An advance chapter from Barack Obama’s first memoir of his White House years, published on Monday by the New Yorker, takes readers inside the epic political battle behind the passage of the Affordable Care Act at the end of his first year of office.
Landing as the healthcare law faces a new threat from the expected confirmation on Monday of Amy Coney Barrett to the supreme court, the chapter is timely – but not just on the healthcare front.
The former president also speaks to the political divides that spawned Donald Trump and to the stakes of the election next week in which Obama’s vice-president, Joe Biden, hopes to eject Trump from the White House.
In a passage that could have been written in response to an interview with CBS shown on Sunday, in which Trump complains at length about being the victim of supposedly unfair treatment, Obama describes the rise of the Tea Party movement, which saw enraged activists taunting him with racist imagery and “single-fingered salutes”.
Obama resisted calls by some Democrats to call out Tea Party activists as racist, he writes.
“As a matter of principle,” he writes, “I didn’t believe a president should ever publicly whine about criticism from voters – it’s what you signed up for in taking the job – and I was quick to remind both reporters and friends that my white predecessors had all endured their share of vicious personal attacks and obstructionism.”
The book, A Promised Land, is scheduled to be published next month, two weeks after election day. In the advance chapter, Obama describes how his team confronted an H1N1 flu virus outbreak in 2017, at the time seen as a pandemic threat – but now all but forgotten.
“My instructions to the public-health team were simple,” he writes. “Decisions would be made based on the best available science, and we were going to explain to the public each step of our response – including detailing what we did and didn’t know.”
The chapter is sprinkled with rich disclosures about what Obama was thinking during some of the most memorable moments of his early presidency. In an address to a joint session of Congress to pitch the healthcare bill, he was interrupted. In a then unprecedented breach of decorum, Joe Wilson. a Republican from South Carolina, bellowed: “You lie!”
“I was tempted to exit my perch, make my way down the aisle, and smack the guy in the head,” Obama writes. “Instead, I simply responded by saying, ‘It’s not true,’ and then carried on with my speech as Democrats hurled boos in Wilson’s direction.
“They had demonized me and, in doing so, had delivered a message to all Republican office-holders: when it came to opposing my administration, the old rules no longer applied.”
Obama describes how relentless personal attacks – including the “birther” lie spread by Trump – made him wonder if he would ever again have the opportunity to connect with voters on a personal level, as he had early in his candidacy.
Michelle Obama did not wonder, Obama writes.
“I wanted to believe that the ability to connect was still there. My wife wasn’t so sure. One night, Michelle caught a glimpse of a Tea Party rally on TV – with its enraged flag-waving and inflammatory slogans. She seized the remote and turned off the set, her expression hovering somewhere between rage and resignation.
“‘It’s a trip, isn’t it?’ she said.
“‘That they’re scared of you. Scared of us.’ She shook her head and headed for bed.”
The bulk of the chapter is dedicated to a description of how Obama and his White House team navigated the complicated political shoals of healthcare politics, trying to win Republican support while keeping leftwing Democrats onside.
The White House needed every single Democrat in the Senate to vote yes, a process that led to awkward deals with some centrists and that ultimately killed a so-called “public option”, by which consumers might have bought into a government-supplied health insurance plan.
After jettisoning the public option, Obama caught fire from the left.
“I found the whole brouhaha exasperating,” he writes. “‘What is it about 60 votes these folks don’t understand?’ I groused to my staff. ‘Should I tell the 30 million people who can’t get covered that they’re going to have to wait another 10 years because we can’t get them a public option?’”
In the end, Obama relied on the then Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, to get the vote total to 60. Obama writes that Reid told him to stay out of that part.
“‘Mr President, you know a lot more than I do about healthcare policy,’ he said at one point. ‘But I know the Senate, OK?’”
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