Chapter 2: A New Administration
The earliest days of the Obama White House were, as could be expected, awash with optimism. Fresh-faced interns and junior staff members who had left Hill offices with their idealism still at least somewhat intact roamed the hallways and sent photos home to their parents, posing like JFK with hands in their pockets, or sitting like FDR with a Bic pen jutting jauntily from their lips instead of a cigarette holder. Otherwise they did their best impressions of stern old pros, trying not to smile, world-weary in a chipper way.
And I remember the senior staff, too, before the exhaustion set in. There was Rahm Emanuel, whom we younger guys all admired for his legendary toughness and mischievousness and the air of intelligence he wore as easily as his perfectly tailored suits. He seemed to combine all the best attributes of the Clinton vets and Obama’s Chicago reformers, and when I could work up the courage to look him in the eye and see that glimmer, that sharpness and confidence, it was not impossible to think that, in this White House, the country would be healed.
I met him for the first time at a small gathering during the transition. “Don’t fuck up,” he told me with a half smile. I think there was a mutual affection from the start, or hoped there was at least.
Occasionally I would even see Vice President Joe Biden walking around. “Hey, hey, it’s the kid!” he would say, his fingers cocked like pistols, and slap me on the back. I would blush, and only realize later that he had never learned my name.
There was Robert Gibbs, our press secretary, always playful. Even David Axelrod, whom I would later come to see as a kind of platonic ideal of the disillusioned political consultant, seemed almost boyish in his enthusiasm for what he called—perhaps joking, but only somewhat—“the astonishing accomplishments soon to come.”
The president instituted a pay freeze for the White House staff as he entered office. The detention center at Guantánamo Bay would be closed within in a year, he said, and the Iraq War would be wound down quickly. He signed Lilly Ledbetter and the Recovery Act. The clean energy programs were up and running. Corporate lobbyists were turned away. No-bid contracts were a thing of the past.
I kept thinking: We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
Obama spent as much time as he could playing basketball with staffers, security, and military guys. “I make my best decisions from mid-court,” he told a group of us just a week after entering office. “Marrying Michelle, running for Senate, running for president—all mid-court.” And we believed him.
It was a glorious time.
A note about the president: He is, as many have said, a keenly intelligent and canny politician, which made some of his actions in those days seem especially bizarre. His decision to return President Bush’s bust of Winston Churchill and replace it with one of Jimmy Carter, for example, made it appear as if the president was actually trying to antagonize both those closest to him and the country at large.
I was at a meeting in the Oval Office when Rahm first saw the Carter bust sitting across from the president’s desk, and his reaction was thirty seconds of nonstop, almost incoherent profanity. It was a rather mesmerizing, almost feral performance that ended with him storming in and out of the room before he tried to just smash the thing, only stopping himself at the last minute. And yet the whole time the president just sat there, smiling, and at one point winking at Valerie Jarrett. I smiled too, assuming the president was just looking to have some fun with his excitable chief of staff.
But deep inside I also knew that there was something more to Obama’s decision to move the bust in. It hinted at a self-destructive undercurrent that seemed to exist within the president—a darkness he was fully aware of and yet unwilling to control. This tendency would become more pronounced in the coming weeks and months, but it was on display, for the first time to my eyes, on that day in the Oval Office.
Rahm returned that evening, along with Axelrod and myself, to formally and calmly explain the implications of having a bust of Jimmy Carter in the Oval Office, and how that would look to visitors. The president, as usual, was sitting alone with Jarrett when we came in.
“You’ll look out of touch and faggy if you keep it there,” Rahm said. “Mitch McConnell will be on the phone with every reporter in Washington telling them how faggy you look with that fucking peanut farmer looking over you.”
The president insisted that Carter was a great man, and that he just needed “more time” to accomplish “his great mission.”
“Listen, a second Carter administration would have been truly momentous,” Obama said. I was actually curious why the president had, seemingly overnight, become so smitten with the generally unloved Carter, but was cut off by Rahm.
“You’re right, Mr. President,” Rahm said. “A second Carter administration would have been momentous. Momentously faggy, at least.”
Rahm looked around to see if anyone was smiling at his quip. Nobody was, and I really wished he would stop using that word. This side of Rahm—the middle school, towel- snapping bully side of Rahm—was far and away his least attractive quality.
“Seriously, though, the Carter tribute is not smart,” he said. “Axe will back me up on this, and so will the oppo guy.”
I nodded. Axelrod shrugged.
“It’s just an unnecessary complication,” Axelrod said. “It will just weird people out, you know?”
Obama and Jarrett made and held eye contact for a good five seconds. Both their faces were blank.
“Fine, we’ll lose the bust,” Obama said. “Oh, and also, we’re going to keep the prison at Gitmo open. Cool?”
Those words, delivered so casually, were my first real indication that the president might turn out to be slightly less than the person we had advertised during the campaign. But it would be much later before I figured out that the president actually had his reasons for making America look bad in the eyes of the world and disappointing his followers, and that keeping Gitmo open was just one small part of that master plan.