The Luncheon Society/MSNBC’s Richard Wolffe on his new book, “Revival, The Struggle for Survival in the Obama White House”/Los Angeles—Café Del Rey/December 6, 2010

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There are times when Luncheon Society gatherings come blessed with unbelievable serendipitude; our evening dinner in Santa Monica with MSNBC’s Richard Wolffe underlined our luck.

Hours earlier, President Obama announced that he had struck a deal with the Republicans to extend the Bush era tax cuts for another two years, including those who made above $250,000 per year. There would be much to discuss.

It was a compromise that ran counter to promises from his 2008 campaign.  A number of progressive commentators, along with many around our table, howled with cries of “betrayal,” and “weak.”  However, as I scribbled a few recollections a month later, it appears that the President has rebuilt his fortunes, recaptured his momentum, and even may have gotten the last laugh. 

First, when any deal is struck between Congress and the White House, the President (by virtue of the gravitas of the office) earns the lion share of the accolades. Like baseball, the tie goes to the runner.  Second, by removing the tax cut extension issue as a thorn, it opened the door for some landmark legislation, including the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the New START Treaty, the Food Safety Bill, the Defense Authorization bill , and a continuing resolution to keep funding the federal government.

A Lame Duck Feast of Humble Pie for the GOP.  For Republicans who won the House and demonstrated thunder in the Senate only weeks earlier, they were routed in the Lame Duck session. Even Lindsay Graham of South Carolina concluded, “When it’s all going to be said and done, Harry Reid has eaten our lunch.”

With that culinary remark, we were pleased that MSNBC’s Richard Wolffe retuned to The Luncheon Society to discuss his latest book, “Revival The Struggle For Survival In the Obama White House”.  Some, including me, wondered if the title reflected something illusory in light of the tax deal. However, the President, Speaker Pelosi, and Majority Leader Reid played a very shrewd game in the 11th hour of the 111th Congress.

Governing is often poles apart from campaigning because they require different skills; the latter rewards simple clarity while the former is married to the vagaries of compromise.  By the end of the 111th Congress, The Obama White House piled up a decent legislative record, even if it fell on some deaf ears.   

  • State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) Reauthorization.
  • American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Stimulus)
  • Car Allowance Rebate System (Cash for Clunkers)
  • Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act
  • The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Healthcare reform)
  • The Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2010
  • The Small Business Jobs Act of 2010
  • Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act
  • Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010
  • Senate approval of New START (for Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty)
  • Senate approval of two new Supreme Court justices, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan

As a follow up to Renegade, Wolffe received unrestricted access to the White House during the final stages of the healthcare debate.  Wolffe noted that the Obama Administration learned from the Clinton effort in 1993-94. The Clintons faced too many enemies in the early going. Obama and his team and focused their sights on the insurance industry after they cut early deals with Big Pharma and the AMA, deals that sidelined a pair of 800 pound elephants that had upended past healthcare reform efforts.  

The battle between Survivalists and Revivalists. The title of Wolffe’s book reflected the divisions found in the Obama White House, “Survivalists” (mostly former Clinton staffers like Rahm Emmanuel, Peter Rouse, and others who lived through the political landscape of the Clinton White House post-Healthcare) looked for incremental wins by hitting singles and doubles. On the other hand, “Revivalists” wanted the Obama White House to live up to the expectations from the 2008 campaign and hit a number of game changing grand slams. They were part of Obama’s campaign brain trust inner circle and included people like Valerie Jarrett, David Plouffe, Robert Gibbs, David Axelrod, and Anita Dunn. Throughout the first two years of the Obama Administration, the question remained this: Where would Obama land—was he a Survivalist, Revivalist, or a little of both? 

Leveraging a Team of Rivals: Obama with Clinton. Perhaps the greatest surprise was the selection of Hillary Clinton as Obama’s Secretary of State which took place during a long courtship in the weeks after the election. Considering they (along with their staffs) savaged each other in internecine warfare throughout the, many wondered if old wounds would fester into the new Administration. In fact, several former Clinton campaign staffers became commentators at Fox News.  They were often critical of Obama and one even suggested that Obama should retire after one term.

However, it became clear that Secretary Clinton enjoyed her new role and subordinated her ambition to the new President. There were still occasional flare-ups at the staff level.  Cheryl Mills, who served in a senior slot in Clinton 08, often butted heads with White House staffers over Ambassadorial appointments and other inter-agency issues. 

The Toxicity within the Economic Team.  The steep drop of the economic downturn attracted the brightest but not always the best. Nobody doubted Lawrence Summer’s intellectual wattage or his wealth of experience as Secretary of Treasury in the latter stages of the Clinton White House.  However, Summers badly handled his tenure as President of Harvard and resigned after he received a “No Confidence” vote from the faculty due to comments about the lack of women in science.

Some speculated that Summers remained angry the he was denied the Treasury post because Director of the White House National Economic Council was somehow beneath his ego. Wolffe wrote, “He clashed especially with Peter Orszag at the Budget office and with Christina Romer at the Council of Economic Advisers, and at the end of the administration’s first year, Wolffe writes, “Obama’s senior staffs were hoping that Summers would leave of his own accord.” Summers clashed with Obama as well, picking fights over the president’s attempts to increase lending to small businesses. “It was incredibly frustrating for the president,” said one senior aide. Summers even made enemies in the Environmental Protection Agency, when he fought the EPA’s attempt to regulate toxic coal ash, saying the industry couldn’t afford new costs.”

Healthcare Miracle. The opportunity for healthcare reform, Wolffe noted, comes once per generation. In order to ensure passage of the Social Security Acts of 1935, FDR edited out the healthcare section.  During Truman’s presidency, healthcare reform ran into the AMA, the ABA, and southern segregationalists who believed that reform would break down segregation. It failed. Lyndon Johnson signed Medicare and Medicaid with huge political majorities built from his 1964 landslide.  Nixon and Carter created platforms for healthcare reform but liberals like Ted Kennedy balked because they were not comprehensive enough and these efforts died stillborn. Reagan signed COBRA in 1985 and the Clintons signed S-CHIP in 1997 from its ashes of its healthcare failure. By 2008, Obama gave Democrats another shot at reform.

Wolffe notes Obama was able to learn from the Clinton failure by using both levers of the Revivalist and Survivalist tracks. By cutting those critical early deals through survivalists like Rahm Emmanuel, Obama was able to focus his fire on the insurance industry. After the election of Scott Brown, it appeared the healthcare reform died inches from the goal line and Emmanuel was trying to revive a smaller version of reform that would be amenable to his Survivalists instincts.  But thanks to the ham–handed efforts of Anthem Blue Cross, they announced rate increases as much as 39%, the arguments for reform found a new audience. The Revivalists argument took hold and carried the day. After working through some issues on abortion with conservative Democrats like Bart Stupak, the bill was signed by President Obama in March of 2010. Implementation will take place in phases until 2018, when the Healthcare reform will be fully enacted.

Winning the battle but losing the House. The Obama White House sorely underestimated the discontent that raged below the surface, not only among conservative votes but independents as well.  At the heart of the anger was the Tea Party Movement, an irregular white hot group of conservatives who brought a wide variety of anti-Obama grievances to the table, crystallized by their dislike of Obamacare and the man himself.  While some of their messages appeared to be contradictory (Keep government out of our Medicare) and others trumpeted “Second Amendment solutions” who brought automatic weapons to Presidential visits, the anger resonated nationally. Congressional Town Halls became shouting matches and some worried that an uglier tone was in the offing.

In truth, the White House failed to communicate a compelling narrative that was seen during the 2008 presidential election. Congressional majorities built up in 2006 and 2008 now ebbed rightward and concerns were raised throughout the summer and early fall.  Worse, the Obama Administration found itself hooked to the falling star of high unemployment, the slow response to the BP Disaster, and the bitter taste of a stagnant economy which coalesced as people began to vote by mail.

Democrats saw the wave in the distance and prepared as best as possible. Money was raised and key districts were targeted for funds while other incumbents were left twisting in the wind. In the end, Democrats took a pasting in the House. Republicans, led by the fervor of Tea Party candidates and an enthusiasm gap in their favor, they picked up 63 seats, the best mid-term showing in decades for any party.  

However, Democrats surprisingly held on in the Senate, perhaps aided by the rightward lurch of Tea Party candidates who knocked off mainstream Reagan Republicans in their primaries. Christine O’Donnell’s win kept the Delaware seat in Democratic hands and Sharon Angle helped to resurrect the fortunes of Harry Reid, who was political road-kill only months earlier.

Wolffe notes that the pain of 2009 carried over into 2010. However, if there was any solace in the loss, the Obama came away with a legislative agenda that he could use in 2012, as the economy moves toward recovery.

No Drama Obama” retools for 2012.  The midterm losses, not unlike what took place in 1994, gave Obama a chance to tack to the middle and fence tactically against Speaker Boehner.  The team that won the 2008 election, like David Axelrod, Robert Gibbs, and David Plouffe will no doubt gravitate back toward the reelection headquarters in Chicago for 2012. Unlike the personal dramas that permeated the Clinton White House, there appears to be no personal blemishes that could upend a reelection bid. Each Administration operates on the imprimatur of the occupant’s temperament and in the end, that might be Barack Obama’s ace in the hole.

The Luncheon Society ™ is a series of private luncheons and dinners that take place in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Manhattan.  We essentially split the costs of gathering and we meet in groups of 20-25 people. Discussions center on politics, art, science, film, culture, and whatever else is on our mind. Think of us as “Adult Drop in Daycare.” We’ve been around since 1997 and we’re purposely understated. These gatherings takes place around a large table, where you interact with the main guest and conversation becomes end result.  There are no rules, very little structure, and the gatherings happen when they happen. Join us when you can.

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