New Yorker: Memos show Obama scaled back his ambitions
Updated at 2:15 p.m. ET
The New Yorker article, published Monday, described in detail a president who had big legislative aspirations but is also concerned with protecting his image.
"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," reporter Ryan Lizza wrote in the piece.
White House Spokesperson Jay Carney had little to say in response. "Let history judge the results," he said.
Lizza notes the choices Mr. Obama faced: working to enact his campaign promises despite adversarial Republicans or working to garner consensus in Washington, also a campaign promise.
The documents show the types of questions Mr. Obama was asked to contemplate before communicating his economic policies to Congress and the American people, including "how to trade off the desire for reform versus the desire for quick passage and implementation?"
"He had hoped to use a model of consensus politics in which factions in the middle form an alliance against the two extremes. But he found few players in the center of the field: most Republicans and Democrats were on their own ten-yard lines," Lizza wrote.
A lengthy memo to Mr. Obama from his economic adviser, Larry Summers, in December 2008 -- before Mr. Obama was sworn into office -- provides options and analysis of Mr. Obama's initiatives in the context of the country's economic situation.
The memo shows that the administration failed to gauge the severity of the recession. Unemployment rates were predicted to rise above 9 percent without any government intervention.
Mr. Obama's advisers presented him with four options for an economic recovery package. The cheapest version, costing $550 billion, was expected to reduce unemployment to 7.8 percent by 2011 and the most expensive plan clocked in at $890 billion and was predicted to decrease unemployment to 7.3 percent.
Mr. Obama moved forward with a $787 billion stimulus and unemployment reached 10 percent.
"Obama was never offered the option of a stimulus package commensurate with the size of the hole in the economy--known by economists as the 'output gap'--which was estimated at two trillion dollars during 2009 and 2010," Lizza wrote.
At the beginning of his term, Mr. Obama's advisers were cautious. He was told by his aides that the amount of government spending he was inheriting from the Bush administration was extreme, and that impacted how he was able to deal with a deepening economic crisis.
Mr. Obama was faced with the economic realities that forced him to downsize his agenda.
"If your campaign promises were enacted then, based on accurate scoring, the deficit would rise by another $100 billion annually. The consequence would be the largest run-up in the debt since World War II," one of the memos said.
"Obama's moderation didn't sway Republicans, nor did his attention to interest groups or his cuts to beloved liberal programs," Lizza wrote.
"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 reelection," Lizza wrote.
Mr. Obama campaigned in 2008 on "hope" and "change;" he promised to change Washington and move beyond bipartisan politics to unify a fractured nation's capital and an equally divided country.
These internal memos provide insight into what Mr. Obama has publicly acknowledged: his frustration with Washington and politics. During a tour of the Midwest to talk about the economy, he told a crowd in Peosta, Iowa, "I know you're frustrated, and I'm frustrated,too. We've got to focus on growing this economy, putting people back to work, and making sure that the American Dream is there not just for this generation but for the next generation."
Additional reporting by Mark Knoller
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