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Through the White House keyhole

Through the White House keyhole

A new BBC documentary tries to account for the Obama administration’s struggles, but only tells one side of the story

A new BBC documentary tries to account for the Obama administration’s struggles, but only tells one side of the story

John Prideaux | March 16th 2016

It takes 100 days and nights of solid flying for a pilot to accumulate the experience required to fly passengers on a commercial airline. It takes the same amount of time for a leopard to gestate. A new American president has just 100 days to show whether he is a confident pilot, an overgrown kitten, or something in between. Ever since Franklin Roosevelt announced what he intended to do with his first 100 days in 1933, this period of time has become a marker for his successors. FDR was actually referring to the first 100 days of a new session of congress, though nobody remembers it that way. The 100-days idea now contains within it the notion that the new president can find ways to rid the political system of all the impediments that thwarted his predecessor. This is the superhero ideal of the presidency. Failure to live up to it spells doom for the next thousand days, at least. The BBC’s new documentary on the first 100 days of the Obama White House swallows the 100-days idea without chewing.

The broadcaster has secured impressive access to important members of the administration at the time, many of whom now have books to sell. President Obama arrives in the White House with plenty to do: he has campaign promises to fulfil, and besides, the financial system is melting down. And yet people will not do as he says. Episode one concentrates on the rescuing of financial markets, and the cast replays some of the debates within the administration about whether some banks ought to be nationalised or be rescued by infusions of capital. Rahm Emmanuel, now the mayor of Chicago and then the president’s chief-of-staff, reminds everyone that there is no chance of Congress stumping up the money required for nationalisation.

En route to a healthcare event in 2010

Why is Congress so unhelpful? Viewers are left to guess. An adviser to Mitch McConnell, then leader of the Republican minority in the Senate, explains (unconvincingly) that Republicans didn’t want to see the president get all the credit for such a marvellous idea. This is far-fetched: the focus on the men and women who sat around the table in the Roosevelt room misses what was going on beyond the White House’s front lawn. In 2008 fears about how bad the economy could get were matched only by anger at the steps that were taken to prevent it getting worse. To many, the bank bail-outs seemed fraught with moral hazard – which is another way of saying that they were a most un-American way to reward failure – and to hell with the consequences. Republicans in Congress opposed the administration’s plans partly for this reason and partly out of electoral calculus. The bet paid off two years later when Democrats lost their majority in the House.

The same goes for the subject of episode two, which covers the passage of the Affordable Care Act. While the BBC does justice to the debate among Democrats over which kind of system would be best, it is left to Frank Luntz, a genial pollster, to explain Republican opposition. One of Mr Luntz’s focus groups produced the phrase “government takeover of health care”, which Republicans then used to attack Obamacare. But those words only caught on because they tapped into something elemental, namely the desire of many people who already had health insurance not to see their premiums go up or their choices restricted. The White House may have seen opposition to Obamacare as a communications problem, but it was actually a who-gets-what problem.

It may be that the BBC had difficulty finding senior Republicans to explain their views on camera. If so, it would not be the only broadcasting organisation to find even-handedness elusive in a place where liberals usually talk to liberals and conservatives usually talk to conservatives. Perhaps some Republicans thought that merely speaking to a publicly funded broadcaster would be a betrayal. Usually, though, the urge to be on television overrides such qualms. The result of this imbalance, in the first two episodes at least (the two later ones have not been made available to reviewers yet), is that the BBC has created a few hours of pleasant television spent in the company of clever, decent, public-spirited people. But it is impossible to figure out, based on their testimony alone, why President Obama’s first 100 days, which for once did actually measure up to the standard FDR set, were such a struggle.

Inside Obama’s White House (BBC2) continues on March 22nd. The series will also be broadcast on Al Jazeera America from April 7th, with the title “The Limits of Hope: Inside Obama’s White House”

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