Obama Celebrates Less in His Old Age

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Jan. 16 2013 10:53 AM

President Obama Celebrates Less in His Old Age, and Other Oral-History Notes

President Obama walks into the Rose Garden from the West Wing before delivering a statement on the economy at the White House Sept. 3, 2010
President Obama walks into the Rose Garden from the West Wing before delivering a statement on the economy at the White House Sept. 3, 2010

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

The New York Times Magazine is getting in on the oral-history action with a look at President Obama's first term. Given that many of the people who spoke with Peter Baker for the piece are still working within the administration, it's not exactly a surprise that the official account lacks any mind-blowing revelations. Nonetheless, it does have a fair share of noteworthy nuggets.

Josh Voorhees Josh Voorhees

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. 

The thing that probably jumps out the most as you read the report is the decreasing amount of expressed excitement/celebration that accompanied major victories for Obama and his team as the first term progressed from, in Barker's words, the "gauzy hope of 2009" to the "starker realism of 2013." But the four-odd pages of quotes also contain a tidbit or two on everything from the OBL raid ruining the True Blood cast's day to the president's early display of bro-ttitude. We'll get to those last ones in a second, but first here's the proof that while Obama really does like a good party, he's had some remarkable trouble finding one while in the White House.

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Here's David Axelrod describing the scene in August 2009 after the Senate confirmed Sonia Sotomayor to replace David Souter on the Supreme Court [emphasis mine throughout]:

It was late in the day, and many people weren’t in the White House, and the Senate had just confirmed Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. The president came walking down the hall just looking for people. He saw me and gives me a fist bump and says: "We just put the first Latina on the Supreme Court. Pretty cool, huh?" But he was frustrated because there weren’t enough of us around. He was seeking out people to celebrate with.

The president's team didn't repeat that mistake seven-odd months later in March 2010 after Congress signed off on the president's landmark health care bill. Here's Melody Barnes, who served as director of the White House Domestic Policy Council between 2009 and 2011, setting the party scene:

When the votes were over, we were gathering in the Roosevelt Room. I remember Phil Schiliro and Nancy-Ann DeParle [the health care adviser] coming in, and people cheering and clapping for them, two amazing people. And then we later went to the residence to celebrate, and it was a beautiful night, unusually warm for March. We were out on the Truman Balcony, and there’s the monument, and the president’s sense that this is better than Election Day because this is why we’re here—we came here to do something important.

Fast forward to this past November as the president and his team watched and waited to learn the outcome of the general election, and the description of Obama's sense that electoral victories are somewhat hollow in comparison to legislative ones appeared to hold up. As told by White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and communicatons director Dan Pfeiffer:

Pfeiffer: We would get these very detailed data reports that come in every couple of hours, and the very first one showed in some states a very jacked-up Republican turnout relative to what we thought it would be, and youth and African-American and Latino turnout down from where we had thought it would be. It was a holy-crap moment.
Jarrett: He was watching it on television, and so I think MSNBC was one of the first [to call the race], and so everyone was very excited. He said, "Well, let’s wait and see when Fox calls it." And just moments later Fox called it, too, and he’s like, "All right."

Other tidbits from the oral history include this anecdote (during talks to possibly scale down Obamacare to push it through Congress) showing some of Obama's trademark confidence:

Valerie Jarrett, White House senior adviser (2009-present): We’re sitting in the Oval Office, and the president asked [the legislative director] Phil Schiliro—who always could figure out what’s that third way—“Phil, what’s the third way?” Phil said, “Mr. President, unless you’re feeling lucky, I don’t know what the third way is.” And so the president gets up from his chair and he walks over and he looks out the window, and he says, “Phil, where are you?” Phil says, “I’m in the Oval Office.” He goes, “What’s my name?” Phil says, “President Obama.” He goes, “Of course I’m feeling lucky.”

The Osama Bin Laden raid ruined the True Blood cast's trip to the White House:

Pfeiffer: I went to see “Fast and Furious 5.” In the middle of the movie, I check my BlackBerry, and I have an e-mail from someone on the national security staff inviting me to a meeting. So I leave the movie to get back to the White House. As I’m coming in, the cast of “True Blood” is outside the gate trying to figure out why their tour has been canceled. We decided we’re going to do [the announcement] in the East Room and [the senior adviser David] Plouffe and I walk over to look at the setup. There’s just two guys slowly moving chairs. Plouffe and I are like, We better go get people so we can do this ourselves. We may have killed bin Laden, but we don’t have a room to speak in.

Obama must really love Joe Biden:

In a television interview in May 2012, Biden endorses same-sex marriage, forcing Obama to announce his own support. Obama aides are angry at the vice president for going off message. Biden: There was a little apoplexy around here. I answered as antiseptically as I could. But I was going to sit there and not say what I believe at this point in my career? They can have the goddamn job. The president walked in, and he started laughing. He said, “Well, Joe, the thing I’ve always loved about you is you say what you believe.” I mean it. I give you my word. He gave me a hug, and he started laughing.