Sunday Review

Revivial: the struggle for survival inside the Obama White House by Richard Wolffe – reviewed by Anthony Painter

The American constitution is a wonderful construct for a nation of reasonable men and women. The problem is that the political representatives who currently populate the nation’s capital are not, in the main, reasonable people. There is an exception to this- the president. But how can you lead as a reasonable man in a political system stacked with checks and balances which allow unreasonable people to obstruct reasonable endeavour?

The answer as Present Obama has discovered since new intake entered Congress in 2011- with Republican control of the House of Representatives- is with enormous difficulty. It is like attempting to lead while restrained in manacles. And despite extreme restraint it is the president who will be called to account for the political madness that is now engulfing Washington as the battle over raising the debt ceiling reaches its insane climax.

Birmingham born Richard Wolffe’s Revival: the struggle for survival inside the Obama White House is the second book about this presidency from the de facto official biographer of the Obama White House. Renegade: the making of a president was the first in a series in which there will surely be more to follow. At the centre of the latest book is a discussion about the revivalist (idealist) instincts of the president versus the survivalist (pragmatic) instincts. I’m not sure that it is much of a spoiler to say that Obama ends up as both. Survival is necessary but not sufficient in the making a great president.

Familiar personalities drift into the story during the early months of 2010 which is the period on which the book concentrates. Those who remain from the campaign such as David Axelrod or return such as David Plouffe tend to embody the president’s revivalist trait while the survivalists tend to be Washington insiders such as Rahm Emmanuel. The president’s first chief of staff gets a bit of a rough ride. One of his colleagues says of Emmanuel: “It’s all tactics and no strategy. That’s something the president feels very strongly he’s missing. How do I get from here to where I want to go?” We are never quite told where that destination is. Much of the book feels unsatisfactory. It’s not really enough to assess a leader along an idealism versus pragmatism axis. Each leader combines both. It seems pretty clear now that the president is more a survivalist than a revivalist. How could a president be anything else in the US system? There are moments when idealism becomes the pragmatic course. The norm though is messy compromise and incremental change. The real test of a leader is whether they can spot and exploit those moments and their judgement in responding in the right way.

On this measure, Obama has performed reasonably well. He’s a reasonable man and his instinct is to seek consensus and compromise. Sometimes makes it seem as if he reaches for leadership as a last resort. And yet, on recovery and reinvestment, healthcare reform, don’t ask, don’t tell, a new budget deal, and Afghanistan withdrawal he has driven the agenda at key moments.

Reasonable men reach for consensus first. Time and again he has demonstrated the virtue of restraint and compromise: choosing Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State; reaching out to Iran; seeking a bi-partisan deal on healthcare; pursuing consensus and balance on reducing the federal deficit; finding a cooperative way of dealing with Dmitry Medvedev of Russia; and allowing France and Britain to make the running on confronting Colonel Gaddafi. It has often worked to his advantage. More often, this has been on the international stage as he works to define a more restrained and collegiate model of American leadership.

David Axelrod describes Obama, in ‘style and principle’, as closest to John F Kennedy. In achievement so far he is greater than John F Kennedy. Yet, many who voted and campaigned for him thought they were buying Bobby not Jack. And that is why so many are disappointed.

This is was always likely to be the case with so much expectation. It is also unfair. He is not in the national destiny changing category of a Johnson or a Roosevelt. He’s in the bracket below that hitherto which is to his credit given the circumstances in which he became president.

Somehow though there is still a search to reconcile the transformative candidate and inspirational global voice with the instinctive pragmatist who resides in the Oval Office. Wolffe’s book doesn’t ultimately take us closer to an understanding unfortunately. There’s some good observational research but the president himself remains frustratingly elusive.

Pressing questions remain: what does Barack Obama want to achieve in office? Why remain reasonable when faced with Tea Party lunacy every which way you turn? Who can he really trust? Is his presidency about more than helping America adapt to relative decline? What constitutes real change? Does he have the right approach but in the wrong times?

Hopefully, future editions of Wolffe’s series on the presidency will go much deeper into these questions. Survival is not sufficient without revival as Wolffe concludes. While this work suggests the Obama presidency shifted towards the latter in its second year, it has decisively swung back in a survivalist direction since.

He snookered himself with raising the debt ceiling which should have been included in the budget deal struck during the ‘lame duck’ session- which was anything but- after last year’s mid-term elections. In a battle between the dove and hawk, it is the hawk that wins. Without finding a way to win as a dove then there are fundamental questions to ask about a potential second term for Obama assuming that the Republicans maintain or advance their power in Congress but fall short in the race for the White House.

A system designed for Obamas has been hijacked by Ryans, Cantors, and Coburns. Unless the reasonable president can find new methods to win the argument then it’s time to rip up the founding fathers and start again. The next period of the American republic’s history will decide rather more than simply the legacy of one president. Maybe his legacy can be to fix the system once and for all: making Washington a place of reason and reasonableness again. That would be real revival.

Anthony Painter is an author and critic.

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