“I want a deal,” he said.
The aides put down their muffins and BlackBerrys and snapped to attention.
Secrecy would be essential as the details came together, the president told everyone. He spoke openly with Boehner about how the two sides might sell the emerging plan to their respective parties, an imposing task from either end.
“How soon can we get this drafted?” the president asked, according to notes taken during the meeting by a top Republican staff member. When Obama left, the negotiations rushed forward, staffers on both sides now energized by the prospect of a deal.
Three days later, the grand bargain was cold and dead.
What happened? Obama and his advisers have cast the collapse of the talks as a Republican failure. Boehner, unable to deliver, stepped away from the deal, simple as that.
But interviews with most of the central players in those talks — some of whom were granted anonymity to speak about the secret negotiations — as well as a review of meeting notes, e-mails and the negotiating proposals that changed hands, offer a more complicated picture of the collapse. Obama, nervous about how to defend the emerging agreement to his own Democratic base, upped the ante in a way that made it more difficult for Boehner — already facing long odds — to sell it to his party. Eventually, the president tried to put the original framework back in play, but by then it was too late. The moment of making history had passed.
The actions of Obama and his staff during that period in the summer reflect the grand ambitions and the shortcomings of the president’s first term.
A president who promised to bring the country together, who confidently presented himself as the transformational figure able to make that happen, now had his chance. But, like earlier policy battles, the debt ceiling negotiations revealed a divided figure, a man who remained aloof from a Congress where he once served and that he now needed. He was caught between his own aspirations for historical significance and his inherent political caution. And he was unable to bridge a political divide that had only grown wider since he took office with a promise to change the ways of Washington, underscoring the gulf between the way he campaigned and the way he had governed.
In the end, that brief effort, described by White House officials as the most intense and consequential of Obama’s presidency, not only illuminated pitfalls in the road he had taken during the previous three years but also directed him down a different, harder-edged, more overtly partisan path that is now defining his reelection campaign.
The meeting that crucial Sunday took place in the office of William M. Daley, the White House chief of staff. Among those in the room were Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner
, perhaps Obama’s most influential Cabinet member; Rob Nabors, the legislative liaison; and Jacob J. Lew, then the budget director. Lew had already made the rounds on the Sunday talk shows, saying that Obama was waiting for a negotiating partner to develop a plan to avert the looming fiscal calamity. He betrayed no hint that those elusive partners were coming to the White House that very day.