Alter’s New Book

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The first draft of history is always going to be controversial, especially when it’s on something as touchy as health care reform – monstrous legislation the full effects of which we will not know for years to come. So it should probably come as no surprise that Jonathan Alter’s take on Barack Obama’s first year in the White House, entitled The Promise, President Obama, Year One would ruffle a few feathers on Capitol Hill, most notably on health care reform. Alter’s prism and narrative is through the eyes of the White House, whereas most on the Hill believe the credit lies at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, after all they’ve borne (and likely will most acutely feel in November) the brunt of the blame.

Newsweek’s Alter, a self-described progressive, is more than gentle on Obama’s handling of the process.

One of the big surprises for Obama at the beginning was how much he had to deal with the petty egos of Congress. As the health care debate heated up after Labor Day he spent dozens of hours in meetings with members. But because he lacked the elemental neediness of most politicians, he could never fully relate to their desire to be stroked. For the president, schmoozing members was like raising money or working a rope line. He didn’t loathe all the gripping and chit-chat; often he’d pick something up, the way Lincoln did in the 1860s when he took his “public opinion baths.” But he didn’t savor it either, as many politicians did. All things being equal, he would rather be upstairs reading a tome on nonproliferation or watching ESPN. And so he had to work at the part of being president that required being an actor. When he attended an event that didn’t particularly interest him, he wasn’t playing himself. He was playing “Barack Obama” in a costume he had carefully pasted together with a glue of self-interest, and he was playing himself well. The question was how long he could keep it up. He had convinced himself that charming members of Congress with room-temperature IQs was an important part of the presidency; his success depended on it. Or did it? Somewhere along the line the dimension of the job that he liked the least – dealing with Congress—had come to define his first year. In the name of getting things done, he had lashed himself to another branch of government – a broken branch.

Keep in mind, I received an advance copy of the book and the final version, Alter tells me, is tougher in some places. I was given the copy last week by Hill staffers upset at the way Congress was portrayed in the book, particularly in the two chapters on health care reform. It is hard to pity Obama for, well, doing his job. Getting legislation through Congress – leading and passing bills – is a huge part of the job description. And, though health care eventually passed, Obama was perhaps playing the wrong role. “[T]he President remained unfailingly genteel,” Alter writes. “He believed there was one sure way to alienate members of Congress and that was to throw one’s weight around.”

If only Obama had thrown his weight around! August 2009 through March 2010 might have been avoided. Defending this, Alter notes in a telephone interview a quote in the book from an unnamed White House official saying: “I love Max Baucus, but I wish we’d put our foot down harder and said, it’s over Max.” But Baucus wasn’t the only problem: Obama’s reluctance to say no to Ben Nelson or Joe Lieberman’s demands for special deals caused more headaches for Dems than they were worth. His inability to reign in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer when – over Obama’s objections – they ditched negotiations with Maine Republican Olympia Snowe and made a final, and nearly fatal, push for a public plan. If Obama had only introduced his own plan – or even outline –six months before his address to the Joint Session, a lot of heartache and drawing of arbitrary lines in the sand might have been avoided. In fact, Alter scoops, the White House did actually have a secret 800-page bill of their own. Apparently throughout the summer of 2010 2009, Rahm (and, note to Alter, it’s pretty obvious who your sources are when you call everyone in the book by their last names except for “Rahm” and “Ax”) “worked his staff to the bone” writing the secret legislation that would be their contingency plan if all else failed.

The White House bill, which was never released, closely tracked what Obama said later in his speech before Congress: it taxed Cadillac plans, but with certain exemptions for labor; used tax credits (as favored by the Senate) to improve affordability; stayed neutral on the [OMB director Peter] Orszag’s “best practices” debate; and included a kind of modest tort reform Obama was already on the record supporting. It included no public option because the White House knew that was a non-starter.

Alter discounts the work of Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in finally seeing the bill done. He presents Pelosi – along with Obama’s entire political staff, Chuck Schumer, Byron Dorgan and Christine Romer – as staunch opponents to attempting health care reform. Obama alone is seen as willing to try, as the President himself calls it to Alter, “a Herculean lift.” “I remember telling Nancy Pelosi that moving forward on this could end up being so costly for me politically that it would effect my changes if I were to run for reelection,” Obama tells Alter. Obama argued back to her that it not now “it was not going to be done.”

Even though he did not draft the bill, it has come to be known as “Obamacare” and will be – for better or for worst – one of the crowning achievements that history will remember of Obama’s first term. “On the idea of winning- it’s always messy,” Alter tells me. “He has joined [Franklin] Roosevelt and [Lyndon] Johnson as a President of great domestic accomplishment. He gets the credit, even though he may have screwed up here or there, but in the final analysis he won and if he’d lost nobody would’ve given him credit for good intentions.” Yes, health care reform could not be done without Obama, but there’s a case to be made that it also couldn’t have been done without Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Max Baucus, Olympia Snowe and any number of people in the sausage making process. But sausage makers aren’t sexy and they don’t sell books. The Promise, published by Simon & Schuster, will be out May 18.