Author’s thesis about Obama’s ‘Revival’ is flawed
Inside-the- White House accounts of the presidency have become such a routine commodity in publishing that the genre has its own subsets.
One consists of the personal — usually self-justifying — reminiscences of disgruntled former staff members or cabinet secretaries. George W. Bush’s administration spawned so many of those that you sometimes got the feeling that meetings in the executive mansion must have felt like a mafia sit-down where every second participant is a government informer wearing a wire. The other sub-category is the episodic “instant history” derived from fly-on-the-wall access supplemented by extensive interviews of which Bob Woodward is the practitioner par excellence.
Cable news analyst and longtime political reporter Richard Wolffe’s “Revival: The Struggle for Survival Inside the Obama White House” belongs to the latter group. Barack Obama’s presidency, though barely more than two years old, already has generated three such volumes — Wolffe’s; Jonathan Alter’s genuinely definitive account of the president’s first year in office, “The Promise”; and Woodward’s finely detailed sketch of the new chief executive as commander-in-chief, “Obama’s Wars.” Although Wolffe’s reconstruction contains a good bit of first-rate reporting and a dogged interest in the personalities of the whole cast of White House players, its value is mainly as a supplement to the two earlier books.
In part, that’s a matter of timing. Despite the title, the author’s research stopped short of the Democrats’ — and the administration’s — disastrous showing in the midterm elections, which cost the president his majority in the House. The “revival” Wolffe has in mind is the one he believes occurred in the aftermath of the bruising battle over healthcare reform and the painfully stuttering attempts to come to grips with the economic crisis triggered by Wall Street’s catastrophic meltdown. It was during the early months of 2010, according to the author, that Obama came to grips with his administration’s shortcomings and reinvigorated his presidency.
That’s a bit hard to find convincing and, charitably, remains to be seen.
The significance — or, at least, the immediate relevance — of Wolffe’s account also is undermined by the fact that two of the White House personalities who proved most problematic and divisive and who loom particularly large in his narrative — chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and Larry Summers, who headed the National Economic Council — have left. Summers, who is portrayed as arrogant, abrasive and indifferent even to the president’s demands, appears to have been a particularly divisive figure in an administration desperately needing cohesion as it attempted to cobble together policies equal to the economic crisis. One interesting corrective offered by Wolffe’s reporting is the view that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, usually suspected of nurturing an overly soft spot for Wall Street because of his service with the New York Fed, actually has been a friend of reform in most instances.
In this book’s portrayal, Emanuel emerges as a fascinating, utterly driven character. Why he was chosen as chief of staff is an interesting question. “Rahm is 100% loyal to the president,” one senior West Wing staff member told Wolffe, “but he thinks half his decisions are insane. He viewed healthcare in that context.” Emanuel also vehemently dissented from Obama’s desire to pursue comprehensive immigration reform, which he viewed as politically suicidal.
“Unlike his boss,” the author writes, “Emanuel wasn’t interested in looking reasonable with Republicans; he wanted to look victorious. He didn’t care much for uniting red and blue America; he wanted blue America to beat its red rival. He didn’t really agree with some of the core values of the Obama campaign — especially the notion that the new politics could be cleaner than the old. And he wasn’t much convinced by Obama’s reasoning on healthcare: that this was a once-in-a-generational chance to pass comprehensive reform. He saluted and followed orders. He fretted about turning the orders into action. But if the orders needed modification on the long road to victory, then he was ready to use the older politics or be less comprehensive. The logic of deal making was not the logic of Change.”
This portrait of the former chief of staff is part of a larger thesis Wolffe has about the early Obama administration, which he sees as having been divided between “Revivalists,” true believers in the amorphously compelling promise of change on which Obama campaigned, and “Survivalists, who held that the new administration needed to bend to the realities required by the transition from campaigning to governing.” David Axelrod, Valerie Jarrett and Robert Gibbs fall into the former camp; Emanuel and Peter Rouse into the latter. The leading figures of the survivalist faction obviously have left the administration, but Axelrod and Gibbs are departing as well, though to work on the president’s reelection campaign.
Wolffe takes his thesis a bit further and posits that the presence of these contending — if not antagonistic — factions was a deliberate choice on Obama’s part, a reflection of the dialectic he carries on within his own mind between a visionary style and pragmatic, conciliatory inclinations. Perhaps, although there’s little in “Revival” that would have predicted the influx of ex- Bill Clinton aides into the Obama administration; though witnessing the postmortem after last November’s midterm shellacking might have.
Much of best material in this book has to do with the bitter infighting surrounding the drafting and passage of the healthcare reform bill. I’m inclined to agree with both the view that it was the most important piece of social legislation passed in half a century and with the anxieties that the president and first lady express in Wolffe’s account that Obama has done a remarkably poor job persuading the electorate of that.
How the candidate whose soaring rhetoric elevated and electrified the last presidential election turned into the pedantic, distracted president who failed to communicate on this issue and — despite his background — failed to grasp the enormous urgency of joblessness and the economic crisis remains a bit of a mystery. Perhaps it will be solved in the next book of “instant history,” which surely is somewhere in progress.