[Editor's note: This article is adapted from David Corn's new book, Showdown: The Inside Story of Obama's Fight to Save His Presidency. Also read the inside story of the tense White House night during the bin Laden raid.
Illustration: Eddie Guy
It was the spring of 2011, and Barack Obama was preparing for a Big Speech about the deficit. He wanted to counter the draconian budget plan released by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) that slashed government programs and ended the Medicare guarantee. In a brainstorming session with top aides, he said he'd been thinking about his recent trip to Chile.
"I'm going to other parts of the world and they're showing me tremendous investments in infrastructure and innovations in education," Obama told them. "They're willing to spend money on that. The Republican budget reflects a fundamental pessimism. It says that to get the deficit in line, we can't afford to be as visionary as these countries, and we can't be optimistic because they're not willing to let an extra penny come from high-income people." Smaller nations were aiming bigger.
Obama had a lot of pent-up passion. He'd just come through weeks of brutal budget negotiations that had resulted in $38.5 billion in cuts. Now, with a government shutdown averted, Obama felt the time had come to get tough. He wanted to draw lines and call out the Republicans.
The speech he gave on April 13 slammed the GOP for painting a downer picture of the country's future: "It's a vision that says if our roads crumble and our bridges collapse, we can't afford to fix them. If there are bright young Americans who have the drive and the will but not the money to go to college, we can't afford to send them…Worst of all, this is a vision that says even though Americans can't afford to invest in education at current levels, or clean energy, even though we can't afford to maintain our commitment on Medicare and Medicaid, we can somehow afford more than $1 trillion in new tax breaks for the wealthy. Think about that."
Republicans were irate—and nervous. The president was aiming to gain the high ground in the values war, and this blast was far sharper than any he'd fired in a long while. But then Obama's assault evaporated. Within the White House, the order came down from on high: Tone down the rhetoric until we make a deal to lift the debt ceiling.
Some Obama-ites were in a more pugilistic mood. The speech had struck the right note, a former senior adviser told me later: "Why not repeat that five times? Emphasize why we won't cut off the vulnerable, why government investment is important. Why not follow up over and over?" Austan Goolsbee, then chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, had produced a whiteboard video explaining what was wrong and excessive about the Ryan budget, but the White House decided not to release it.
Obama and other aides were worried about a financial meltdown if the debt ceiling was not raised. David Axelrod, Obama's message guru, told me, "The decision was made to allow the negotiations to proceed until the president needed to intervene." As Robert Gibbs put it, "It's difficult to put out your right hand to shake their hands and then strike them with your left hand."
This fit a pattern that had long disappointed (and, at times, enraged) congressional Democrats and grassroots activists: Obama would proclaim his progressive inclinations and then trade in the soaring rhetoric for negotiations that yielded uninspiring compromises. Many of the president's supporters wondered: What was he doing? Why not consistently pummel the tea partiers on the Hill if he truly wanted a fight over values?
For most of the past year, I have been investigating what makes the Obama White House tick, conducting scores of interviews with past and present administration officials for my forthcoming book, Showdown. The overarching tale that emerged was that while the third year of Obama's presidency did not produce outcomes sufficient for frustrated liberals, it did mark the end of the compromiser-in-chief. Through the budget fight and then the debt ceiling dustup, Obama and his aides felt constrained by their responsibility to prevent the economic damage a shutdown or debt freeze would cause. They had to negotiate with hostage takers, some of whom were willing to shoot the hostages. But once the debt ceiling crisis was resolved, that changed.
Days after the compromise was announced, Obama called Gene Sperling, his top economic adviser, into his office. Bring me a major jobs plan, he said. By next week. The latest employment numbers were frightening; it seemed that the anemic recovery could be stalling out. Though chief White House strategist David Plouffe and communications director Dan Pfeiffer worried about pitching a pricey initiative, in Oval Office meetings Obama demanded a jobs package that would make a difference.
In one of these discussions, Obama asked Sperling, "Put Congress and politics aside. If you were trying to fix the economy, what would you do?"
Spend money to help states hire and retain teachers, Sperling said. This would help preserve consumer demand in the short term and prevent the education system from deteriorating and becoming a drag on the nation's future.
Why isn't that in the plan? Obama asked.
Republicans won't pass it, Sperling said.
Let's decide what we believe is best, Obama said. Vice President Joe Biden savvily suggested adding police officers, firefighters, and other first responders. At another meeting—after the bill for Sperling's jobs plan had crept up from $350 billion to about $450 billion—Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, who was usually Mr. Fiscal Discipline, backed up Sperling. Plouffe agreed that the larger price tag would make the plan harder to sell, but he noted that it would illustrate the bold difference between the president and the Republicans.