The Broken Dreams of Obama's First Term

Combing through hundreds of pages of internal White House memos, The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza has compiled a 11,000-word treatise on the painful compromises and difficult concessions of President Obama's first term.

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Combing through hundreds of pages of internal White House memos, The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza has compiled a 11,000-word treatise on the painful compromises and difficult concessions of President Obama's first term. The arc of Obama's tenure, from hopeful idealism to stymied pessimism, isn't a new narrative but the documents penned by Obama to his senior advisers give a direct window into the president's most personal legislative desires. Some compromises are sparked by his advisers, many are sparked by his unyielding Republican opposition. But taken as a whole, you begin to see what the president would have liked to achieve in his first term. The concessions include:

  • Scrapping his space program. In 2008, he promised a "bold space program." In 2009, pressure from deficit hawks torpedoed his plans. “Especially in light of our new fiscal context, it is not possible to achieve the inspiring space program goals discussed during the campaign," read a West Wing memo.
  • Scrapping his smart grid plan. He lobbied for it passionately during the stimulus debate but Christina Romer and other advisers said it cost too much and wouldn't produce enough short term stimulus. 
  • Budget concessions. Memos from 2009 detailed the painful but politically necessary moves to increase Pentagon spending while decreasing domestic programs. 
  • Tax hike. The president and his economic team had wanted a five percent tax on those making $250,000 per year to bring in $11 billion in 2015. But staying mindful of his campaign's pledge against raising taxes, the tax hike was rejected. 
  • Bowing to Hillary. The White House had to back down after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton opposed its spending plan for the State Department in a frosty memo in 2009. According to Lizza, the letter was seen as a "weapon" that could be leaked and as a result went back and fought for a bigger State Department budget. 
  • State of the Union spending freeze. Instead of defending and lobbying for a 2010 spending plan promoting stimulus spending and Keynesian economics in general, President Obama bowed to David Axelrod and other advisers to focus on "freezing or cutting the discretionary budget." That would ultimately set the tone for the next year.  
  • Cutting health care pilot program. Stymied by political viability, Peter Orszag and Ezekiel Emanuel had recommended a cheap and promising pilot program to study "the most effective treatments for patients." However, a memo by Obama's staff secretary Lisa Brown, reveals it was shot down. “Regardless of the merit and relatively low cost of the idea, Jim and Ax think it is not politically viable.”
  • Bush tax cuts. Obama preferred only extending the tax cuts to the middle-class. The team had underestimated Republican opposition to the move. 

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