’t recall the press van ever capturing any image more compelling than me getting out of a car wearing sweatpants. It did have the effect of eliminating whatever scraps of privacy I might still have had when venturing beyond the White House gates. Feeling mildly cranky about it, I asked Gibbs that first week whether we could leave the press behind when I went on personal outings.
“Bad idea,” Gibbs said.
“Why? The reporters crammed in that van must know it’s a waste of time.”
“Yeah, but their bosses don’t,” Gibbs said. “And remember, you promised to run the most open administration in history. You do this, the press will have a fit.”
“I’m not talking about public business,” I objected. “I’m talking about taking my wife on a date. Or getting some fresh air.” I’d read enough about previous presidents to know that Teddy Roosevelt once spent two weeks camping in Yellowstone, traveling by horse. I knew that during the Great Depression, FDR had passed weeks at a time sailing up the East Coast to an island near Nova Scotia. I reminded Gibbs that Harry Truman had gone for long morning walks through the streets of Washington during his presidency.
“Times have changed, Mr. President,” Gibbs said patiently. “Look, it’s your decision. But I’m telling you, getting rid of the press pool will create a shitstorm that we don’t need right now. It’ll also make it harder for me to get cooperation from them when it comes to the girls…” I started to answer, then shut my mouth. Michelle and I had already told Gibbs that our highest priority was making sure the press left our daughters alone when they were out and about. Gibbs knew I wasn’t going to do anything to jeopardize that. Having successfully repulsed my rebellion, he was wise enough not to gloat; instead he just patted me on the back and headed to his office, leaving me to mutter under my breath. (To their credit, members of the press would place Malia and Sasha off-limits for the duration of my presidency, an act of basic decency that I deeply appreciated.) My team did throw me one bone when it came to freedom: I was able to keep my BlackBerry—or, rather, I was given a new, specially modified device, approved only after several weeks of negotiations with various cybersecurity personnel. With it, I could send and receive emails, though only from a vetted list of twenty or so contacts, and the internal microphone and headphone jack had been removed, so that the phone function didn’t work. Michelle joked that my BlackBerry was like one of those play phones you give toddlers, where they get to press buttons and it makes noises and things light up but nothing actually happens.
Given these limitations, most of my contact with the outside world depended on three young aides who sat in the Outer Oval: Reggie, who had agreed to stay on as my body man; Brian Mosteller, a fastidious Ohioan who organized all my daily events within the complex; and Katie Johnson, Plouffe’s no-nonsense assistant from the campaign who now performed the same function for me. Together they served as my unofficial gatekeepers and personal life-support system, patching through my phone calls, scheduling my haircuts, providing briefing materials, keeping me on time, alerting me to upcoming staff birthdays and purchasing cards for me to sign, telling me when I’d spilled soup on my tie, enduring my rants and bad jokes, and generally keeping me functioning throughout the course of twelve- to sixteen-hour days.
The lone denizen of the Outer Oval past his mid-thirties was Pete Souza, our White House photographer. Middle-aged, compactly built, and with a swarthy complexion that reflected his Portuguese roots, Pete was on his second tour at the White House, having served as an official photographer for the Reagan administration. After various teaching stints and freelance assignments, Pete had landed at the Chicago Tribune, where he’d covered the early stages of the Afghan War as well as my start in the U.S. Senate.
I had liked him right away: In addition to having a photojournalist’s gift for capturing complex stories in a single image, Pete was smart, unpretentious, a bit curmudgeonly, but never cynical. After we won, he agreed to join the team on the condition that I allow him unfettered access. It was a measure of my confidence in him that I gave the okay, and for the next eight years Pete became a constant presence, skirting the edges of every meeting, witnessing every victory and defeat, occasionally lowering himself onto a creaky knee to get the angle he wanted, never making a sound other than the constant whirr of the camera’s shutter.
He also became a good friend.
In this new, curiously sealed habitat of mine, the fondness and trust I felt toward those I worked with and the kindness and support they showed me and my family were a saving grace. This was true for Ray Rogers and Quincy Jackson, the two young navy valets assigned to the Oval Office, who served refreshments to visitors and whipped up a solid lunch for me every day in the tiny kitchenette wedged next to the dining space. Or the White House Communications Agency staffers, among them two brothers named Nate and Luke Emory, who set up lecterns, prompters, and video shoots at a moment’s notice. Or Barbara Swann, who brought the mail each day and appeared incapable of anything other than a smile and sweet word for everyone.
And it was true of the residence staff. My family’s new living quarters seemed less a home than an extended series of suites in a boutique hotel, complete with a gym, pool, tennis court, movie theater, salon, bowling alley, and medical office. The staff was organized under the direction of chief usher Steve Rochon, a former Coast Guard rear admiral who was hired by the Bushes in 2007, becoming the first African American to hold the post. A cleaning crew came through each day, keeping the place spotless; a rotating team of chefs prepared meals for our family or, as sometimes happened, for a few hundred guests; butlers were on hand to serve those meals or anything else you might want; switchboard operators sat ready to put through calls at all hours and to make sure we woke up in the morning; ushers waited in the small elevator every morning to take me down to work and were there to greet me again upon my evening return; building engineers were on-site to fix what was broken; and in-house florists kept every room filled with magnificent, ever-varying, freshly cut flowers.
(It’s worth pointing out here—only because people were often surprised to hear it—that a First Family pays out of pocket for any new furniture, just as it does for everything else it consumes, from groceries to toilet paper to extra staff for a president’s private dinner party. The White House budget does set aside funds for a new president to redo the Oval Office, but despite some worn upholstery on the chairs and sofas, I decided that a historic recession wasn’t the best time to be going through fabric swatches.) And for the president, at least, there was a trio of navy valets, first among them a soft-spoken bear of a man named Sam Sutton. On our first full day in the White House, I walked through the hallway closet that connected our bedroom to my bathroom only to find every shirt, suit, and pair of pants I owned perfectly pressed and hung in orderly rows, my shoes shined to a high gloss, every pair of socks or shorts folded and sorted as if in a department store display. When in the evening I returned from the Oval Office and hung my (only lightly mussed!) suit in the closet (a significant improvement over my normal practice of draping it on the nearest doorknob, one of Michelle’s pet peeves), Sam came up beside me and gently but firmly explained that it would be better if from now on I just left the care of my clothes up to him—a switch that not only improved my general appearance but no doubt helped my marriage.
None of this was a hardship, of course. Still, it was a little disconcerting. During the campaign, Michelle and I had become accustomed to always having people around, but they hadn’t occupied our house, and we definitely weren’t used to having butlers and maids. In this new, rarefied air, we worried that the girls would get too coddled and slide into bad habits, and we instituted a rule (enforced with only average success) that they had to clean their rooms and make their beds before school each morning. My mother-in-law, loath to have anyone waiting on her, asked the staff for a lesson on using the washers and dryers so she could do her own laundry. Feeling a little embarrassed myself, I tried to keep the Treaty Room, which served as my personal office in the residence, free of the stacks of books, papers, and assorted junk that had characterized all my previous “Holes.” Gradually, thanks to the steady generosity and professionalism of the residence staff, we found ourselves settling in. We became especially close to our regular crew of chefs and butlers, with whom we had daily contact. As with my valets, all of them were Black, Latino, or Asian American, and all but one were men (Cristeta Comerford, a Filipina American, had been recently appointed as the White House’s executive chef, the first woman to hold the job). And while they were uniformly glad to have well-paying, secure jobs with good benefits, it was hard to miss in their racial makeup the vestiges of an earlier time, when social rank had clear demarcations and those who occupied the office of president felt most comfortable in their privacy when served by those they assumed were not their equals—and, therefore, could not judge them.
The most senior butlers were a pair of big, round-bellied Black men with sly senses of humor and the wisdom that comes from having a front-row seat to history. Buddy Carter had been around since the tail end of the Nixon presidency, first caring for visiting dignitaries at Blair House and then moving to a job in the residence. Von Everett had been around since Reagan. They spoke of previous First Families with appropriate discretion and genuine affection. But without saying much, they didn’t hide how they felt about having us in their care. You could see it in how readily Von accepted Sasha’s hugs or the pleasure Buddy took in sneaking Malia an extra scoop of ice cream after dinner, in the easy rapport they had talking to Marian and the pride in their eyes when Michelle wore a particularly pretty dress. They were barely distinguishable from Marian’s brothers or Michelle’s uncles, and in that familiarity they became more, not less, solicitous, objecting if we carried our own plates into the kitchen, alert to even a hint of what they considered substandard service from anyone on the residence staff. It would take us months of coaxing before the butlers were willing to swap their tuxedos for khakis and polo shirts when serving us meals.
“We just want to make sure you’re treated like every other president,” Von explained.
“That’s right,” Buddy said. “See, you and the First Lady don’t really know what this means to us, Mr. President. Having you here…” He shook his head. “You just don’t know.”
WITH SUPPORT FROM Speaker Pelosi and Democratic House Appropriations Committee chair Dave Obey, as well as heroic efforts from our still-skeletal staff, we were able to get the Recovery Act legislation drafted, introduced in the House, passed out of committee, and scheduled for a full vote of the House—all by the end of my first week in office.
We considered it a minor miracle.
It helped that congressional Democrats were enthusiastic about the core elements of the package—although that didn’t stop them from griping about all sorts of particulars. Liberals complained that the business tax cuts were giveaways to the rich. More centrist Dems expressed anxiety about how the big price tag would play with their more conservative constituents. Members across the spectrum complained about how direct aid to states would only help Republican governors balance their budgets and appear fiscally responsible, even as those same governors accused the folks in Congress of spending like drunken sailors.
This kind of low-grade grumbling was par for the course with any major legislative initiative, regardless of who was in the White House. It was especially common among Democrats, who for a variety of reasons (a more diverse makeup, a greater aversion to authority) seemed to take an almost perverse pride in their lack of message discipline. When some of these complaints spilled into the press, with reporters hyping a handful of stray comments as a possible sign of dissension in the ranks, Rahm or I made sure to lob a call at the worst transgressors so we could explain—in plain and sometimes unprintable terms—just why it was that headlines like KEY DEMOCRATS BLAST OBAMA STIMULUS PLAN or DEMOCRATS MAKE CLEAR THEY WILL GUARD TURF were not exactly helpful to the cause.
Our message was received. On the margins, we made some concessions in the drafted legislation, boosting funding for congressional priorities, trimming dollars from some of our own. But when the dust had settled, the legislation contained close to 90 percent of what our economic team had originally proposed, and we’d succeeded in keeping the bill free of earmarks and egregious wastes of money that might discredit it in the eyes of the public.
Just one thing was missing: Republican support.
From the start, none of us had been particularly optimistic about getting a big chunk of Republican votes, especially in the aftermath of billions already spent on financial rescue. Most House Republicans had voted against TARP despite significant pressure from a president of their own party. Those who had voted for it continued to face withering criticism from the Right, and there was a growing belief within Republican circles that one of the reasons they had done so badly in successive elections was that they’d allowed President Bush to lead them astray from conservative, small-government principles.
Nevertheless, coming out of our early-January meeting with congressional leaders, I had told my team to ramp up our Republican outreach. Not just for show, I said; make a serious effort.
The decision exasperated some Democrats, especially in the House. Having been in the minority for over a decade, House Democrats had been entirely shut out of the legislative process. Now that they were in control, they were in no mood to see me offer concessions to their former tormentors. They thought I was wasting my time, being naïve. “These Republicans aren’t interested in cooperating with you, Mr. President,” one member told me bluntly. “They’re looking to break you.” I figured they might be right. But for a variety of reasons, I felt it was important to at least test the proposition. Getting the two Republican votes we needed for a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate would be a lot easier, I knew, if we first secured a decent Republican vote count in the House—safety in numbers being a maxim by which almost every politician in Washington lived. Republican votes would also provide useful political cover for Democrats representing conservative-leaning parts of the country, who were already looking ahead to tough reelection races. And truthfully, just the act of negotiating with Republicans served as a handy excuse to deflect some of the less orthodox ideas that occasionally surfaced from our side of the aisle (“I’m sorry, Congressman, but legalizing marijuana isn’t the kind of stimulus we’re talking about here…”).
But for me, reaching out to Republican members wasn’t just tactical. Since my convention speech in Boston and through the closing days of my campaign, I had argued that people across the country weren’t as divided as our politics suggested, and that to do big things we needed to move past partisan bickering. And what better way to make an honest effort to reach across the aisle than from a position of strength, at a time when I didn’t necessarily need support from House Republicans to get my agenda passed? I thought that maybe, with an open mind and a bit of humility, I might catch GOP leaders by surprise and ease their suspicions, helping to build working relationships that could carry over to other issues. And if, as was more likely, the gambit didn’t work and Republicans rejected my overtures, then at least voters would know who was to blame for Washington’s dysfunction.
To lead our Legislative Affairs office, we had recruited a savvy former senior House Democratic staffer named Phil Schiliro. He was tall and balding, with a high-pitched laugh that masked a quiet intensity, and from Congress’s first day in session Phil set out in search of negotiating partners, calling in me or Rahm or Joe Biden to help court individual members where necessary. When some Republicans expressed interest in more infrastructure, we told them to give us a list of their priorities. When others said they couldn’t vote for a bill that included contraception funding dressed up as stimulus, we urged Democrats to strike the provision. When Eric Cantor suggested a reasonable modification to one of our tax provisions, despite the fact there was no chance he’d be voting for the bill, I told my staff to make the change, wanting to send a signal that we were serious about giving Republicans a seat at the table.
Yet with each passing day, the prospect of Republican cooperation appeared more and more like a distant mirage. Those who’d initially expressed interest in working with us stopped returning our phone calls. GOP members of the House Appropriations Committee boycotted hearings on the Recovery Act, claiming that they weren’t being seriously consulted. Republican attacks on the bill in the press became less restrained. Joe reported that Mitch McConnell had been cracking the whip, preventing members of his caucus from even talking to the White House about the stimulus package, and Democratic House members said they’d heard the same thing from their GOP counterparts.
“We can’t play” was how one Republican apparently put it.
Bleak as things looked, I thought I still might have a chance to sway a few members during my visits to the House and Senate Republican caucuses, both of which were scheduled on January 27, the eve of the House vote. I took extra time to prepare my presentation, making sure I had all the facts and figures at my fingertips. The morning before the meetings, Rahm and Phil joined me in the Oval Office to review the arguments we thought Republicans might find most persuasive. We were about to load my motorcade for the drive to Capitol Hill when Gibbs and Axe walked into the Oval Office and showed me an AP wire story that had just come in, right after Boehner’s meeting with his caucus. HOUSE REPUBLICANS URGED TO OPPOSE STIMULUS BILL.
“When did this happen?” I asked, scanning the article.
“About five minutes ago,” Gibbs said.
“Did Boehner call to give us a heads-up?” I asked.
“No,” Rahm said.
“Am I correct to assume, then, that this shit’s not on the level?” I said, as the group of us started heading outside toward the Beast.
“That would be correct, Mr. President,” Rahm said.
The caucus meetings themselves weren’t overtly hostile. Boehner, Cantor, and House Republican Conference chair Mike Pence were already at the lectern when I arrived (deftly avoiding a private conversation about the stunt they’d just pulled), and after Boehner’s brief introduction and some polite applause, I stepped up to speak. It was my first time at a House Republicans gathering, and it was hard not to be struck by the room’s uniformity: row after row of mostly middle-aged white men, with a dozen or so women and maybe two or three Hispanics and Asians. Most sat stone-faced as I briefly made the case for stimulus—citing the latest data on the economy’s meltdown, the need for quick action, the fact that our package contained tax cuts Republicans had long promoted, and our commitment to long-term deficit reduction once the crisis had passed. The audience did perk up when I opened the floor for a series of questions (or, more accurately, talking points pretending to be questions), all of which I cheerfully responded to as if my answers mattered.
“Mr. President, why doesn’t this bill do anything about all those Democratic-sponsored laws that forced banks to give mortgages to unqualified borrowers and were the real cause of the financial crisis?” (Applause.) “Mr. President, I’ve got a book here for you that shows the New Deal didn’t end the Depression but actually made things worse. Do you agree that the Democrats’ so-called stimulus is just repeating those mistakes and will leave a sea of red ink for future generations to clean up?” (Applause.) “Mr. President, will you get Nancy Pelosi to put her partisan bill aside and start over with the truly open process that the American people are demanding?” (Cheers, applause, a few hoots.)
On the Senate side, the setting felt less stilted. Joe and I were invited to sit around a table with the forty or so senators in attendance, many of them our former colleagues. But the substance of the meeting was not much different, with every Republican who bothered to speak singing from the same hymnal, describing the stimulus package as a pork-filled, budget-busting, “special-interest bailout” that Democrats needed to scrap if they wanted any hope of cooperation.
On the ride back to the White House, Rahm was apoplectic, Phil despondent. I told them it was fine, that I’d actually enjoyed the give-and-take.
“How many Republicans do you think might still be in play?” I asked.
Rahm shrugged. “If we’re lucky, maybe a dozen.”
That proved optimistic. The next day, the Recovery Act passed the House 244 to 188 with precisely zero Republican votes. It was the opening salvo in a battle plan that McConnell, Boehner, Cantor, and the rest would deploy with impressive discipline for the next eight years: a refusal to work with me or members of my administration, regardless of the circumstances, the issue, or the consequences for the country.
YOU MIGHT THINK that for a political party that had just suffered two cycles of resounding defeat, the GOP strategy of pugnacious, all-out obstruction would carry big risks. And during a time of genuine crisis, it sure wasn’t responsible.
But if, like McConnell and Boehner, your primary concern was clawing your way back to power, recent history suggested that such a strategy made sense. For all their talk about wanting politicians to get along, American voters rarely reward the opposition for cooperating with the governing party. In the 1980s, Democrats retained their grip on the House (though not the Senate) long after Ronald Reagan’s election and the country’s shift to the right, in part because of the willingness of “responsible” Republican leaders to help make Congress work; the House flipped only after a Gingrich-led GOP turned Congress into an all-out brawl. Similarly, Democrats made no inroads against a Republican-controlled Congress by helping pass President Bush’s tax cuts or his prescription drug plan; they won back the House and Senate when they began challenging the president and Republican leaders on everything from Social Security privatization to the handling of the Iraq War.
Such lessons weren’t lost on McConnell and Boehner. They understood that any help they offered my administration in mounting an effective, sustained government response to the crisis would only be to my political benefit—and would tacitly acknowledge the bankruptcy of their own anti-government, anti-regulation rhetoric. If, on the other hand, they fought a rearguard action, if they generated controversy and threw sand in the gears, they at least had a chance to energize their base and slow me and the Democrats down at a time when the country was sure to be impatient.
In executing their strategy, Republican leaders had a couple of things going for them—starting with the nature of modern news coverage. From my time in the Senate and on the campaign trail, I’d gotten to know most of the national political reporters, and on the whole, I found them to be smart, hardworking, ethical, and committed to getting their facts straight. At the same time, conservatives weren’t wrong to think that in their personal attitudes the majority of news reporters probably fell at the more liberal end of the political spectrum.
This would seem to make these reporters unlikely accomplices in McConnell’s and Boehner’s plans. But whether out of fear of appearing biased, or because conflict sells, or because their editors demanded it, or because it was the easiest way to meet the deadlines of a twenty-four-hour, internet-driven news cycle, their collective approach to reporting on Washington followed a depressingly predictable script: Report what one side says (quick sound bite included).
Report what the other side says (opposing sound bite, the more insulting the better).
Leave it to an opinion poll to sort out who’s right.
Over time, my staff and I became so resigned to this style of “he said / he said” coverage that we could joke about it. (“In dueling press conferences today, the debate over the shape of planet Earth heated up, with President Obama—who claims the Earth is round—coming under withering attack from Republicans who insist that the White House has covered up documents proving the Earth is flat.”) In those first few weeks, though, with our White House communications team barely in place, we could still be surprised. Not just by the GOP’s willingness to peddle half-truths or outright lies about the contents of the Recovery Act (the claim that we were planning to spend millions on a Mob Museum in Las Vegas, for example, or that Nancy Pelosi had included $30 million to save an endangered mouse), but by the willingness of the press to broadcast or publish these whoppers as straight news.
With enough badgering from us, an outlet might eventually run a story that fact-checked Republican claims. Rarely, though, did the truth catch up to the initial headlines. Most Americans—already trained to believe that the government wasted money—didn’t have the time or inclination to keep up with the details of the legislative process or who was or wasn’t being reasonable in negotiations. All they heard was what the Washington press corps told them—that Democrats and Republicans were fighting again, politicians were splurging, and the new guy in the White House was doing nothing to change it.
Of course, efforts to discredit the Recovery Act still depended on the ability of GOP leaders to keep their members in line. At a minimum, they needed to make sure the stimulus package didn’t get enough support from stray Republicans to be deemed “bipartisan,” since (as McConnell would later explain) “when you hang the bipartisan tag on something, the perception is that differences have been worked out.” Their task was made easier now that the majority of GOP members hailed from districts or states that were solidly Republican. Their base of voters, fed a steady diet of Fox News, talk radio, and Sarah Palin speeches, was in no mood for compromise; in fact, the biggest threat to these representatives’ reelection prospects came from primary challengers who might accuse them of being closet liberals. Rush Limbaugh had already castigated Republicans like McCain for saying that with the election over, they now hoped for my success. “I hope Obama fails!” the talk radio show host had thundered. Back in early 2009, most Republican elected officials didn’t consider it wise to be quite that blunt in public (it was a different story in private, as we would later learn). But even those politicians who didn’t share Limbaugh’s sentiments knew that with that single statement, he was effectively channeling—and shaping—the views of a sizable chunk of their voters.
Big conservative donors weighed in as well. Panicked by the cratering economy and the impact it was already having on their members’ bottom lines, traditional business organizations like the Chamber of Commerce eventually came out in favor of the Recovery Act. But their influence over the Republican Party had by then been supplanted by billionaire ideologues like David and Charles Koch, who had spent decades and hundreds of millions of dollars systematically building a network of think tanks, advocacy organizations, media operations, and political operatives, all with the express goal of rolling back every last vestige of the modern welfare state. For them, all taxes were confiscatory, paving the road to socialism; all regulations were a betrayal of free-market principles and the American way of life. They saw my victory as a mortal threat—which is why, shortly after my inauguration, they pulled together a conclave of some of America’s wealthiest conservatives in a smartly manicured resort in Indian Wells, California, to map out a strategy to fight back. They didn’t want compromise and consensus. They wanted war. And they let it be known that Republican politicians without the stomach to resist my policies at every turn would not only find donations drying up but also might find themselves the target of a well-financed primary challenge.
As for those Republicans who were still tempted to cooperate with me despite lobbying from constituents, donors, and conservative media outlets, good old-fashioned peer pressure usually did the trick. During the transition, I had met with Judd Gregg, a capable, decent GOP senator from New Hampshire, and offered to make him commerce secretary—part of my effort to deliver on my promise of bipartisan governance. He’d readily accepted, and in early February, we announced his nomination. With Republican opposition to the Recovery Act growing more boisterous by the day, though, as McConnell and the rest of leadership worked him over in caucus meetings and on the Senate floor and former First Lady Barbara Bush reportedly stepped in to dissuade him from joining my administration, Judd Gregg lost his nerve. A week after we’d announced his nomination, he called to withdraw.
Not every Republican picked up on the rapidly shifting mood within their own party. On the day the Senate was to vote on the Recovery Act, I found myself in Fort Myers, Florida, at a town hall–style meeting meant to drum up public support for the bill and allow me to answer questions about the economy. Joining me was Florida governor Charlie Crist, a moderate Republican with a friendly, polished demeanor and the kind of good looks—tanned, silver-haired, sparkling white teeth—that seemed straight out of central casting. Crist was hugely popular at the time, having cultivated an image of someone who could work across party lines, avoiding divisive social issues and instead focusing on promoting business and tourism. He also knew that his state was in big trouble: As one of the hot spots of subprime lending and the housing bubble, Florida had an economy and state budget in free fall and in desperate need of federal help.
It was out of both temperament and necessity, then, that Crist agreed to introduce me at the town hall and publicly endorse the stimulus bill. Despite the fact that home values in Fort Myers had dropped about 67 percent (with a full 12 percent of houses in foreclosure), the crowd was raucous and energized that day, mostly Democratic and still swept up in what Sarah Palin would later call the “hopey, changey stuff.” After Crist offered up a reasonable, somewhat cautious explanation of why he supported the Recovery Act, pointing out its benefits for Florida and the need for elected officials to put people before party politics, I gave the governor what was my standard “bro hug”—a handshake, an arm around the back for a pat, an appreciative look in the eye, a thank-you in the ear.
Poor Charlie. How could I know that my two-second gesture would prove to be a political kiss of death for him? Within days of the rally, footage of “the hug”—accompanied by calls for Crist’s head—began appearing in right-wing media outlets. In a matter of months, Crist went from a Republican star to a pariah. He was called a poster child for appeasement, the kind of weak-kneed, opportunistic RINO who needed to be made an example of. It would take time for the whole thing to play out: In the 2010 U.S. Senate race, Crist was forced to run as an independent and got clobbered by conservative upstart Marco Rubio; Crist eventually mounted a political comeback only by switching parties and winning one of Florida’s congressional seats as a Democrat. Nevertheless, the immediate lesson was not lost on congressional Republicans.
Cooperate with the Obama administration at your own peril.
And if you have to shake his hand, make sure you don’t look happy about it.
LOOKING BACK, IT’S hard for me not to fixate on the political dynamics that unfolded in those first weeks of my presidency—how quickly Republican resistance hardened, independent of anything we said or did, and how thoroughly that resistance colored the way the press and ultimately the public viewed the substance of our actions. After all, those dynamics set the course for so much of what happened in the months and years that followed, a cleaving of America’s political sensibilities that we are still dealing with a decade later.
But in February 2009, I was obsessed with the economy, not politics. So it’s worth pointing out a relevant piece of information that I omitted from the Charlie Crist story: A few minutes before I walked out onstage to give him that hug, I got a call from Rahm letting me know that the Recovery Act had just cleared the Senate, assuring the legislation’s eventual passage through Congress.
How we got it done can’t be considered a model for the new brand of politics I’d promised on the campaign trail. It was old-school. Once the House vote made clear that a broadly bipartisan bill wasn’t in the cards, our focus narrowed to securing 61 Senate votes—61 because no Republican senator could afford to be tagged as the sole vote that put Obama’s bill over the top. In the radioactive atmosphere McConnell had orchestrated, the only Republicans even willing to consider supporting us were three self-identified moderates from states in which I’d won handily: Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Those three, along with Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska—the unofficial spokesman for the half dozen Democrats from conservative states whose priority on every controversial issue was to position themselves somewhere, anywhere, to the right of Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, thereby winning the prized label of “centrist” from Washington pundits—became the gatekeepers through which the Recovery Act had to pass. And none of these four senators were shy about charging a hefty toll.
Specter, who had already battled two bouts of cancer, insisted that $10 billion of the Recovery Act go to the National Institutes of Health. Collins demanded the bill be stripped of dollars for school construction and that it include an “AMT patch”—a tax provision that prevented upper-middle-class Americans from paying a higher tax bill. Nelson wanted extra Medicaid money for rural states. Even as their priorities added billions, the group insisted that the overall bill had to come in under $800 billion, because any figure higher than that just seemed “too much.” As far as we could tell, there was no economic logic to any of this, just political positioning and a classic squeeze play by politicians who knew they had leverage. But this truth went largely unnoticed; as far as the Washington press corps was concerned, the mere fact that the four senators were working in “bipartisan” fashion signified Solomonic wisdom and reason. Meanwhile, liberal Dems, particularly in the House, were furious with me for letting a “Gang of Four” effectively determine the final contents of the bill. Some went so far as to suggest that I barnstorm against Snowe, Collins, Specter, and Nelson in their home states until they relinquished their “ransom” demands. I told them this wasn’t going to happen, having calculated (with concurrence from Joe, Rahm, Phil, Harry, and Nancy) that strong-arming tactics would likely backfire—and also shut the door on getting the quartet’s cooperation on any other bill I might try to pass in the future.
Anyway, the clock was ticking; or, as Axe later described it, the house was burning and those four senators had the only fire hose. After a week of negotiations (and plenty of cajoling, pestering, and hand-holding of the senators by me, Rahm, and especially Joe), an agreement was reached. The Gang of Four mostly got what they wanted. In return, we got their votes, while retaining almost 90 percent of the stimulus measures we’d originally proposed. Other than the votes of Collins, Snowe, and Specter, the modified, 1,073-page bill passed both the House and the Senate strictly along party lines. And less than a month after I took office, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was ready for me to sign into law.
THE SIGNING CEREMONY took place before a small crowd at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. We had asked the CEO of an employee-owned solar energy company to introduce me; and as I listened to him describe what the Recovery Act would mean to his business—the layoffs averted, the new workers he’d hire, the green economy he hoped to promote—I did my best to savor the moment.
By any conventional yardstick, I was about to sign historic legislation: a recovery effort comparable in size to FDR’s New Deal. The stimulus package wouldn’t just boost aggregate demand. It would help millions weather the economic storm, extending unemployment insurance for the jobless, food assistance for the hungry, and medical care for those whose lives had been upended; supply the broadest onetime tax cut for middle-class and working-poor families since Reagan; and provide the nation’s infrastructure and transportation systems the biggest infusion of new spending since the Eisenhower administration.
That’s not all. Without losing our focus on short-term stimulus and job creation, the Recovery Act would also put a massive down payment on campaign commitments I’d made to modernize the economy. It promised to transform the energy sector, with an unprecedented investment in clean energy development and efficiency programs. It would finance one of the largest and most ambitious education reform agendas in a generation. It would spur on the transition to electronic medical records, which had the potential to revolutionize America’s healthcare system; and it would extend broadband access to classrooms and rural areas that had been previously shut out of the information superhighway.
Any one of these items, if passed as a stand-alone bill, would qualify as a major achievement for a presidential administration. Taken together, they might represent the successful work of an entire first term.
Still, after I toured the solar panels on the museum’s rooftop, stepped up to the podium, and thanked the vice president and my team for making it all happen under extreme pressure; after I expressed my appreciation for those in Congress who’d helped get the bill over the finish line; after I used my multiple pens to sign the Recovery Act into law, shook everybody’s hand, and gave a few interviews—after all that, as I finally found myself alone in the back of the Beast, the main emotion I felt was not triumph but deep relief.
Or, more accurately, relief with a heavy dose of foreboding.
If it was true that we had gotten a couple of years’ worth of work done in a month, we had also spent down a couple of years’ worth of political capital just as fast. It was hard to deny, for example, that McConnell and Boehner had clobbered us on the messaging front. Their relentless attacks continued to shape coverage of the Recovery Act, with the press trumpeting every spurious accusation of waste and malfeasance. Some pundits embraced the GOP-driven narratives that I had failed to reach out enough to Republicans in shaping the bill, thereby breaking my promise to govern in a bipartisan fashion. Others suggested that our agreement with Collins, Nelson, Snowe, and Specter represented cynical Washington horse-trading rather than “change we can believe in.” Public support for the Recovery Act had grown over the weeks it had taken to pass the bill. But soon enough, the noise would have an impact, reversing that trend. Meanwhile, a decent portion of my own Democratic base—still flush with election-night hubris and agitated by Republican unwillingness to roll over and play dead—seemed less content with everything we’d managed to get into the Recovery Act than mad about the much smaller number of things we’d had to give up. Liberal commentators insisted that if I had shown more spine in resisting the Gang of Four’s demands, the stimulus would have been bigger. (This despite the fact that it was twice as big as what many of these commentators had been calling for just a few weeks earlier.) Women’s groups were unhappy about the contraception provisions that had been removed. Transportation groups complained that the increase in mass transit dollars wasn’t all they had sought. Environmentalists seemed to be spending more time objecting to the small fraction of funding that went to clean coal projects than celebrating the Recovery Act’s massive investment in renewable energy.
Between Republican attacks and Democratic complaints, I was reminded of the Yeats poem “The Second Coming”: My supporters lacked all conviction, while my opponents were full of passionate intensity.
None of this would have worried me if passing the Recovery Act was all we needed to do to get the economy to start working again. I was confident that we could effectively implement the legislation and prove our critics wrong. I knew that Democratic voters would stick with me for the long haul, and my own poll numbers with the general public remained high.
The problem was that we still had at least three or four more big moves to make in order to end the crisis, each one just as urgent, each one just as controversial, each one just as hard to pull off. It was as if, having ascended the face of a big mountain, I now found myself looking out over a series of successively more perilous peaks—while realizing that I had twisted an ankle, bad weather was coming, and I’d used up half my supplies.
I didn’t share these feelings with anyone on my team; they were frazzled enough as it was. Suck it up, I told myself. Tighten your laces. Cut your rations.
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