The White House staff memos show Obama scaling back his proposals in the face of the business lobby, designing a health-care bill to attract support from doctors, rejecting schemes from his aides that could be caricatured by the right, and in dozens of other ways making the unpleasant choices of governing in a system defined by its constraints.
Obama made important mistakes in the first half of his term. He underestimated the severity of the recession and therefore the scale of the response it required, and he clung too long to his vision of post-partisanship, even in the face of a radicalized opposition whose stated goal was his defeat. The memos show a cautious President, someone concerned with his image. When, in 2009, he was presented with the windfall pot of thirty-five billion dollars that he could spend on one of his campaign priorities or use for deficit reduction, Obama wrote, “I would opt for deficit reduction, but it doesn’t sound like we would get any credit for it.” At other moments, the memos show a President intensely focussed on trying to restrain the government Leviathan he inherited, despite an opposition that doesn’t trust his intentions. When his aides submit a plan to save money on administrative efficiencies, Obama writes back, with some resignation, “This is good—but we should be careful not to overhype this given D.C. cynicism.” He is frustrated with the irrational side of Washington, but he also leans on the wisdom of his political advisers when they make a strong case that a good policy is bad politics. The private Obama is close to what many people suspect: a President trying to pass his agenda while remaining popular enough to win reëlection.
Obama didn’t remake Washington. But his first two years stand as one of the most successful legislative periods in modern history. Among other achievements, he has saved the economy from depression, passed universal health care, and reformed Wall Street. Along the way, Obama may have changed his mind about his 2008 critique of Hillary Clinton. “Working the system, not changing it” and being “consumed with beating” Republicans “rather than unifying the country and building consensus to get things done” do not seem like such bad strategies for success after all.