The FRONTLINE Interviews: Divided States of America

Phil Schiliro

Obama adviser

Part of Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign team, Phil Schiliro managed congressional relations for President-elect Obama before becoming director of legislative affairs at the White House from 2009 to 2011. In 2011, Schiliro became a special adviser to the president and in 2014, he was appointed White House adviser for health policy.

In this interview, Schiliro talks about Obama's reaction to the economic crisis of 2008 and how it impacted the early days of the presidency. He also discusses the administration's thinking about the passage of the Affordable Care Act, and President Obama's relationship with members of Congress.

Schiliro disputes the notion that Obama did not sufficiently reach out to Congress saying, "Every week for four months, he and the first lady hosted a reception in the White House for members of Congress and their spouses until every member of the House, every member of the Senate was invited."

This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE's Michael Kirk on June 13, 2016. It has been edited for clarity and length.

If you think about the 2004 speech at the Boston convention--aspirational and hopeful and biographical in lots of ways. We're not red; we're not blue; we're [the] United States. By 2008, as he walks out to Grant Park, where do you think that aspiration stood at just that moment as he and you all were facing what was ahead of you?

That moment was a remarkable time in American history given the country's historic experience of race. To have an African American man be president of the United States, that night, election night, was indescribable. But matched up with that was the terrible condition the country was in. After election night, the next day people have to start dealing with that, and what struck me at the time is no one has to run for president, and no one has to work in the White House. It's a privilege to do both.

But the flipside of that is once someone's elected, once someone decides to work in the White House, you have to deal with what's there, and what's there was a mess. As the president came into office, just as he was walking in the door, 700,000 Americans were losing jobs every month; the housing market was in total collapse; [the] financial sector was imploding; the auto industry was about to go under; deficits were exploding; and we had two wars.

The president really didn't have the respite some do when they're elected. He was looking at a series of crises, and he had to deal with them right from the first moment--not the first moment of being president, but the first moment of actually being elected president and going through in that transition period.

We've heard about those economic meetings. We talked to Tim Geithner last week and others who were involved in that very first layout for the president of the United States in Chicago during the transition of, "Hey, here's where we are." ... Take me into that meeting. Let me know how it felt and how he reacted.

I'll take you before the meeting, if that's OK. I want to take you back to September, when policymakers were really feeling how terrible the economic meltdown was and President Bush decided he had to do TARP [Troubled Asset Relief Program]. Sen. Obama was running for president, and the political thing to do would have been to stay out of TARP. But after the first vote went down and was defeated and economists were saying we were going to end up in a depression, even as a candidate, President Obama got involved, made phone calls to Democratic members urging them to vote for TARP and help make that pass.

During the campaign itself, there was a sense as we got into September and October how bad things were. In the House, congressional Democrats met with economists in October who talked about having to do a $300 billion stimulus. And the reaction for members, local Democrats, was that was impossible; it was just too big a number. By the time we got to late November, it was clear $300 billion would be woefully inadequate. The sands were shifting so quickly.

By the time we got to December and we're having the meetings in Chicago on the shape of the stimulus and the amount, it was clear it had to be over $600 billion; it had to be over $700 billion. Then the only debate was how close to a trillion could it be from an economic standpoint. And then we had to balance that with what could pass. How big could the stimulus be and do what it needed to do for the economy, but still get the votes in the House and Senate?

No one had ever contemplated a stimulus that big ever before. In President Clinton's first term, 1993, he had to pass a stimulus, and it was $16 billion, and it took until July. As we were sitting in I think it was the December 16 meeting, it was clear from the economic team we had to pass what we concluded, and the president decided it would be an $800 billion stimulus, but we couldn't take until July. We had to do that by mid-February at the latest.

... That was the president's welcome to the White House. And before he can even do that, he had to ask Congress to approve the second tranche of TARP, which was $350 billion.

One of the things I remember very clearly from that time was just sitting down with senior staff and the president and working through the math of the first five months. The first five months, the president had to work with Congress to get the second batch of TARP money approved. That was $350 billion. We were going to have to do an $800 billion stimulus. The previous year's appropriation bills weren't done yet, so they all had to be done, and that was a trillion dollars. The president had to propose a budget to Congress, and that was another trillion dollars, and he had to do a $100 billion war stimulus by May.

So looking at the first five months of his presidency, none of that was discretionary. He had to do $350 billion, $800 billion, a trillion, a trillion, $100 billion, and he didn't have a say in any of it. He just had to do it for the good of the country. Those meetings were pretty intense.

... We spent a lot of time talking to Eric Cantor, who's decided to talk a lot about things, and he remembers a meeting about the stimulus where he's in early in the Oval Office, and he's got five points, and he hands them to the president. "Thank you, Eric; that's really useful." And Cantor goes away. Do you remember that meeting?

I do.

What were the points? What did Cantor want?

I couldn't tell you the points offhand. I can tell you that the very first day the president was in Washington--this is before he was president, so this was early January--he came from Chicago. I was doing his congressional relations job, so he wanted to meet with the congressional leadership. He sat down in the Senate with House members, senators, Republicans and Democrats, to get their thoughts on what should be in the stimulus. The president, at that point, had decided we needed $800 billion. That was an economic necessity, but he wanted to try to attract as much bipartisan support as possible. Putting in a big component for tax cuts made economic sense because it's a very fast economic stimulus, but it's also something he thought Republicans would support. A third of the package [was] tax cuts, and he explained that in the meeting we had in the Capitol.

Subsequent to that, there was a meeting in the White House. I think the problem was for at least 10 years, Republicans were used to following the Hastert Rule. The Hastert Rule was the majority of the Republican Caucus had to agree before anything can get done, and they were used to dictating terms. In that meeting, Congressman Cantor wanted to dictate what the package would be. The president was already trying to find a compromise and had put in $300 billion, essentially, of tax cuts. That wasn't going to be enough for the Republicans because they wanted to dictate the whole package, which the president wasn't going to agree to. Nor should he. He was just elected president of the United States; Democrats won the House and Senate. He was interested in compromise. Republicans weren't interested in changing their approach that they had before.

There's the legendary meeting the night of the inauguration at the Caucus Room, where Gingrich and Frank Luntz and lots of other people get together; Cantor was there for a while. ... They had decided that they were not going to cooperate with this president and this administration. Did you guys know about that?

No, we didn't know about the meeting, we didn't know about the Senate Caucus meeting where Sen. McConnell, according to Republican senators, said something very similar. There were people at the time who were confused by the Republican response, because the president started off not just that first day that he's in Washington meeting with them, but wanted to do constant outreach to the Republican side. Those were the instructions to me, so that's what we did. He tried to put together policies that he thought would attract Republican support.

When we did that, the stimulus bill in the House, we brought in 20 House Republicans to the White House to have a meeting on it. They suggested some changes. We made those changes, and they all voted against the bill. But the president's view was he was going to do everything he could to try to find bipartisan agreement, but if it weren't there, he was going to continue to do what he felt was in the best interests of the country. But we had no idea about that meeting on inauguration night. We didn't know about the meeting with the Senate Caucus. And in fact, when the president went up to meet with House Republicans, while we were on our way there, the leadership sent around an email to all House Republicans telling them to vote against the stimulus, even before the president had a chance to make his case to them.

So he knew that when he walked to the caucus--

We found out about that, I think, just as we got into the room. In that meeting, it was scheduled, as I recall, for about 45 minutes, and the president had another meeting after that, but decided to stay later. He stayed about an extra half hour to answer every question they had in the room.

The way they tell the story is he came in dictating terms to us; we decided we were not going to do it. Of course, that's the Cantor version as well. But that's not [Obama's] version. And when he comes out, you look at the footage of the president: He comes out; he's gobsmacked. What was that all about? Is that how it went?

The president went there to answer any of their questions about the state of the economy and what his proposed policies were to it. That's what he did, and he did it for as long as they wanted to ask questions. In no way was he dictating results. He was trying to explain to them what we need to do for the good of the country. At one point in the meeting, one of their members stood up and started to debate whether or not the New Deal was successful or not in getting us out of the Depression, and I think the president was a little surprised to start having that debate when it's so widely acknowledged that the New Deal did help us get out of the Depression. And in fact, we were staring at another depression if we didn't act very quickly.

I think in the president's mind, he was extending a real courtesy to the Republicans by going up to the Hill, meeting with their entire caucus and trying to explain why we needed to do so much and why we needed to do it quickly and why he put in $300 billion of tax cuts, which normally Republicans would support.

So they don't go at all for it, at all, in any way. How does he feel about that? Is bipartisanship a question mark now?

No, the president never wavered from his instructions to me. Again, I was the chief emissary to Congress, and I took my marching orders from the president. His instructions were to communicate as much as we can; let's try to find common ground on every bill we're doing, wherever we can do it. He wanted to do personal outreach as well, so he did, and he did a lot of it.

When you're out there assessing these guys, can you tell this is calcifying, this resistance is firm and going to stay this way for a while?

That's a really complicated question, because from a leadership level, yes, it was clear from the beginning the leadership had decided to do everything they could. There were people at the time who said to me: "This is shameful. We have our first African American president. It's a great time for the country in that standpoint, but we're facing an economic crisis, and everyone has to pull together." We tried to do the first TARP vote. Even though Republicans had supported that for President Bush and it was President Bush's policy, Republicans ran from it when President Obama was coming into office.

When we were doing the stimulus and he had $300 billion of tax cuts, the leadership was saying, "Oppose it." So from a leadership standpoint, yes, in the months after the stimulus bill, until we got to May, as we were moving other legislation, housing reform, credit card reform, public service bill, a land bill, we were picking up more and more bipartisan support. Rank-and-file Republicans, even though the leadership was instructing the members to oppose it, on something like tobacco legislation, all the leadership voted against it, but we picked up a lot of Republican House members and senators. That changed once it got to May and June.

We talked to Geithner last week, and we were talking about the decision to go forward with the Affordable Care Act in the earliest days. Tim talked about [Director of the National Economic Council Larry] Summers and he and [Director of the Office of Management and Budget Peter] Orszag and others saying: "No, no, no, come on, really. We've got a crater coming. Let's focus on the economy." Where were you on the president's hope for this groundbreaking health care legislation at that time in those early meetings?

It was a 100 years' battle to get health care reform done. The president realized he had an opportunity that wasn't going to last very long to accomplish this. One of the things people forget is the very first thing he did as president in terms of bringing everyone together was a summit on fiscal responsibility that we did at the White House. We invited Republicans, Democrats, outside experts, all got together for a full day. One of their lessons out of that day is we would never deal with deficits and structural problems with the budget if we didn't deal with health care reform.

That reinforced the president's view [that] to make a lasting impact, not just to do what's right for people and to get health care insurance, but to make a lasting impact from a budgetary responsibility standpoint, we had to deal with this. And he felt as if the White House and Congress could walk and chew gum at the same time.

The reality is, I want to go back through those numbers again, because it goes to this point. Once the second $350 billion of TARP was authorized, once we were getting $800 billion in stimulus, we were still going to have to do the previous year's appropriations bills of $1 trillion, and a new trillion and $100 billion for the supplemental. There wasn't going to be much of an appetite for spending more money in Congress. That was just the reality.

There wasn't much more we could do to focus on the economy given that he did two years' of work in the first month of his presidency. That created space to focus on climate change, and it created space to do health care reform.

I think it's in March, April, when the 13 bankers come to the White House. ... News had been broken about the [bankers giving themselves] bonuses the next day. By all accounts, the president was angry about that. ... He gave them a little bit of a verbal spanking, but then he turns; he pivots and says, "We're all in this together." Were you surprised by his position on this?

I wasn't in that meeting. But, I'll go back to the December meeting as it relates to that. The president was being given the most dire economic predictions any president could get. As we sat in the December meeting, he was told we were on a cliff, about to fall into a depression. He had to do something big, and he had to do it quick ... He had to act right away.

And the news wasn't getting any better in January and February or March. And I think... He really had a sense [that] everybody had to pull together, or else more American families were going to be hurt. I think what weighed on him--because they just sound like numbers. When we say 700,000, 800,000 Americans were losing their job every month, those are families going into a tailspin. When we sat in the meetings on the auto industry, and he was told about the ripple effects--if we allow companies to fall, what happens to small towns in Indiana or in Ohio or Kentucky that make parts for cars? They would go out of business. The local deli would go out of business; the local coffee shop would go out of business. It's a ripple effect that washes across the country, and it just will then take a decade to undo it. He didn't want that to happen.

So this idea of a little Old Testament justice that some people were talking about seems almost like the kind of thing, well, yeah, you could do it, but is that really what we want to do in the face of this?

Those are things that I'd put in the category of maybe they'd be nice in another time. Maybe it would be nice to play politics and to say: "We'll let this thing fester for a little bit. Maybe we'll slap some money around for a little bit." There was no time for that. Every day was dealing with a crisis that wasn't his making, but it was on his watch now, and he had to figure it out.

It's one of the reasons why he spent so much time the first six months doing so much outreach to Congress, not just going up on the very first day he was in town meeting with the bipartisan leadership, not just going and meeting with the Republican Caucus, [but] doing one-on-one meetings with Democrats and Republicans, doing phone calls, trying to understand what they needed, bringing people in. Every week for four months, he and the first lady hosted a reception in the White House for members of Congress and their spouses until every member of the House, every member of the Senate was invited.

But wait a minute. I heard this guy didn't backslap, wasn't a Lyndon Johnson, like either didn't threaten or didn't know how to do that kind of retail politics.

Well, then, I must be imagining being in all those meetings, because for four months he and the first lady hosted members every week. He put together a candlelight dinner for ranking members, chairmen who were Democrats and Republicans, 160 members in the White House, just so everybody can get together in an informal way; bringing members down to play basketball on a bipartisan basis, Republicans and Democrats; putting Republicans and Democrats on Air Force One, trying to figure out every conceivable way to reach out. And one of the things that became clear after a while is he could do as much of that as he wanted; he couldn't force Republicans to engage.

There were different moments that are very surprising that stick in your mind. One for me was the first state dinner, because being invited to a state dinner is a great honor. The president invited the Republican leadership, and without exception they all declined the invitation. I don't think that ever happened before.

But that was a clear message. Again, keep in mind this was a president who was coming in under terrible economic circumstances, who hadn't done anything wrong, and the response was, "We're not going to come to the state dinner."

Why, Phil? What's going on?

I can't get into people's minds. It was just very surprising and very disappointing, because the president does get criticized for not doing enough outreach, and his message to me continually was, "I want to be a talking with members; I want to be meeting with members all the time," and he actually did that, and he was terrific at it.

When they came, a lot of Americans who will hear you say this, say, well, when they came, what are they, two-faced? They come; they eat dinner; they break bread; they come to these events; they see him; they play basketball with him, whatever it is. And then what? They don't return his calls when it really matters; they don't vote when it really matters? What is up with that?

Well, my observation--I don't want this to sound partisan; I think it's factual--is the ground was shifting for Republicans to have a very difficult time with their base, so it became politically toxic for a lot of Republicans to be associated in any way with the president ... There would be a political price to pay to even being seen with a president who hadn't done anything wrong yet. The only thing he'd done was gotten elected and then tried to fix the country's problems.

... When John McCain picks Sarah Palin to be his vice presidential candidate, ... it's almost like she lit a fuse; ... that is, that there was a move to the right, a thing they didn't understand, a shifting climate inside the Republican Party. Maybe?

I think it even started before Sarah Palin. I think it goes back 10 years before that, and I think it has a lot to do with the advent of talk radio and Rush Limbaugh playing an outsize role. I spent years in the House of Representatives before I went to the White House, and I'd be struck sometimes when Republicans would do something when they were the majority where they'd be roundly criticized but praised on conservative media, and that's what really mattered on where they would do it or not do it going forward.

I think that led up to it. And I think we had some sense of that in 2009, 2010. I think there was also the hope that politics would come second and the best interests of the country would come first. That's, again, the approach the president took, which [was] let's bend over backward to see if we can find common ground, and if we can't, I still want to go forward.

... As they head into that Tea Party summer in August of '09, [with] the town meetings and everything, there's this conflagration. From your perspective, at the White House, and the president's perspective, what do you think is happening in the summer of '09 heading into that craziness that explodes in August?

For that period, the match was lit on CNBC ... That started a firestorm, and then that bled into health care and picked up some things--

Why did it bleed into health care?

... At that point, this had shifted now, because this is May and June when we're really picking up to do it. I think the congressional Republicans had decided they were going to really dig in and oppose no matter what the president tried to do, so the president was trying to do two really hard things at once.

I'll take one more step back. Presidents don't get to pick their problems. They could either ignore the problems that are there, or they could try to deal with them, and two issues that were clear to the president were going to be devastating to the country if we didn't deal with them. One was climate change, and one was health care. He didn't feel it was the right thing to say, "I'm going to put both of these off to somebody else." So in 2009, we were trying to both pass a climate change bill and a health care bill.

... Health care, the president didn't see any way we could deal with the fiscal problems we had in the country let alone just the rightness of making sure people weren't dying because they didn't have health care, so he felt like we had to do that. And I think one of the moments of clarity came in August when he was meeting with a small group of members, Republicans and Democrats, and he turned to one Republican senator and said, "If I give you everything you want in the bill, will you vote for it?," and the senator said, "No."

Well, that's a different way of the system working. There's nothing in the civics textbooks that give a clear lesson on what to do in that situation. But again, that was because of base politics.

This is a president who's extremely optimistic from '04 to '08 to now in '09, even in the face of what feels like a designed intransigence; "we're just going to say no." When he asks that question and he gets that answer--?

... That's just another thing we have to deal with. We had lost a fair amount of time as the Finance Committee thought about how they were going to approach health care, and that was May, June, July, because our hope was to have a health care bill off the Senate floor by the August recess. Then it was clear that option is never going to happen. I think that was clear to everybody.

You mean no Republican votes; it's not going to come up for a vote?

Well, no significant Republican votes. We still continued to try to reach out to individual Republican senators, individual Republican House members. But in terms of being able to have a big agreement that would garner any votes, that wasn't possible. The thing that impressed me at the time is it never stopped the president from continuing to try. Even though he never gets any recognition, and even though people won't believe when I say he did this over and again, it's what he did, over and again, and he continued to try to do it because he thought that was in the best interests of the country to have a bipartisan agreement, if we could do it, and give up some on substance, if it could have more of an agreement.

When [Rep.] Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) stands up and says, "You lie," from what you saw and what you believe and what you know, what was the meaning of that moment?

I think it was a manifestation of just how angry Republicans were and unaccepting of the fact that President Obama was president. All rules of decorum went out the window. I've been working in Congress for 30 years at that point. I'd never seen anything like that. Just different rules of play. It became instead of an address to Congress, it became an extension of talk radio. That crossed a line, and there was no real sense on the Republican side that that was a bad thing to have happen, because I think Congressman Wilson ended up fundraising off yelling, "You lie," after that.

... Somebody told us that [Obama] looked over and said: "It's about me. Are they making this about me?" It was suddenly a lightning bolt of recognition. This isn't about policy; this isn't about politics. This is about him, him as a black man, maybe, him as a protagonist in a socialist intervention, whatever it is. He personalized it really for the first time then. You think that's true?

I didn't have that sense from him. My sense from the president, he has a pretty thick skin, and he was just keeping his head down trying to figure out how we get across the finish line. I spent a lot of time with him, a lot of time when it was just the two of us. I never got that sense as much as this is really hard.

You think this is racial? You think then it's racial?

Again, it's trying to get inside someone else's mind, and it's just hard to say. I remember back when Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, Dick Armey was in the leadership at the time for House Republicans, and he was on the House floor, and he said to Democrats, "He's your president." That's not the way things are usually done. There's an extraordinarily gracious note that President Bush wrote to President Clinton as he was coming into office, and in that note, he talks about, at the very end, about President Clinton as the president for all of us coming in. That's the way things usually, historically work.

Used to be.

Used to be. It certainly wasn't that way when President Clinton was president, and it wasn't that way when President Obama was there. I was working in the House when 9/11 happened, and Democrats had a lot of differences with President Bush before 9/11. 9/11 happened, and everybody closed ranks. It wasn't a blame game; it wasn't partisan; it wasn't saying the president was responsible for that. It was, "We have to bring our country together," and the president had some policies he wanted to adopt, and Democrats by and large did that.

That's not to say Democrats are perfect, but I saw that firsthand. There was none of that spirit, and Republicans will blame President Obama for it. I honestly don't know what else he could have done in an outreach. It was social outreach; it was substantive outreach; it was small groups; it was one-on-one; it was big groups. It was trying to figure out every possible way to find common ground. But if there's no agreement on the problem, it's always going to be impossible to find common ground. So on climate change, a big part of the congressional Republicans refused to acknowledge it as a problem. Well, then they're not going to have any interest in coming up with a common solution.

... Scott Brown wins [the Senate race in Massachusetts], and [Martha] Coakley loses. Somewhere in there, the decision is made, well, we're just going to forge ahead and use the majority and ram this on through if we have to. ... You must have raised it, the political risks of some major piece of legislation like health care without at least some Republican votes to ride along with you has historically knock-on effects for that piece of legislation. When faced with that conversation, what makes the president decide to go forward anyway?

The best interests of the country. We had record numbers of Americans uninsured because of the terrible economic downturn. Lots of people had lost health insurance. Deficits were going through the roof. Our health care system wasn't sustainable. He saw a window to try and get this done following regular congressional procedure. This was not a bill that got rammed through. It was considered by three different committees in the Senate. It was on the Senate floor for a month under regular order. Had to get 60 votes to pass, not a majority. It got 60 votes to pass. It went through three committees in the House, spent time on the House floor, had to get a majority to pass in the House. We were able to do that.

Then at the end of the day, when Sen. [Ted] Kennedy's seat was won by Scott Brown, the House passed the Senate bill. We then had a companion measure, a reconciliation bill, to make some changes. But this bill passed exactly the way political science textbooks say a bill should pass. It came up through the House; it came up through the Senate. There were no special procedures. It spent more time on the Senate floor than any other bill but one in the last 40 years before that.

So there wasn't anything special about it. ... Yet there are things in talking about 2009, 2010, lots of major issues get lost in the shuffle.

Of course.

One in 2009, we had to do a Supreme Court nomination, and the president nominated Justice [Sonia] Sotomayor, who is impeccably qualified, was going to make history because of her background, and still didn't get as overwhelming a vote as she should. In January, Ben Bernanke's term was up at the Federal Reserve. That was a Bush appointment. President was reappointing someone President Bush had appointed. That became a huge battle just to get the votes for Chairman Bernanke.

The normal rules, the laws of physics that govern politics of governing, no longer existed. Again, the president just had to deal with things as they came up.

I remember a time in August of '09--I'm going to take you out of sequence for a second--when the Tea Party protests were taking off. Congress had just gone into recess. There were people urging the president not to go forward with health care inside the White House. He started the meeting by asking me for an assessment. I gave him an assessment of how we can still go forward and get a law passed. He then heard a lot of very good arguments the other way, why this wouldn't work, and he should either stop or go to a smaller bill. And these are from people he trusted.

At the end of the meeting, he came back to me and asked me what I thought, if any of that changed my mind. I told him I couldn't guarantee success; I couldn't even tell him how we were going to get from A to Z; I just still thought we could get there. But that what I thought it came down to was, did he feel lucky? And the president, without missing a beat, smiled and said: "My name is Barack Obama. I'm president of the United States. I wake up every day, and I feel lucky." That sense of optimism, I think, gave him a real resiliency as we went through all these fights. No matter what bricks were thrown at him, no matter what obstacles were thrown up, he kept, to me--and I'll always be grateful for this as an American--just an incredible focus on what was in the best interests of the country.

... Were you aware of Cantor, [Paul] Ryan and [Kevin] McCarthy, the Young Guns, out there stumping, pouring money into certain candidates and their efforts paying off in 2010? ... All of a sudden, a whole new crop of Republican congressmen [are] coming to Washington. ... It wasn't about seniority; it wasn't about hanging around Washington. It was about stopping the government, or at least cutting it down to size, whatever that meant. They weren't going to play by the usual rules. When you and the president first heard about the debt ceiling being something that would be ransomed, what did you think?

Well, it didn't take very long. We were focused on that before anyone was talking about it, because it was clear, because in the first couple of months of the Republican majority, they were about to shut the government down. On a Friday night, the Washington Monument was getting ready to shut off its lights. School kids were being told not to come on trips, and the Republican leadership had to take it to, I think, five minutes to midnight, to pass a bill that would fund the government.

That was the canary in the coal mine, and it was clear that the debt limit, which was hard to pass--the increase was hard to pass in 2010 when Democrats were in control of the Senate and the House--it was clear that that was going to be a major issue. What became clear very early on, despite Speaker [John] Boehner's best attempts, he wasn't in control of his caucus. Normally in politics, I don't want this to sound too much like a political science class, but people have to negotiate with each other, so there will be leadership, Democratic leadership, Republican leadership, Senate leadership, House leadership, and they need to be empowered to negotiate to reach an agreement.

It was clear very early on that Speaker Boehner wasn't empowered by his caucus to do that, so there was a big element of his caucus that was the anarchy caucus. They didn't care what the consequences were. As far as they were concerned, government was bad, and doing anything government-related was bad. Well, that's a hard thing if those people are the government, if they're in Congress. And that was a very tough hand that Speaker Boehner was dealt.

When did the president know Speaker Boehner didn't have his caucus?

I think it was pretty early on. Again, the president's view was, "I'm going to keep trying to negotiate with the speaker," because the president wanted a Grand Bargain. He wanted to see if we can take some of the issues off the table. He certainly didn't want to play Russian roulette with debt limit, but I think he always realized Speaker Boehner didn't have as firm a grip on his caucus as he might have.

[In 2011] Donald Trump decides to dip his toe in the water by raising the birther issue with the president. ... What did you all think when you first heard that Donald Trump was capturing the birther issue and about to spread it around even more than it already was?

I honestly don't remember spending a lot of time on it, thinking about it. It was just another in a line of insults and offensive actions directed at the president. The president has pretty thick skin. I never had a conversation with him about it. It's just go on, and that to me was his approach, so I never spent time thinking about it.

The president releases the long-form [birth certificate] and the other things. Trump happens to be landing in his helicopter in New Hampshire saying he's getting ready to run for the presidency, and he then says publicly: "See, I made the president do this. It shows you the power I have." ... Still doesn't move the needle at the White House?

... Even though I'd been involved in government for a long time, even though I'd been in the House and Senate for over 25 years, it really wasn't until I got to the White House and watching the president and seeing the weight of having two wars, when he would get reports of soldiers killed, when he'd have to go out and meet a plane with caskets in it; when we'd sit and give him terrible economic news, which we did far too many times--the stock market had dropped to 6,000-something in March of 2009; when we were talking about the auto industry and what that meant, not just to the industry, but all the families that depended on the industry.

In 2009, we had to deal with the H1N1 crisis, and I remember being in the Cabinet room with relevant secretaries and the president where people were talking about starting to quarantine towns. We had such a fragile recovery at that point; what that would mean if H1N1 was as bad as it was? We had the Greek crisis with their currency. We had an uproar in Gaza. The president, he just can't escape any of it.

So when we had the oil leak in the Gulf and we were spending time on that trying to plug the hole and try to figure it out, it's those things that I remember. The Trump stuff seems silly compared to it, because the president doesn't have the luxury of saying, "I'm going to focus on that." These were real problems. They were serious. They had devastating consequences to families. That's what the president had to deal with.

... [After Obama is re-elected in 2012], it looks like there's an opportunity in immigration reform to get something done and that maybe everybody can all agree on that. But he, the president, is told, "Stay away from this so that it can get done." And he was told the same thing on the Newtown gun moment, that Joe [Biden] had to handle it: "You step back, Mr. President; you're a little toxic on this." You know this guy well enough to know, it's got to be unbelievably frustrating to be a re-elected president of the United States and on two issues that you really care a lot about, you have to step into the shadow because you're too toxic.

At the end of the day, what's more important, to get a law that helps people or your feelings? You could ask the president that question 100 times, and if he gave you an honest answer 100 times, he'd say get a law. That's what he wanted to do. He looked at his time as president--this story's been told a lot when the health care bill passed. The last vote on health care when the House passed the Senate bill, the president said: "This is better than being elected president. This is why I did it." And that to me is his focus on every issue he looks at. It could be a big advance; it could be a small advance; it could be a medium advance. He wants to keep moving the ball forward, and he takes a very long view on things.

Whether his feelings are hurt, whether he's bruised, it doesn't make a difference. He did, on immigration, exactly what he should have done. They told him to keep distance from it; he kept distance from it. A bill passed the Senate. But because of the internal dynamics of the House, the House would never bring up immigration. Nothing the president could have done differently on that. If he got involved, they may not have passed the Senate. So he can only do everything he can, whether it's by affirmative action or by stepping back to try to make progress.

The stimulus meeting. ... Just answer that one more time, if you will, with the understanding of Cantor's position about this, that what Obama did when he went up there is he was not trying to get the opinions of the Republicans. It was already a done deal, and their attitude was there was nothing in it that was bipartisan whatsoever.

When the president met with the bipartisan congressional leadership his first day in Washington, we were operating on a very fast timetable because the economy was about to slip into a depression. Things that would normally take months, we had to do just in days. As the proposal was coming together, the president wanted to have a robust section on tax cuts, which ended up being about $300 billion, $250 to $350 billion. There was a big section, over $200 billion, in aid directly to states. He thought that was a good package from a Republican standpoint because so much of it was on tax cuts.

At that first meeting, Eric Cantor actually made a suggestion, my recollection was on absolutely, on how to track money, which when we left, the president made it a point to say he wanted to look into that. We did look into it and then made it part of the bill, so it was specifically to address a concern that Congressman Cantor had.

My sense in the weeks after that--again, the president wasn't going to be president for almost three weeks--was the Republicans weren't interested in reaching a compromise with the president. If they could get 100 percent of what they wanted, they'd be happy. But if they couldn't get 100 percent of what they wanted, they didn't want any part of it. That actually played out three years later when the president was looking to extend tax cuts, and there was a sizable number of Republicans who opposed that bill to extend some of the Bush tax cuts because it wasn't 100 percent of the tax cuts. That's what the president was dealing with.

... When the Grand Bargain collapses, was that a turning point in the White House's understanding of the Republicans in Congress? It feels like at the last moment when they really tried to do something big, especially on deficit and debt. Was it that? Did it change your understanding of the Republican Party?

I think we had a very good understanding as soon as the Republicans came into power in early 2011 of what we were going to be faced with. Notwithstanding that, the president's approach was always going to be to try; to see, expend every ounce of energy he could to see if a bipartisan was reached, could be reached, and if it couldn't, then to go on and do the best he could without it.

... His final State of the Union address and the Springfield speech just a little while later acknowledged a frustration and a sense of loss, and maybe he didn't get everything he wanted, and there were some things he could have done better--taking responsibility for that. What were your thoughts about what he was trying to say to Americans and to the historical record in especially the Springfield speech?

I thought it was a little bit of an extension of his 2004 speech. There's not a red America; there's not a blue America; there's just America. That's the way the president would like the system to operate. The system clearly doesn't operate as well as it could, and that's a reality the president has to deal with. And he'd like to see it go beyond what it is now.

How do you think he makes sense, or how do you make sense, of the rise of Trump in the face of what you've witnessed over the last eight years?

I think it's a progression over the last 20 years. One of the finest moments I thought Sen. McCain had in the 2008 campaign was when a woman stood up at a town hall meeting and said the president wasn't an American, and Sen. McCain, instead of pandering to that, said very clearly, "No, no, no, he's a good American." Sometimes I feel like that woman is now running the Republican Party, because that view seems to be the dominant one through the Republican primaries. I'm enough of an optimist to think it's cyclical and it will get better. But it is a reflection on the frustration a lot of people have, not the majority of the country, but a lot of people have over the state of the country.

How did this happen?

... It goes back over 30 years. It goes back to Ronald Reagan saying the scariest words in the English language: "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help." For over 30 years, Americans have been fed cynicism. They've been fed a constant message that government is broken; it doesn't work. There's no interest group, there's no force in our country to say: "Wait a second. A lot of programs do work. We have air that's dramatically cleaner now because of the 1990 Clean Air Act than we did 26 years ago; that Social Security has lifted untold numbers of senior citizens out of poverty; that the Affordable Care Act gives insurance to 20 million people." People never hear any of those stories. They just hear the things that are broken, and they hear that government is corrupt and that they're not looking out for the American people's interest.

A steady diet of that amplified with technology results in a lot of people being very cynical and ready to throw up their hands and say, "Throw the bums out." Someone like Speaker Boehner, who's as a conservative a Republican as he could be, ends up being looked at as not a loyal Republican and his party, not just voters, but his caucus can't wait to throw him out of office.

Well, that was very optimistic. Thank you.

It will get better. I mean, that is the thing. I used to spend a fair amount of time looking at trends in government and in politics and looking at the cycles. If I were alive during the McCarthy era, I would have been very depressed, but it then led to a lot of good legislation in the 1960s, and it was very close in time. Notwithstanding every obstacle, every insult thrown at the president, he's got a record of accomplishment that hasn't been matched in 40 or 50 years. And it's not just on paper; it's making a difference in the lives of people. That's at the end of the day what matters.