Review: "Revival," Richard Wolffe's look inside Obama White House

(Courtesy Of Crown - Courtesy Of Crown)
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By Jeff Shesol
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 16, 2010


The Struggle for Survival Inside the Obama White House

By Richard Wolffe

Crown. 312 pp. $26

If the word "revival" has been associated with anyone this year, it is the Republican Party, which has raised itself from the dead, or the tearful televangelist Glenn Beck, who led an old-fashioned camp meeting on the Mall in August. The president of the United States would not seem to have an especially strong claim.

Which gives Richard Wolffe's new book -- or, at least, its title -- a counterintuitive quality. In "Revival," Wolffe, a cable news commentator and veteran journalist, zeroes in on the first few months of 2010, a brief but, he contends, "defining period" in which President Obama "was forced to reexamine himself and his team" and emerged wiser and stronger. Wolffe's central piece of evidence is the improbable passage of health-care reform, thanks largely to the president's constancy and grit. Progress in other areas -- the economy, especially -- was more incremental, as Wolffe recounts.

This is, of course, as recent as recent history gets. At such a short distance, what -- beyond a premature nostalgia for Democratic control of the House -- would prompt today's reader to revisit, say, the Stupak amendment and its undoing? An eagerness for two things, most likely: new details and deeper insights. Indeed, the publicity campaign on behalf of "Revival" promises both; a pre-publication embargo, dictating precise terms for handling the book, implies that its contents are highly combustible. It is therefore disappointing to find that Wolffe's account adds little to our understanding of these events or, more importantly, what they portend for Obama's (and our) future.

The book does, however, provide a window into the West Wing. Since the early days of the presidential campaign -- the subject of Wolffe's previous book, "Renegade" -- Obama and his advisers have offered Wolffe unrivaled access. "Revival," as a result, is full of fairly candid chatter, some of it self-critical, some of it self-pitying and some (if not much) of it unflattering to the boss. "He reads everything," one Obama aide complains. "And I mean everything. Every news story, every column. It's driving everyone crazy."

Wolffe reconstructs Oval Office meetings in the manner of Bob Woodward; presents the spectacle of senior advisers engaged in armchair psychoanalysis of other senior advisers (Rahm Emanuel and Larry Summers are most often on the couch); and dishes up the kind of vicious tidbits on which bloggers swarm and feast (before moving on, ever hungry). For example, Wolffe reports that during the negotiations over the health-care bill, "Speaker Pelosi was so volcanic that much of the White House strategy was shaped in terms of how to deal with her."

The fruits of his access aside, the bulk of Wolffe's book seems cobbled together from press reports. Unlike "Renegade," which can stake a claim to indispensability, "Revival" feels like supplemental reading, a slight addition to a shelf that contains Jonathan Alter's authoritative account of Obama's first year in office, "The Promise," and Woodward's crisp portrait of the commander in chief, "Obama's Wars."

Compared to these two, Wolffe's book seems less certain of its premise. "This was the season of [Obama's] revival," Wolffe declares, but fails to convince. Beyond the historic victory on health care, arguably unparalleled in the modern presidency, Wolffe is at pains to find signs of political renewal. None of his examples -- the creation of the bipartisan commission on fiscal responsibility, a rapid response to the earthquake in Haiti, a sharp retort to attacks by former Vice President Richard Cheney -- looks much like an inflection point. Wolffe cites a "tangible turnaround in the political faith of supporters," but Gallup, at the time, saw no such thing. Throughout this period, the president's approval rating hovered right around 50 percent, showing resilience, but hardly resurgence. Wolffe is closer to the mark when he writes that Obama, by the spring, "had stumbled his way through the wasteland."

Through one, perhaps, and into another. The eight months since the signing of the health-care law have featured an oil spill in the Gulf, a spasm of right-wing reaction across the country, an unemployment rate that refuses to budge, a relentless enemy in Afghanistan, a midterm "shellacking" and a vow by the soon-to-be chairman of the House government oversight committee to investigate a "corrupt" administration around the clock. If this has not gone on quite long enough to count as an annus horribilis, it has been horribilis enough, and it's not over yet.

So let the new season of Obama's revival begin without delay, and let him show the same persistence, pragmatism and audacity it took to pass the health-care bill. Whatever it might say on the clock in the Oval Office, this is not halftime; this is the fourth quarter, and it is again time for this "fourth-quarter player," as Wolffe and others describe him, to show the nation his game.

Shesol, a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, is a partner at West Wing Writers and is the author of "Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. The Supreme Court."

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