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'Revival' Author Outlines White House Identity Crisis

Observers applaud in the East Room of the White House on March 23, the day President Obama signed the health care bill. Author Richard Wolffe writes that Obama was holding back tears amid the "hullabaloo" -- and that moment helps explain why the president insisted on moving forward on the bill when senior advisers thought it was "insane."
J. Scott Applewhite
Observers applaud in the East Room of the White House on March 23, the day President Obama signed the health care bill. Author Richard Wolffe writes that Obama was holding back tears amid the "hullabaloo" -- and that moment helps explain why the president insisted on moving forward on the bill when senior advisers thought it was "insane."

Democrats are still deciding the direction to take following what President Obama described as a shellacking.

Richard Wolffe, for one, knows something about the way they operate from the inside. He interviewed Obama and the president's senior staff for his new book, Revival: The Struggle for Survival Inside the Obama White House, which tracks an intense period around the president's first anniversary in office.

Wolffe has spoken to people in the White House since the midterms about where they think they went wrong.

"Their feeling is that they haven't been able to connect properly with voters -- they haven't been able to say what they're trying to do, either on the economy, in terms of the Recovery Act, or about heath care -- and they got outmaneuvered in any number of different ways," Wolffe tells Morning Edition co-host Steve Inskeep. "Now, as many people say, these are people with considerable communications skills -- there's no shortage of talent inside the White House, and they have a huge communications staff. So, the question is: Why?

"And that comes down to identity: Who are these people? What are they trying to do? That's an unresolved debate for them. And until you can resolve that, you can't communicate properly."

While a failure to communicate may sound like an easy answer, Wolffe says, there are poll data to suggest that the public is really confused.

"Polling shows that people blame the Bush administration and Wall Street for the economy, but they don't think that the president has a clear idea about how to create jobs," he says. "On health care -- which was supposed to have been the big conclusion coming out of this election -- opinion is pretty much divided."

In addition, Wolffe says, while a third of the $800 billion-plus stimulus bill the president supported was for tax cuts, "there are lots of people who got those tax cuts and that had no idea where the money was coming from -- they thought it came from their employers.

"So, you know, here is a situation where you're trying to be all things to all people and you end up being nothing much to anyone."

'Two Rival Camps'

The identity problem, Wolffe says, can be traced to "two rival camps" in the White House, "competing for attention, for message, for direction -- and that debate goes on in the president's head, too."

Wolffe calls them the "Revivalists" and the "Survivalists." The former group wants "a revival of the campaign spirit" and feels that they have lost "that brand, that vision, that sense of reform -- that sense of being an outsider." The Survivalists, on the other hand, are "the Washington crowd who believe that you had to compromise, you had to make deals -- the backroom deals -- you had to do whatever it took.

"And these two pieces of the White House have left the grand message, the grand identity questions, unresolved. And I think they're unresolved because the president hasn't resolved them -- he has a foot in both camps."

For an example of a Survivalist official in the White House, Wolffe points to former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

" 'He was 100 percent loyal ' -- this is a quote -- '100 percent loyal to the president but he thought half of his decisions were insane,' " Wolffe says. "Their idea here was: Here was a guy who understood Washington, who would make these deals, who would compromise, and yet, they didn't figure out that he could not bend to the ways of the campaign, didn't understand it, and in their view -- in the Revivalists' view -- he sought to undermine what they'd done in the campaign."

In the other camp, Wolffe says, were people like campaign strategist David Plouffe and, "to some degree," White House senior adviser David Axelrod.

"There were real tensions for [Axelrod]. He felt that, much like the president, they had to shift from campaigning to governing," Wolffe says. "And what they woke up too late to was the fact that the other side, the Republicans, never stopped campaigning."

'They're Struggling'

So, how does Obama, who could be seen as trying to do too much, stack up against his predecessor, President George W. Bush, who was accused of oversimplifying things but also was clear about what he stood for?

"What the White House would say is they achieved a lot in that first year -- maybe people don't know about it. So, on the domestic basis, clearly they have an impressive record by any standards of recent presidents," Wolffe says. "But in terms of the messaging, in terms of the mission, if you go around asking people, 'What did President Bush stand for?' -- they'd come up with some kind of variation on 'Killing the terrorists,' 'war on terror.'

"If you asked people now, if you asked Democrats, 'What does this White House stand for?' -- they're struggling. And I do think that comes back to this identity question of the revival of the campaign versus the people who wanted to just survive and get by."

'Here To Do Big Stuff'

Wolffe writes that Obama was holding back tears when he finally signed the health care bill. He says that it helps answer an important question: why Obama stubbornly insisted on moving forward with the health care overhaul when others advised against it.

"This was clearly a decision that his own chief of staff didn't agree with, and there were other senior advisers who thought this was insane, lunatic, to risk the presidency on it," Wolffe says. "And it comes down to the memory of his mother.

"So, his mother passed away because of cancer. Her experience in her final days and months was about struggling with insurance companies over ... the question of pre-existing conditions. And if you listen to the president, what does he talk about most?" Wolffe says. "It's about insurance companies quibbling with patients about pre-existing conditions.

"And he tears up -- it's strange that people didn't kind of notice it -- in all of the hullabaloo around the signing in the East Room, he can barely keep it together. And that's very, very rare -- to see a president, especially this president, who is struggling, fighting with himself, to hold back the tears."

Although the health care overhaul may have hurt Democrats at the polls, it wouldn't have been Obama's style not to go for it, Wolffe says.

"He goes around telling people that he would rather do big stuff and be a one-term president than small stuff and be a second-term. So all those people who say he should be more like Clinton -- he should have gone small, not done health care, backed away -- that's not his self-image," Wolffe says. "In that sense, and this is not going to please partisans on either side, he's kind of like President Bush -- the stubborn self-image of saying, 'I'm here to do big stuff; I don't care what the price is.'

"The difference ... is that Bush had a simple, clear message and he would repeat it until everyone was sick of it, including himself. This president feels like everyone's heard it already -- 'You know about this stuff, right? You know what's in health care or the Recovery Act.'

"Well, it turns out people don't."

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