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Excerpt: 'Revival'

Revival by Richard Wolffe


The day after he signed health care reform into law, and into the history books, Barack Obama was walking the hallways of the West Wing in unusually high spirits. He had just endured the most desperate struggle for political survival since his presidential campaign.

Two months earlier, on the anniversary of his extraordinary inauguration, his presidency was pronounced dead, his political capital spent, his party in disarray. His domestic agenda was lost, along with the Senate seat held by the late Ted Kennedy, who had loudly championed both health care and Obama's election.

But today he paced through his aides' offices in his shirtsleeves, with an energy that had been absent from those hallways for the last several weeks. "We're fired up and ready to go!" he said as he burst out of the office of his press secretary and longtime aide Robert Gibbs. The next day he would return to Iowa City, for a rally with the students of the University of Iowa, where he had promised to deliver health care reform three years earlier. The young voters of Iowa had believed in him and his candidacy at a time when his campaign was flatlining and even he harbored doubts about his prospects. Yet Iowa had proved the pundits wrong about the renegade candidate, and health care had done the same for the ambitious new president.

The last two months seemed to mirror the long campaign, with its huge pendulum swings from failure to triumph and back again. Looking back through the prism of his ultimate victory, Obama seemed destined to win. But that was not the reality of the campaign in real time. He was an ingenue until he won in Iowa; then he was an overnight phenomenon. His defeat in New Hampshire turned him into just another flash in the pan; then victory in South Carolina turned him into a postracial healer. He was on a winning streak for a month of primaries; then he was a loser who could not close the deal for several months. He united a confident party with Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton in Denver; then he watched his party promptly lose its head for the next several weeks over Sarah Palin.

His presidency followed the same trajectory: from the historic unity of his inauguration to the determined opposition of congressional Republicans; from the quick passage of the vast Recovery Act to the slow death of health care and the defeat in Massachusetts. Now the pendulum had swung back toward triumph with his signing of health care reform, and he was savoring the moment of delivering on a big campaign promise.

"Hey, what are you doing here?" he asked me, as he glimpsed me sitting in the corner outside Gibbs's office, waiting to interview one of his aides. "How did you get one of those big fancy passes?" he asked, pointing to the red press pass around my neck.

"Stand up," one of his staffers whispered to me as she jumped to attention. I looked at her, and looked at him. The president rolled his eyes, and I rolled mine. "Yeah, sorry," I said, standing up slowly. I asked how it felt to have just made history with health care.

"I'm good," he said. "This is a big day."

They were all big days at this stage of his presidency. When he wasn't confronting Republicans, negotiating with members of Congress, or rallying Democrats, he was confronting the Iranian regime, negotiating with the Israeli prime minister, and rallying allies. All presidents need to balance their domestic and international policies, and they all bounce between the planned events of their agenda and the chaos of the latest crisis. But he was emerging from a series of crises with a spirit of revival and a sense of humor.

"Gibbs, do you know Wolffe is here? Have you all checked the thumb drives?"

This book is the result of more than two months of intensive, daily reporting from the White House, and several more months of extensive interviews with every senior West Wing official from the president and vice president on down. While Obama's aides did not share their thumb drives, they did share memos, PowerPoints, notes, and many hours of real-time and rearview observations.

The initial idea was to paint a portrait of a White House at work, as it pivoted from governing to campaigning in the midterm elections and beyond. The traditional notion of the first year (or the first one hundred days) seemed totally arbitrary; you could only tell the full story of a presidency after four or eight years. So this book was intended as a picture of a work in progress, covering thirty days of action from the economy to national security. Gibbs identified mid-January to mid-February 2010 as a good month to start the stopwatch, "because health care will be over by then," he assured me two months earlier. He could not have been more wrong. Health care, along with the presidency, moved from the disaster of the Massachusetts defeat to the realization of a Democratic dream. In a two-month span, around the first anniversary of Obama's inauguration, you could trace the arc of this presidency. On the journey from near death to rebirth, you could see the near-fatal flaws and the dogged defense, the internal rifts and the instincts that led to recovery.

More than capturing the behind-the-scenes drama of the West Wing, one of my goals was to examine the core question of this new presidency: how did the president and his staff transition from campaigning to governing? The Obama White House faced a unique version of this age- old challenge. Obama had spent twenty-one months campaigning to be president, far longer than any of his recent predecessors. The campaign was more than just the formative experience of his aides: it was their shared identity. Not until the midterm elections of 2010 had they spent the same length of time inside the White House as on the campaign trail. For a president who had managed nothing of size until his own campaign, this was more than just a question of counting months. His adaptation from electioneering to governing -- finding a balance between his campaign spirit and his presidential persona -- was the essential challenge inside the Obama White House. Could he bring Change to Washington without Washington changing him?

Excerpted from Revival: The Struggle for Survival Inside the Obama White House by Richard Wolffe  Copyright 2010 by Richard Wolffe. Excerpted by permission of Crown Publishers, a division of Random House Inc.

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Richard Wolffe