Divided States of AmericaView Film
DIVIDED STATES OF AMERICA (PART I)
PRODUCED AND REPORTED BY
Michael Kirk & Mike Wiser
NARRATOR: Two days after the election, Donald Trump and Barack Obama, old antagonists, met each other for the first time.
MARC FISHER: There was something surreal about it. They had so much of a past. Trump had said such hurtful and mean-spirited things about Obama for years and years. And now here they were, just feet apart from each other.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: Well, I just had the opportunity to have an excellent conversation with President-elect Trump─
DAN BALZ, The Washington Post: To see the two of them in the Oval Office was kind of the─ you know, the final moment of, “How in the world did this happen? And what have we just gone through?”
NARRATOR: For Trump, it was the beginning of a new era. For Obama, it was the devastating end to a difficult presidency.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: And I have been very encouraged by the, I think, interest in President-elect Trump’s─
TIMOTHY O’BRIEN: I don’t think you could have someone who embodies as clear a rebuke to the Obama legacy as Donald Trump does.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: I believe that it is important for all of us, regardless of party and regardless of political preferences, to now come together, work together to deal with─
EVAN OSNOS, The New Yorker: Donald Trump was a rejection of everything that Barack Obama stood for as a candidate, as a politician and ultimately as a president.
NARRATOR: Inside the Oval Office that day, it seemed civil.
DONALD TRUMP (R), President-elect: We were just going to get to know each other. We had never met each other. I have great respect. The meeting lasted for almost an hour and half. And it could have─ as far as I’m concerned, it could have gone on for a lot longer. We really─ we discussed a lot of─
NARRATOR: But the differences between the two men, and the divisions between their supporters, were stark.
DONALD TRUMP: And I look forward to being with you many, many more times in the future. Thank you.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: Thank you, everybody. We’re not─ we are not going to─
DAN BALZ, The Washington Post: Obama came to Washington with the idea of hope and change, and in fact, he finishes his presidency with the country even more divided and angrier on both sides of the divide.
WESLEY LOWERY, Author, They Can’t Kill Us All: The great irony of the Obama presidency, right, is someone who came in on the mandate of changing Washington as we know it, someone who came on the mandate of ending this gridlock and this polarization, by his very presence─ and his very humanity, who he was, the color of his skin, the sound of his name─ forced more polarization and gridlock than we had seen in the eight years prior.
NARRATOR: Years of political combat in Washington had taken their toll on Obama, on the Republicans, and on the country.
Sen. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: There is not a liberal America and a conservative America, there is the United States of America! [cheers] There is not a black America and a white America, a Latino America, an Asian America, there’s the United States of America! [cheers] Hope, hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty, the audacity of hope!
NEWSCASTER: Obama is expected to be thrown into the limelight─
NEWSCASTER: He can barely show his face in public without creating some kind of sensation.
NEWSCASTER: He is an island of celebration in a sea of despair.
NARRATOR: In 2005, Barack Obama was the newly elected senator from Illinois.
JANNY SCOTT: And he arrives in the Senate a celebrity.
NARRATOR: He was already a superstar. To many Democrats, he was their future.
JEFF ZELENY, The New York Times: He was the sort of person who Democrats were placing their hopes in.
NARRATOR: The veterans knew it in their bones. They gathered around him.
Sen. TOM DASCHLE, (D-SD), Fmr. Majority Leader: He came to the Senate almost immediately with everyone’s high expectations, with everyone’s assumption that this was a man who was on a fast track.
NARRATOR: But at the very bottom of the seniority system, the new senator quickly grew impatient.
RYAN LIZZA, The New Yorker: As soon as he gets to the U.S. Senate, he’s bored. And he doesn’t─ Obama was never going to be the kind of guy who, you know, ends up in a wheelchair on the Senate floor.
NARRATOR: One day during his second year in office, at a restaurant near the Capitol, his mentor, the former majority leader, urged him it was time to run for the presidency.
Sen. TOM DASCHLE: We went to my favorite restaurant and took the kitchen table in the back, where nobody could see us. Well, I tell him he should do it and that he shouldn’t assume, if he passes up this window, that there will be another because the longer he’s in Washington, the more history he has. And the more history he has, the more he’s going to be explaining his votes and his actions and his statements and his positions that undermine his message.
NARRATOR: He wanted to do it, but some of his closest advisers were cautious.
CASSANDRA BUTTS, Friend: He asked us to challenge him on what he would face in running for president, to really ask the tough questions.
PETE ROUSE, Sen. Obama Chief of Staff: And some of the most skeptical people about making this race were some of his very accomplished, successful African-American friends.
NARRATOR: They were unsure if America was ready for a black president.
JELANI COBB, The New Yorker: There were four people in this country that thought that the country could elect a black president, and they all lived at the same address in the South Side of Chicago.
NARRATOR: He decided to run. On the campaign trail in Iowa, he delivered his message.
Sen. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), Presidential Candidate: We can finally bring the change we need to Washington!
Sen. BARACK OBAMA: We are ready to take this country in a fundamentally new direction!
NARRATOR: ─and change.
Sen. BARACK OBAMA: The American people are looking for change in America!
We are in a defining moment in our history!
NARRATOR: The state was a crucial test of whether white voters would support Obama.
Sen. TOM DASCHLE: Iowa turned out to be the real litmus test. Did he have the capacity to draw votes from other demographic groups?
Prof. ROGER WILKINS, George Mason University: If white people would vote for a black candidate in a mainly white state, it said this guy really has a chance. This is not─ this is not playing anymore. This is not Jesse.
NARRATOR: By the day of the caucuses, it was unclear whether Obama had convinced enough Iowa Democrats.
ROBERT GIBBS: We start to initially get sort of turn-out reports, very anecdotal. The lines are out the door.
DAN BALZ: Nobody foresaw 239,000 people participating in the Iowa caucuses. I mean, so when 239,000 people came out, like, you know, they just blew the doors off every assumption about the campaign.
Sen. BARACK OBAMA: At this defining moment in history, you have done what the cynics said we couldn’t do! [cheers]
NARRATOR: Obama won a critical victory in a state that was over 90 percent white.
Prof. ROGER WILKINS All of a sudden, people woke up and said, “My God, maybe it could happen.” That’s what happened. And it was like a jolt of electricity going through the entirety of the black community.
Sen. BARACK OBAMA: You came together as Democrats, Republicans and independents to stand up and say that we are one nation! We are one people! And our time for change has come! [cheers]
NARRATOR: It was a message that put Obama on the road to the White House.
NEWSCASTER: This is where John McCain will appear with his running mate, but we still don’t know who it is.
NARRATOR: But first, his opponent, Republican senator John McCain would have a surprise for the country.
NEWSCASTER: Rumors are swirling that Senate John McCain is about to choose his running mate for vice president─
NEWSCASTER: Who will John McCain pick as his running mate?
NARRATOR: McCain had become a fixture of the republican establishment over his 25 years in Washington. He was struggling in the polls as voters seemed to want change. He needed a newcomer to neutralize Obama’s change candidacy.
NORMAN ORNSTEIN, American Enterprise Institute: He needed to find someone. An African-American running, you got to find a woman. But you have to find a woman who meets some of the litmus tests in your own party.
Sen. JOHN McCAIN (R-AZ), Presidential Nominee: I am very privileged to introduce to you the next vice president of the United States, Governor Sarah Palin of the great state of Alaska! [cheers]
NARRATOR: At the time, few realized that the decision was a turning point for the Republican Party and the history of American politics.
EVAN OSNOS, The New Yorker: Palin was a signal moment in the tensions that were developing and would ultimately explode within the Republican Party.
RYAN LIZZA: McCain’s advisers thought she was very different than what she turned out to be. They didn’t realize that she would be this populist crusader and turn into a sort of right-wing grass roots populist.
NARRATOR: As she arrived at the Republican convention, Palin’s down-home straight talk was appealing to an emerging group of rebellious conservatives.
Gov. SARAH PALIN (R-AK), Vice Presidential Nominee: Well, I’m not a member of the permanent political establishment and─
FRANK LUNTZ, Republican Pollster: She gave one of the best convention speeches I have ever seen and she mesmerized those people.
Gov. SARAH PALIN: I’m not going to Washington to seek their good opinion. I’m going to Washington to serve the people of this great country! [cheers]
NARRATOR: She electrified the crowds with her own brand of prairie populism, attacks on the Washington establishment and those she labeled “the elites”
Gov. SARAH PALIN: I’ve learned quickly these last few days that if you’re not a member in good standing of the Washington elite, then some in the media consider a candidate unqualified for that reason alone, but─ [boos]
MICHAEL SHEAR, The New York Times: She didn’t talk like politicians. She didn’t─ she wasn’t careful with her words. She didn’t make a lot of sense sometimes.
Gov. SARAH PALIN: I love those hockey moms. You know, they say the difference between a hockey mom and a pitbull? Lipstick. [laughter and cheers]
MARK LEIBOVICH, Author, This Town: I don’t think there’s ever been someone that close to the presidency─ I mean, who─ at least for as long as I can remember, who was that seemingly─ let’s say, did not have the classic qualifications for the office.
Gov. SARAH PALIN: Thank you, and God bless America! [cheers]
EVAN OSNOS: John McCain ushered an insurgent, somebody coming in from the outside, literally from Alaska, and then also in every other way in terms of her background and her regard for elite institutions.
TALK RADIO: But this governor of Alaska, she’s something else!
TALK RADIO: Sarah Palin has completely transformed the Republican Party and the next presidency of the United States!
TALK RADIO: Boy, were you right about this one!
NARRATOR: For her base, she was heroic. But in New York, she was made into a joke.
[“Saturday Night Live]
ANNOUNCER: I present Governor Sarah Palin..
TINA FEY: First off, I just want to say how excited I am to be in front of both the liberal elite media, as well as the liberal regular media. [laughter] I am looking forward to a portion of your questions, so let’s get started. Yes, you.
ACTOR: You said that you like to visit the, quote, “pro-America parts of the country.” Are there parts of the country that you consider un-American?
TINA FEY: Yes, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Delaware, California.
EVAN OSNOS: When she was asked in an interview with Katie Couric what she reads every day─
KATIE COURIC, CBS News: What newspapers and magazines did you regularly read before you were tapped for this─
EVAN OSNOS: She was embarrassed and sort of squirmed a bit on camera.
Gov. SARAH PALIN: All of them, any of them that have been in front of me over all these years. I have─
KATIE COURIC: Can you name any of them?
Gov. SARAH PALIN: I have a vast variety of sources where we get our news to─ Alaska─
EVAN OSNOS: She didn’t just not have an answer, she was contemptuous of the question.
Gov. SARAH PALIN: ─kind of suggested, it seems like, “Wow, how could you keep in touch what the rest of Washington, D.C., maybe thinking and doing, when you live up there in Alaska?” Believe me, Alaska is like a microcosm of America─
EVAN OSNOS: To some people, they thought, “Well, OK, that signals the end of her candidacy in some sense.” But for another segment of Americans, this was validating. This was vindicating. There was somebody now who had a similar suspicion and sense of alienation from these East Coast effete intellectuals.
FRANK LUNTZ: And that was really the first time that you had this establishment versus grass roots conflict. And you had it because for some people, Sarah Palin was Margaret Thatcher. For others, Sarah Palin─ I don’t even know who the analogy would be, but just someone who was not qualified to be where she was.
Gov. SARAH PALIN: I was reading today a copy of The New York Times─ [boos]
NARRATOR: Palin became the voice of a growing number of Republicans who were fed up with politics as usual in their party.
PETER BAKER, The New York Times: And she was, in fact, an early indicator that things were changing in the Republican Party, that it was not the same party of the George H.W. Bush and Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan era.
Gov. SARAH PALIN: Drill, baby, drill!
AUDIENCE: Drill, baby, drill! Drill, baby, drill!
JASON ZENGERLE, GQ Magazine: She was not even really conservative, she was just a bomb thrower. And I think that it took a long time for people at the top of the party to recognize what─ the anger Palin was channeling. It wasn’t just at Democrats but the Republican elites, as well.
NARRATOR: Palin was the beginning of a challenge to the establishment that would only grow in time.
On the campaign trail, Barack Obama was facing his own challenge. He was being forced to deal with a subject he had hoped to avoid.
Rev. JEREMIAH WRIGHT: And they want us to sing God Bless America? No, no, no! Not God bless America, God damn America, that’s in the Bible, for killing innocent people! God damn America for treating her citizens as less than human!
NARRATOR: Suddenly, the issue of race was at the forefront of the campaign for president.
RYAN LIZZA, The New Yorker: Obama’s campaign manager said, “That was the episode that could have destroyed our campaign.” He called it “a direct torpedo to the hull.” So inside, they were absolutely terrified that it all could have ended with Wright. It was that big a deal at the time.
Rev. JEREMIAH WRIGHT: Yes, 9/11/01 happened to us, and so did slavery happen to us!
NARRATOR: It seemed to threaten Obama’s message that America could rise above its divisions.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, The New Yorker: I think for a lot of conservatives, this prototypical angry black man in Chicago was, for them anyway, a clue into the real Obama, the one he didn’t want the public to see.
Rev. JEREMIAH WRIGHT: I am sick of Negroes who just do not get it!
NARRATOR: Obama had grappled with issues of race for his entire life.
CASSANDRA BUTTS, Friend: Barack has had to deal with dueling identities all of his life, nurtured by a white family and identifying with that family, but at the same time, when he’s out─ when he goes out, he’s identified as something else. And he has had to make sense of that duality his entire life.
DAVID AXELROD, Obama Senior Adviser: The history of Obama is a belief in his own ability to bring people of disparate views and cultures and backgrounds together to solve difficult problems.
NEWSCASTER: Today, Obama promises to tackle the issue of race head on─
NARRATOR: Now his candidacy was in jeopardy because of his longtime pastor, Jeremiah Wright. His ability to bridge differences would be put to the test.
NEWSCASTER: His campaign is calling the speech an important moment─
NEWSCASTER: ─what may be the most important speech of his campaign-
DAN BALZ, The Washington Post: But I mean, this is a moment of, you know, sort of maximum peril for a candidate, and his goal was to elevate out of that moment into something broader.
Rep. JAMES CLYBURN (D-SC), Majority Whip: Jeremiah Wright, God bless him, allowed Barack Obama to confront this issue sooner rather than later, and I think it allowed him to regain the upper hand.
Sen. BARACK OBAMA: I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can disown my white grandmother, a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed her by on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe. These people are part of me and they are part of America, this country that I love.
NARRATOR: It worked. Obama had spoken from the heart. Many of his supporters hoped it would be the first of many conversations about race.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON, Author, The Black Presidency: In that speech, Barack Obama said that this is an opening. This is a vista that allows us to think critically about the issue of race. And it should be the first of many to come. Of course, in truth, in reality, it was a summation. It was a stopgap. After he was successful with that speech, he wanted nothing of it.
NARRATOR: Obama would move on, but the issue of race wouldn’t go away.
TALK RADIO: But it never was about Jeremiah Wright, really. It was about Barack Obama.
TALK RADIO: How much more evidence do we need about where Obama is coming from? The people that he’s surrounded─
TALK RADIO: The association with Reverend Wright has de-masked Obama!
NARRATOR: For some Americans, suspicions about Obama only deepened. Throughout the campaign, talk radio fueled questions about just who Barack Obama really was.
TALK RADIO: Here is the man that Obama listened to for 20 years over and over and over again─
DAN BALZ: One thing that was observable and yet ignored was the degree to which there was real hostility toward Barack Obama on the right.
TALK RADIO: Obama’s a terrorist, don’t you know that?
TALK RADIO: Obama’s a Muslim! He’s a terrorist himself!
NARRATOR: Obama’s opponent, John McCain, saw the grass roots anger firsthand.
WOMAN: I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him, and he’s not─ he’s not─ he is a─ he’s an Arab. He is not─
Sen. JOHN McCAIN: No, ma’am. No, ma’am.
Sen. JOHN McCAIN: No, ma’am. No, ma’am. No, ma’am. He’s a─ he’s a─ he’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with.
NARRATOR: McCain believed in the old rules of politics.
RYAN LIZZA, The New Yorker: They had a rule in the McCain campaign that if he─ if there was any hint that─ that that─ that the McCain campaign was going to use racial animus against Barack Obama, you would have been fired and banned from Republican politics. It was a red line that was never crossed in 2008.
MAN: My wife and I are expecting our first child April 2nd next year, and frankly, we’re scared. We’re scared of an Obama presidency.
NARRATOR: McCain tried to reassure his supporters.
Sen. JOHN McCAIN: I have to tell you, he is a decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared as president of the United States. Now─ [boos] I just─ I just─ now, look, I─ I just─ [boos]
DAN BALZ: You could see the seeds of the kind of divisiveness that happened almost immediately.
TALK RADIO: John McCain is not my idea of a great candidate. We have to defeat the Marxist, and then we have to take back the Republican Party!
Sen. JOHN McCAIN: I just─ I just─
NEWSCASTER: ─stock price dropped 45 percent Tuesday─
NARRATOR: But that fall, with the election just over a month away, something else would shake the presidential campaign─
NEWSCASTER: The stock market dropped by hundreds of points right from the open.
NARRATOR: ─a catastrophic collapse on Wall Street.
NEWSCASTER: The turmoil in the mortgage market is far from over.
NEWSCASTER: And the number of U.S. banks in danger of failing─
NEWSCASTER: ─gasoline’s up, food prices up, stocks way, way, way, way down.
RICHARD FISHER, Pres., Dallas Federal Reserve: The system stopped. All forms of payment froze when we got to the depth of the panic. Banks wouldn’t lend money to each other. The first money market mutual fund in the United States, quote, “broke the buck.” Commercial paper, the most basic─ one of the most basic instruments in finance─ that market failed.
NEWSCASTER: AIG plunging. At one point, they were down 70 percent.
NEWSCASTER: They face the hammer of a credit rating agency downgrading─
NARRATOR: The entire global financial system, and the American economy, were at stake.
NEWSCASTER: ─risk of a recession rising. Now some say they see one lurking right around the corner.
PAUL KRUGMAN, Economist, Princeton Univ.: This is DEFCON 4, whatever. This was the complete nightmare. By Wednesday, basically had a complete shutdown of the world capital market. It’s just─ no, this is actually terror.
NARRATOR: The situation was so dire that candidate Barack Obama was receiving regular updates from President George W. Bush’s secretary of the treasury, Hank Paulson.
AUSTAN GOOLSBEE, Obama Economic Adviser: Secretary Paulson and the administration are calling then candidate Obama, and they’re saying, “Look, we think the world is close to coming to an end, and we really need your support.”
NARRATOR: For years, Paulson had been the CEO of Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs. Now he said the government needed to act to save the Wall Street banks. Paulson traveled to Capitol Hill for an emergency meeting. He urged Congress to authorize $700 billion to bail out the banks.
Rep. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), Speaker of the House: We just had what I believe was a very productive meeting─
NARRATOR: But as the bill was rushed to the floor, outrage, even among Republicans angry at their own president.
MARK LANDLER, Author, Alter Egos: The reaction on Capitol Hill was toxic. They were furious.
Rep. MIKE PENCE (R), Indiana: I rise in opposition to the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act─
Rep. SCOTT GARRETT (R), New Jersey: America, you should be outraged about what Washington is about to do!
Rep. PAUL BROUN (R), Georgia: This is essentially Mr. Paulson’s bill to help his friends, and I can’t buy it!
Rep. JOHN CULBERTSON (R), Texas: It is an unprecedented and unaffordable and unacceptable expansion of federal power that our kids cannot afford, that we have never─
NORMAN ORNSTEIN, Author, It’s Even Worse Than it Looks: You could see the seeds of the division in the Republican Party and the muscle-flexing by the more radical element of the party against its own leaders.
Rep. LOUIE GOHMERT (R), Texas: Please! Please don’t betray this nation’s great history!
DAN BALZ: And that may be the moment where, in a sense, the Tea Party began to get formed up. They’re going after their─ you know, they’re rebelling against their own leadership.
NARRATOR: With President Bush unable to convince members of his own party to support the bill, the bailout was stuck. Suddenly, presidential politics intervened.
Sen. JOHN McCAIN: Tomorrow morning, I’ll suspend my campaign and return to Washington after speaking─
NARRATOR: Senator John McCain called for an emergency meeting to deal with the crisis and resolve the impasse with Republican congressional insurgents.
Sen. JOHN McCAIN: It’s time for both parties to come together to solve this problem.
NEWSCASTER: The president has invited Senators McCain and Obama to the White House on Thursday.
NEWSCASTER: McCain is going to have this meeting, kind of a summit today with the president and Barack Obama-
NARRATOR: On September 25th, a hastily called meeting at the White House. Paulson arrived first. Then Barack Obama, John McCain and prominent members of the House and Senate arrived.
Rep. BARNEY FRANK, (D), Massachusetts: We go there to the White House. There is a division, with everybody on one side, House and Senate Democrats, Senate Republicans and Treasury.
Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: We’re in a serious economic crisis in the country if we don’t pass a piece of legislation.
PETER BAKER, The New York Times: They sit around the Cabinet Room table, and President Bush says, “If we don’t get the money flowing, if we don’t get the credit flowing, this sucker could go down,” meaning the economy as a whole. And then he opens it up.
RON SUSKIND, Author, Confidence Men: McCain walks into the meeting with, like, a cue card with a couple things scribbled on it. Obama doesn’t even wait for McCain to start. He just moves right in.
AUSTAN GOOLSBEE: Senator Obama has been talking to Paulson, has been talking to Warren Buffett and Paul Volcker and Larry Summers, and you know, a host of other economic advisers.
DAVID WESSEL, The Wall Street Journal: Obama is prepared, and he talks about what needs to happen, and “We’ll pull together,” and he’s been─ he doesn’t want to take over in a country which is in depression, so he’s extremely supportive of this whole emergency bailout thing.
Rep. NANCY PELOSI: Senator Obama said, “Well, I’d really like to hear from Senator McCain because he’s the person who called for this meeting.”
RON SUSKIND: McCain is fumbling with his cue cards. He doesn’t even barely get started. Obama kind of patronizes him, saying, “I think Senator McCain has something to say.” McCain just melts on the spot.
NARRATOR: McCain was in a bind. Republicans were at war with themselves over the bailout.
MATT LATIMER, G.W. Bush Speechwriter: Obama took charge, had authority. John McCain had no plan, no strategy. I don’t think he understood what was happening, or didn’t have a plan for what he wanted to accomplish.
JONATHAN ALTER, Author, The Promise: President Bush whispered to Nancy Pelosi, who was sitting next to him. When McCain was talking, he said, “You guys are going to miss me.” And she kind of laughed.
PETER BAKER: The meeting ends up breaking into a─ into a cacophony of shouting and─ and screaming back and forth. And Bush stands up and says, “Well, I’ve clearly lost control of this meeting,” and he walks out.
JONATHAN ALTER: And another Republican at the table joked to the person sitting next to him, “After this, even we’re going to vote for Obama.” That was the level of Obama’s dominance in this meeting.
NARRATOR: For Republicans in Congress about to vote on the bailout, the meeting had changed little.
Sen. CHRISTOPHER DODD (D-CT), Chmn. Banking Cmte.: I was in the cloakroom of the Senate watching that vote, and I didn’t have a good feeling about it.
CHARLES DUHIGG, The New York Times: The House Republicans pull their support. Everything falls apart. We’re literally sitting in the newsroom. Everyone expects the bill to pass, then they have the vote and the bill fails.
NEWSCASTER: They didn’t pass it!
NEWSCASTER: They did not pass it.
NEWSCASTER: And I see that the Dow traders are standing there watching in amazement, and I don’t blame them!
NEWSCASTER: Look at the Dow Jones Industrial Average!
NEWSCASTER: The market right now is down 521 points.
TIMOTHY GEITHNER, Pres., NY Federal Reserve: At that moment, it was terrifying. I remember Paulson calling me that night. He thought the rivets were coming off the submarine. We really thought the system was past the point of no return. It was going to collapse. It would be like the Great Depression.
NEWSCASTER: A history-making 777-point nosedive─
NEWSCASTER: ─plunged for the single greatest point loss in the Dow average in one day ever.
DAN BALZ, The Washington Post: I think that was the foreshadowing of so much of what we’ve seen since, an anti-elite, anti-Wall Street feeling that crystalized in that vote, but was much larger than that. I mean, it was─ it was─ they’re rebelling against their own leadership.
NARRATOR: It would take another four days before enough Democrats and Republicans relented.
PRESIDING OFFICER: The yeas are 263, the nays are 171. The motion is adopted.
TALK RADIO: Give us a zillion dollars and that’ll calm things down and we’ll start lending, and, oh, everything─
NARRATOR: For many Republicans, that vote would be a turning point─
TALK RADIO: It doesn’t help the folks to be nationalizing the economy!
NARRATOR: ─a sign to them that their party cared more about Wall Street than ordinary Americans.
TALK RADIO: We folks, we believe in capitalism!
Rep. RAUL LABRADOR (R), Idaho: A lot of people felt like they were betrayed by the party, that the party was actually doing something that they should not have been doing and that the president should have vetoed.
TALK RADIO: This is not the constitutional government that our founders had in mind! We have a run on the treasury today!
NARRATOR: Some of the insurgent Republicans laid the blame on the president, George W. Bush.
PETER BAKER: George W. Bush, actually, by the time he left office, had a lot of problems among his own Republicans. It was a real sign that a lot of the old order had begun to change and really could have been a warning bell, I think, for President Obama as he was coming in.
NEWSCASTER: Barack Obama is projected to be the next president─
NEWSCASTER: Senator Barack Obama of Illinois─
NARRATOR: By November, the economic crisis and the growing divisions in Washington would soon be Barack Obama’s problem.
RYAN LIZZA: That night when he came out, the look on his face to me looked like someone who finally understood the weight of the job that he had just won.
MARK LEIBOVICH, The New York Times Magazine: And you saw the seriousness and this weightiness that had come over him suddenly, as if he knew that this giddy ride that resulted in his election was, in effect, over. And it was as if the burden of the presidency fell upon him in a split second.
NARRATOR: But that night, Obama insisted the unity he had promised was now within sight.
Sen. BARACK OBAMA, President-Elect: Americans sent a message to the world that we have never been just a collection of individuals or a collection of red states and blue states. We are, and always will be, the United States of America! [cheers]
JAMES FALLOWS, The Atlantic: You have, in Obama’s case, gone within four years from being an Illinois state politician to the most famous person on earth, and you have confidence in both your judgment about what’s the right way to go and your ability to make it go that way.
President-Elect BARACK OBAMA: America can change. Our union can be perfected.
JAMES FALLOWS: If he was too confident about being able to bring people together, one can understand, given the way he’d spent the previous four years.
President-Elect BARACK OBAMA: This is our moment. Yes, we can! Thank you! God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America! [cheers]
NARRATOR: Across the country in Arizona, there was a different mood.
TALK RADIO: This campaign never had a prayer, and everybody knew it from the get-go. It never had a prayer!
TALK RADIO: John McCain is a disaster, a complete, unmitigated disaster at a time in our history where we need leaders.
Sen. JOHN McCAIN A little while ago, I had the honor of calling Senator Barack Obama to congratulate him─ [boos] Please! To congratulate him on being elected the next president of the country that we both love.
NARRATOR: That evening, John McCain knew his time as leader of the Republican Party was ending
Sen. JOHN McCAIN: I am also, of course, very thankful to Governor Sarah Palin, one of the best campaigners─ [cheers] ─I’ve ever seen.
NARRATOR: But he also knew that Sarah Palin had tapped into something powerful, and he worried, something potentially dangerous.’
TALK RADIO: I’m glad at least he didn’t blame Palin.
DAVID REMNICK, Editor, The New Yorker: And when it ends, he goes up to Sarah Palin and says, “You know, we’ve lost, but now you’re the future of the Republican Party. And the crazies are going to come to you. And the talk radio hosts on the far right are going to come to you. And they’re going to want to make you their standard bearer. Do everything you can to resist them.”
TALK RADIO: She is someone Republicans, conservatives and others can rally behind─
TALK RADIO: We love what you’re doing for the Republican Party. It’s a breath of fresh air. Come on every week, talk directly to millions of Americans about these issues. We hope you’ll come back─
NEWSCASTER: So much for that election day euphoria. Stocks are back on the down side.
NEWSCASTER: The economy has now lost 650,000 jobs just in the past three months.
NARRATOR: In Chicago, as Obama’s transition team went to work, talk of hope was immediately confronted by the reality of the country’s growing economic crisis.
NEWSCASTER: ─fear swept through the markets─
JONATHAN ALTER: He had to start thinking about this the day after he was elected. This was the most eventful and consequential presidential transition in American history.
JARED BERNSTEIN, Obama Economic Adviser: We were all worried about what we were seeing. We knew that the credit system was pretty quickly headed towards something that looked a lot like seizure.
NARRATOR: Obama chose Timothy Geithner, a financial insider and president of the New York Federal Reserve, as his treasury secretary.
TIMOTHY GEITHNER: We’d already thrown trillions and trillions of dollars at the problem. And I think─ you know, it was a very perilous moment, a very existential moment at that point.
NARRATOR: Unemployment was nearly 7 percent and climbing. The stock market was down more than 6,500 points.
PHIL SCHILIRO, Obama Adviser: 700,000 Americans were losing jobs every month. The housing market was in total collapse. Financial sector was imploding. The auto industry was about to go under. Deficits were exploding.
Sen. TOM DASCHLE (D-SD), Fmr. Majority Leader: This could be the most climactic economic crisis in all of American history, that we were that close to a complete meltdown.
RON SUSKIND: Obama at that moment gets a real glimpse of the future. Disaster is coming.
AUSTAN GOOLSBEE, Obama Economic Adviser: At the end of the conversation, there’s basically no bright spots. And I say to the then president-elect, “Wow, that had to have been the worst economic briefing a new president’s had in─ you know, in almost a century.” And the president says, “That’s not even my worst briefing this week.”
NEWSCASTER: It’s the inauguration day of the nation’s first African-American president─
NEWSCASTER: Hundreds of thousands of people already with their─
NARRATOR: Yet on inauguration day, the history of the moment transcended the nation’s problems.
Rep. ERIC CANTOR (R-VA), Minority Whip: I looked out, never forget, from the west front of the Capitol all the way down to the monument. And I think it’s about a mile. And all you could see were people, a sea of people. The fact that our country elected a black president is just─ it was huge in significance.
TA-NEHISI COATES, The Atlantic, Author, Between the World and Me: To the black community, what it obviously meant was that the highest offices of governance and decision making in America were, in fact, open to black people. It’s a big deal, a big, big deal.
BRODERICK JOHNSON, Obama Adviser: The thing I remember the most about that day was an older white man turning to me and my daughter and him saying to her, “Young lady, you could be up there one day.” You could be president of the United States.” I will never, ever forget that moment.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON, Author, The Black Presidency: The first inauguration of Obama was magical realism. It’s hard to overstate not only American pride, which was extraordinary, but black pride, that unapologetically looked upon this man and this figure as the fulfillment of so many dreams and aspirations.
JOHN ROBERTS, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court: Are you prepared to take the oath, Senator?
Sen. BARACK OBAMA: I am.
DAVID REMNICK: This is our national wound, the deepest and longest-standing wound, race.
Sen. BARACK OBAMA: I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear─
DAVID REMNICK: And this whole thing is taking place in front of the Capitol dome built by slaves.
Sen. BARACK OBAMA: ─the Constitution of the United States, so help me God.
Justice JOHN ROBERTS: Congratulations, Mr. President. _[cheers]
DAVID REMNICK: And Barack Obama is about to go spend his first night as president in a house built by slaves.
NARRATOR: Those closest to the president thought it was a transformational moment. They believed things were about to change.
CASSANDRA BUTTS, Dep. White House Counsel: The president walked into the presidency with an expectation that he would be able to reach across the aisle and that Republicans and Democrats alike would be willing to come to the table and address these issues that were a significant problem and needed to be addressed if we were going to move the country forward.
NEWSCASTER: The first couple to arrive at the Neighborhood Ball, the first─
NEWSCASTER: ─inauguration day full of events. Ten, count them, ten official inaugural balls─
NARRATOR: That night in Washington─
NEWSCASTER: It’s the official─
NEWSCASTER: The first ever Neighborhood Ball, open to the public.
NARRATOR: As the president celebrated, he had no idea that across town, new battle lines were being drawn. A group of Republicans quietly gathered to develop plans for taking on the new president.
ROBERT DRAPER, The New York Times Magazine: A meeting, a dinner, took place in a famous steakhouse in downtown Washington, with Newt Gingrich as sort of the emcee, as it were.
Rep. NEWT GINGRICH (R-GA), Fmr. Speaker of the House: The thing I found disturbing this week was the─
NARRATOR: At the gathering of top GOP luminaries─ conservative congressmen Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy, Paul Ryan, Senate power brokers Jim DeMint, Jon Kyl, Tom Coburn and event organizer Frank Luntz.
FRANK LUNTZ, Republican Pollster: The room was filled. It was a who’s who of ranking members who had at one point been committee chairmen, or in the majority, who now wondered out loud whether they were in the permanent minority.
ROBERT DRAPER: Many of them had attended Obama’s inauguration. They had seen that breath-taking spectacle of a million-and-a-half people on the Mall, and it felt like a wholesale repudiation of the Republican Party.
FRANK LUNTZ: They walked into that dining room as depressed as I’ve seen any elected members of Congress. They lost every Senate seat they could lose. They lost all these House seats. The numbers were so great that they thought that they weren’t coming back again, not for an election or two, but maybe a generation or two.
NARRATOR: They came and went. But as the night wore on, those who stayed began to talk about the future.
FRANK LUNTZ: Three hours, some of the brightest minds in the Republican Party debated how to be relevant.
NEWT GINGRICH: The point I made was that we had to be prepared, in the tradition of Wooden at UCLA, to run a full-court press. And we had to see how Obama behaved and to offer an alternative to what he wanted to do.
NARRATOR: The Republicans agreed on a tough new strategy, to block the president, fight his agenda.
NEWT GINGRICH: And he could be defeated partly by his own ideology and by his own behaviors.
FRANK LUNTZ: The feeling was that if that group could cooperate and if that group could lead, that the wilderness might not be a generation away.
NEWT GINGRICH: By the end of the evening, you began to reorient and realize, “Wait a second. You got Nancy Pelosi as an opponent. You got─ you know, you have a clear choice of ideologies. We have a tremendous amount of hard work to do, but it’s doable.”
ROBERT DRAPER: They all talked about this, and they began to get more and more optimistic, and they left feeling practically exuberant.
NEWSCASTER: Ball gowns are on their way to the cleaners. The party is over for both the new president and the nation.
NEWSCASTER: Well, what does Obama need to do to reassure Americans right now, and the markets─
NEWSCASTER: Oh, Obama and his team─ what we’re looking at is a─ this is an ambitious plan─
NEWSCASTER: ─is facing many sobering challenges─
NARRATOR: He would start with the economic crisis.
NEWSCASTER: ─hammering out details for his massive economic recovery plan, and─
NARRATOR: He wanted Congress to immediately pass a massive spending bill that would stimulate the economy.
PHIL SCHILIRO, Obama Adviser: He was told that we were on a cliff, about to fall into a depression. He had to do something big, and he had to do it─ he had to do it quick. He had to act right away.
NARRATOR: And he saw an opportunity to persuade the Republicans to join him.
PETE ROUSE, Obama Adviser: President Obama felt that the nature of the problems were so severe and so significant and so consequential that he could find some way to work better with the Republicans in Congress to try to find some common ground.
NARRATOR: But as he met with Republican leaders to sell his stimulus bill, he discovered that minority whip Eric Cantor had his own ideas.
ERIC CANTOR: I asked the president, “With all due respect, could I distribute a white paper” that I had come up at his request because he said “Bring us your ideas.”
NARRATOR: To the new president, determined to work with Republicans, it seemed reasonable.
ERIC CANTOR: And I’ll never forget what the president said. He looked at it, and he says, “Well, I don’t want to get into all this now.” But he took a look at it and he says, “Well, there’s nothing crazy in here.” So I took that as a really good sign.
NARRATOR: But the president’s staff, experienced in the ways of Washington, didn’t trust Cantor.
PHIL SCHILIRO: Congressman Cantor wanted to dictate what the package would be. 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.
NARRATOR: Obama delivered the news to Cantor. They weren’t going to go along with everything he wanted.
ERIC CANTOR: And we had an exchange, the president and I, and the president said, “Look, Eric, let me just tell you right up front. You know, the elections have consequences, and I won. So we’re going to do it my way.” And I think that that was an indication to me that this was going to be a one-way street. We really weren’t going to be engaged in this mutual discussion here of a collaborative approach to solving problems.
NARRATOR: The president decided he’d make his own Republican─ friendly proposal, nearly $300 billion in tax cuts as part of the stimulus.
PETER BAKER: And you know, it was an example of how Obama again and again would propose things he assumed that Republicans should like, rather than actually trying to talk to them in a way that got what they really wanted.
NEWSCASTER: President Obama promised the American people he would bring bipartisan solutions─
NARRATOR: And then in a symbolic gesture, the president traveled to the Capitol to sell his plan to Cantor’s members directly.
NEWSCASTER: ─has a tough sales job ahead─
NEWSCASTER: ─will try and sell his plan to Republicans.
NARRATOR: It was an unprecedented move.
NEWSCASTER: Mr. Obama is hoping for support of both─
NEWSCASTER: It’s a rare day when a president goes to the Capitol to meet only with members of the other party.
Sen TOM DASCHLE (D-SD), Fmr. Majority Leader: It was an extraordinary moment in many respects because a president rarely comes to the Capitol Hill. “I’m going to demonstrate by my actions how much I want to find the kind of opportunities for consensus and common ground” that were so essential to his agenda.
MATT BAI, The New York Times Magazine: He arrives there thinking they’re all going to talk and come up with some kind of agreement. He’s got all these tax cuts to offer them.
Rep. CATHY McMORRIS RODGERS (R-WA), Republican Leadership: He spoke extemporaneously about the stimulus. He walked us through it probably 15 or 20 minutes, just his thought process and why he was advocating these policies. And then he opened it up for questions.
PETER BAKER: The Republicans didn’t want to be told what their beliefs were or how this proposal would meet their beliefs.
Rep. CATHY McMORRIS RODGERS: And it was really during that Q&A, as the members stepped forward and asked some pretty, I think, appropriate questions about the amount of money that we were spending, the debt that we’d be taking on─ and I don’t ever remember him saying, you know, “OK, we’ll take a look at that.” It was more just defending his proposal as is.
ERIC CANTOR: We said, “You know what? They have summarily decided that we’re not going to be a part of this, so we’re going to oppose the bill.”
NARRATOR: Obama came out empty-handed and had to face the waiting press corps.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: Hello, everybody. We had a wonderful exchange of ideas, and I continue to be optimistic about our ability to get this recovery package done─
JEFF ZELENY, The New York Times: And we saw the president standing in the halls of the Senate in the Capitol. I’ll never forget that. He still looked like a senator. Of course, he’s now the president of the United States. What’s he even doing sort of lobbying for this?
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: I think everybody there felt good about─ that I was willing to explain how we put the package together─
Sen. TOM DASCHLE: The president is very transparent. You can read his facial expressions quite easily. This was one of those cases. This was his baptism by fire.
NEWSCASTER: ─Obama administration’s plans hit a bit of a rough patch─
NEWSCASTER: But there’s still deep Republican opposition to─
NEWSCASTER: The President is now saying “Do it my way.”
NEWSCASTER: He failed completely at his goal for bipartisan support.
DAVID AXELROD, Obama Senior Adviser: It was a very strong signal that we were not going to get a lot of cooperation on this issue. And if we weren’t going to get it on this issue, it was doubtful that we were going to get it on many others.
Rep. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), Speaker of the House: Their leadership told the members, “We’re not for any of it. No matter what it is, no, just say no.”
Rep. NANCY PELOSI: On this vote, the yeas are 246, the nays─
NARRATOR: Obama’s Democrats controlled the Congress.
Rep. NANCY PELOSI: The conference report is adopted.
NARRATOR: The stimulus bill passed the House without a single Republican vote.
NEWSCASTER: You watch. The Republicans are going to come under severe criticism for this.
NEWSCASTER: Not one Republican voted for it, turning a cold shoulder to the president’s─
NEWSCASTER: So much for the president’s charm offensive. Today, it was all partisan rancor─
ERIC CANTOR: So I think from that point forward, we saw a very downward tilt towards the possibility of bipartisanship. And that was very odd. That was very early on. That was in January and February of ‘09.
TALK RADIO: I hope the stimulus bill fails.
TALK RADIO: He is addicting this country to heroin, the heroin that is that governor slavery!
TALK RADIO: I want once and for all the American people to see full frontal nudity on what liberalism is and what a lie it is! They have been sold a bill of goods!
NARRATOR: Obama had been in office just over a week.
Sen. TOM DASCHLE: You could almost see the polarization. It was palpable. It was, very, very real. It was just the beginning.
NEWSCASTER: Growing backlash against Wall Street─
NEWSCASTER: It’s the frustration with the economy and─
NARRATOR: And the economic crisis was creating another problem. Anger in America was growing over the ongoing government bailout.
NEWSCASTER: Anger from the U.S. public towards bankers is high.
NEWSCASTER: ─took to the streets to express their anger─
NEWSCASTER: Frustration with financial bigwigs─
NARRATOR: Wall Street banks had received hundreds of billions, while unemployment skyrocketed, destroying the savings of millions.
JAMES STEWART, Author, Tangled Webs: It really, really grates with most people that our tax money went to support these institutions. And then when the rest of the country was in the worst of the recession, you saw the big traders and the heads of the Goldman Sachses of the world walking out with these multi─ million-dollar pay packages.
NEWSCASTER: ─that this is exactly the kind of story the Obama administration doesn’t need.
ROBERT REICH, Fmr. Secretary of Labor: The average American begins to think that the entire game is rigged against them and in favor of the fat cats.
NARRATOR: Much of the outrage was directed at Washington, where protesters and police clashed.
DAVID WESSEL, The Wall Street Journal: Something significant is happening. People don’t believe that the government has saved them. Most Americans believe that George Bush and Barack Obama and all their economic advisers bailed out Wall Street and did not bail out Main Street.
NEWSCASTER: ─a growing public anger aimed at banks─
NARRATOR: The public outcry only grew as news broke that the bailed-out bankers had paid themselves massive bonuses. Now Obama faced a crucial decision.
NEWSCASTER: Do the banks need to be held accountable for their part─
TIMOTHY GEITHNER, Treasury Secretary: That sparks another wave of just understandable human aversion, anger. We’re trying to figure out how we preserve some political capacity to continue to throw as much firepower at this crisis as we could.
NEWSCASTER: Outrage over executive salaries─
NARRATOR: For Obama, the news of the bonuses was infuriating.
NEWSCASTER: ─got more than $18 billion in bonuses in─
JARED BERNSTEIN, Obama Economic Adviser: The bonus and the compensation stuff made him more angry than I’d ever seen him. I remember him, like, really standing up out of his chair in the Oval Office and just being really pretty livid. I mean, the one thing he would─ one thing he would not stand for was, you know, the American people being played for─ as chumps by these banks, and that was something he just really didn’t like.
NARRATOR: Some in the White House wanted the president to side with the growing outrage and aggressively take on the banks.
PETE ROUSE: A lot of the communications, political people worried about the president’s popularity and his political capital, saying, “The banking industry and banking executives ought to pay a price.”
NOAM SCHEIBER, Author, The Escape Artists: David Axelrod, Obama’s top political adviser, very much wanted some scalps. Robert Gibbs, who was the press secretary but also a very senior political aide, wanted scalps.
NARRATOR: But Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner urged caution, warning that giving in to populist fury could further destabilize the financial system.
TIMOTHY GEITHNER: You had to make sure you kept concentrated focus on the core basic imperative that was going to affect the fortunes of, you know, hundreds of millions of Americans, not get too wrapped up in trying to design political theater that might create the hope of taking some of the sting out of that.
JOSHUA GREEN, Bloomberg Businessweek: Geithner didn’t want to do it because it would kind of create this risk. It would create this conception that the government was going to come in and mess with these banks and that that would frighten off private investors.
NARRATOR: In the end, it was up to the president to decide whether to support the banks or take them on and heed the public’s anger.
NEWSCASTER: For the economy, this is what freefall feels like.
NEWSCASTER: When will the recession end?
NARRATOR: The nation’s top bankers were summoned to the White House.
NEWSCASTER: The president invited 15 of the banks─
NEWSCASTER: ─after leveling some very harsh words at bankers─
NARRATOR: The bankers feared the president would deliver the punishment many Americans were demanding.
NEWSCASTER: ─the nation’s banking leaders, today President Obama─
CHARLES DUHIGG, The New York Times: Thirteen bankers were called into a room to meet with the president of the United States. They were told that they were going to be chastised, that this was going to be the opportunity for the president to vent the public’s anger.
NARRATOR: Some held these men responsible for a crisis that had destroyed 5.1 million American jobs and sent the stock market down 50 percent.
RON SUSKIND, Author, Confidence Men: Walking into that meeting, these guys have not been this nervous since they were in nursery school. They’re ultimately powerful, sovereign men atop their institutions, but now they know that they really could get whacked.
NARRATOR: Now no one knew what to expect, whether the president would be their punisher or their protector.
PETE ROUSE, Obama Adviser: It was his decision. He’d been through hours of those conversations, so─ And I’m sure he knew exactly what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it and what his strategic approach was going into that meeting with the bankers.
RON SUSKIND, Author, Confidence Men: Obama comes in and he’s all business.
NARRATOR: There were few pleasantries exchanged. Obama spoke first.
KEN LEWIS, CEO, Bank of America: The president made it pretty clear when he talked to us, you know, “We’re between you and the pitchforks, guys. And you need to just acknowledge that.”
CHARLES DUHIGG: The bankers have essentially made a decision that they’re prepared to go along with what needs to be done to resolve this problem, to get the public back on the side of corporate America.
NARRATOR: But as the meeting progressed, to their astonishment, the president was in no mood for confrontation.
RON SUSKIND: What’s interesting is that the next statements and the rest of the meeting essentially is Obama skinning back as fast as he can on that pitchforks punch. And he says right after that, “What we have, gentlemen, is a public relations disaster that’s turning into a political disaster. And I’m here to help.”
KEN LEWIS: I interpreted it as kind of a watershed time. Banks are the catalyst to get us out of this morass that we’re in. You can talk so long about the past, but at some point, you’ve got to look at the present and the future. And I thought that’s what he was saying.
NARRATOR: The president had made his choice. He would not give into the outrage and risk upsetting the markets.
TIMOTHY GEITHNER: He was deeply aware of and pained by the basic sense of injustice, the immorality of what the bailouts meant in that case. But he also felt you had to try to keep your eye on the fundamental moral obligation about what set of policies were going to produce the fairest outcomes in terms of getting people back to work and repairing some of the damage.
NARRATOR: And the president required no firm commitments from the bankers.
JOSHUA GREEN, Bloomberg Businessweek: I think it’s clear it was an opportunity lost. He had a room full of very frightened CEOs. He was in a position then to make demands, and he didn’t.
JOSEPH STIGLITZ, Economist, Columbia Univ.: He didn’t want to disturb the banks. He wanted them on their side so that things were as calm as possible. There would be basically business as usual.
NEWSCASTER: Today, the Obama administration did indeed extend them an olive branch─
NEWSCASTER: It looks like the country’s financial giants may have turned a corner-
ANDREW ROSS SORKIN, Author, Too Big to Fail: There was almost two faces of Obama. Publicly, he wanted to tell you that these were the fat cat bankers. But privately, when he was with the bankers, he wanted to get them on board.
JOHN STUMPF, CEO, Wells Fargo: Good afternoon. I’m John Stumpf with Wells Fargo. Just want to thank you for─
NARRATOR: The bankers made it clear the president had let them off.
JOHN STUMPF: We had a wonderful meeting today with the president. The basic message is we’re all in this thing together.
RICHARD DAVIS, CEO, U.S. Bancorp: We’re quite pleased with the cooperation that’s evidenced with the group and with the White House.
JOSHUA GREEN: I think the bankers came out of that meeting realizing that they had dodged a bullet, and that was what was required of them was to go out, stand before the cameras and speak as though everyone were in harmony, that they and the president were on board, to make this great expression of confidence and reassurance.
VIKRAM PANDIT, CEO, Citigroup: I believe all of us walked out of there knowing fully that we’re all in it together. And we’re all looking forward to promoting a recovery─ economic recovery.
NEWSCASTER: The president’s message to them─ Wall Street and Main Street are in this together.
NEWSCASTER: Banking giant CitiCorp─
ROBERT REICH: There were significant moments, like when those bank executives took those bonuses, when he could have read them the riot act and getting the public even more angry and supportive of even more dramatic measures in terms of regulating the banks. He didn’t. He chose instead to be, in effect, on their side saying, “We’re all in this together.”
NEWSCASTER: If you look at their stock prices, CitiGroup was at 98 cents just a few weeks ago. It’s now up 75 percent.
NEWSCASTER: Banks are able to borrow money at little─
NARRATOR: The banks would recover.
NEWSCASTER: Wall Street investors breathing a sigh of relief─
NARRATOR: But the building anger against the government would not go away.
TALK RADIO: You got to be kidding me! What are we putting up with, America?
TALK RADIO: ─get the economy [unintelligible]
TALK RADIO: But did it? No, it didn’t.
TALK RADIO: $450 billion down the crapper!
BETHANY McLEAN, Co-author, All the Devils are Here: He’s facing anger on both the left and the right. There’s anger on the right that Obama’s policies are socialist, that there never should have been the bailout, that this whole thing was a subversion of the free market. And then there’s anger on the left that this was too friendly to the banks, and that somehow, banks were rescued at the expense of taxpayers and homeowners. So you have anger coming at him, really, from all directions. He’s kind of stranded in the middle.
TALK RADIO: The government is promoting bad behavior because we certainly don’t want to put stimulus─
NARRATOR: And on cable television, the talk had already begun of something they called a tea party.
DAVID WESSEL: The word “tea party” is born in a CNBC moment when Rick Santelli, a somewhat agitated, even under the best of circumstances, reporter for CNBC in Chicago starts to─ starts an uproar.
RICK SANTELLI, CNBC: How about this, President and new administration? Why don’t you put up a Web site to have people vote on the internet as a referendum to see if we really want to subsidize the losers’ mortgages and reward people that could carry the water instead of drink the water?
TRADER: Hey, Rick, there’s a novel idea!
JOE KERNEN, CNBC: Hey, Rick, do you hear─ oh, boy. They’re like putty in your hands. Did you hear─
RICK SANTELLI: No, they’re not Joe! They’re not like putty in our hands! This is America! How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills? Raise their hand! [boos] President Obama, are you listening?
NARRATOR: It was a moment that would become iconic, digitized, uploaded, shared.
PHIL SCHILIRO: For that period, the match was lit on CNBC. That started a firestorm.
RICK SANTELLI: We’re thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party in July! All you capitalists that want to show up to Lake Michigan, I’m going to start organizing! [crosstalk]
NARRATOR: It gave a name to a movement that would plague Obama for the rest of his presidency. But in those early months, Obama turned his attention to another booming issue, one that would define his legacy, fixing the broken health care system.
TIMOTHY GEITHNER: I remember I said, “Well, Mr. President, you’ve got one obligation, which is to prevent a second Great Depression. And unless you do that, nothing else is possible.” And he spoke back, I would say quite sharply, and said, “I’m not going to be defined by what I prevented.” And I remember being stuck by how ambitious he was in the face of that storm at that point.
NARRATOR: His ambitions were huge, to deal with the tens of millions of uninsured Americans and to get the Republicans to help. But some on his staff argued it was too politically dangerous.
RYAN LIZZA: The White House had a debate about whether they should actually go forward with it. Vice President Biden was opposed to doing it, absolutely opposed to doing health care.
RAHM EMANUEL, Obama Chief of Staff: So I said, “If you’re going to do this, go into it eyes open. Know what the consequences are and what the potentiality for success is.”
DAVID AXELROD, Obama Senior Adviser: He was presented with all the political arguments, and he said, “I get the politics of this, but if we don’t do this now, it probably doesn’t get done.” And he said, “And what are we doing here? I mean, are we going to put our approval rating on the shelf and admire it for eight years?”
DAN PFEIFFER, Obama Comm. Director: The president said, “It’s about health care, but it’s not really about health care. It’s also about proving whether we can still solve big problems in this country.” And this was going to be the test case for that.
NARRATOR: He headed to Capitol Hill to try to secure agreement from both Democrats and Republicans.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: Let there be no doubt health care reform cannot wait, it must not wait, and it will not wait another year! [cheers]
SHERYL GAY STOLBERG: The president staked his entire first term on this.
MATT BAI: There’s no bigger priority than health care.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: Given these facts, we can no longer afford to put health care reform on hold. We can’t afford to do it! [applause]
NARRATOR: For Obama and the country, the stakes were high.
JOHN PODESTA, Obama Adviser: I don’t think anyone in the White House or on Capitol Hill believe that failure’s an option here. They have to be successful in getting health care reform done or they’ll pay a tremendous political price.
NEWSCASTER: This is a huge issue the president is taking on now─
NEWSCASTER: The question is, could health care reform really happen?
NARRATOR: Early on, the president made a strategic decision. To pass health care reform, he’d work with the establishment’s power players.
NEWSCASTER: ─lawmakers, doctors, nurses, hospitals-
NEWSCASTER: ─conferring on how to overhaul health care.
CECI CONNOLLY, Co-author, Landmark: Many of these players for years, if not decades, had a record of opposing any sort of health care reform efforts.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: And what a remarkable achievement that would be, something that Democrats and Republicans, business and labor, consumer groups and providers, all of us could share extraordinary pride in finally dealing with something that has been vexing us for so long. The cost of health care─
NARRATOR: In these first days, a fragile coalition seemed possible.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: So let’s get to work. Thank you.
NARRATOR: But to keep it together, Obama had to move quickly.
NOAM SCHEIBER, Author, The Escape Artists: And that calculation is, “We’ll move for a quick kill”─ that’s how they referred to it, “a quick kill,” on Capital Hill.
Rep. NANCY PELOSI: It was thought that we─ the Senate was going to have a bill by June, we would have a bill by July. And we would go to conference and this would be over.
NARRATOR: But the president didn’t just want a bill. He wanted Democrats and Republicans to get behind it.
DAN BALZ, The Washington Post: A bipartisan outcome, even in a minimalist sense, was certainly a very, very high priority of President Obama.
NARRATOR: Unlike the stimulus bill, this time, Obama wanted Congress to work out the details. Democratic senator Max Baucus would take the lead.
NORMAN ORNSTEIN, American Enterprise Institute: Max Baucus, a moderate from Montana, who immediately sets up a working group, a gang of six, with three conservative Republicans.
NARRATOR: Baucus had a close relationship with the ranking Republican, Chuck Grassley.
Sen. CHARLES GRASSLEY (R-IA): Senator Baucus and I working on what we thought ought to be a─ not just a bipartisan bill, but a kind of a consensus bill─ in other words, something that would get 75 or 80 votes.
NARRATOR: But even from the beginning, there were signs it would not be as easy as the president had hoped.
Sen. ORRIN HATCH (R-UT), Finance Committee: I found myself coming out of those secret meetings, those private meetings, and criticizing virtually everything they were doing. So I talked to Max. I talked to Chuck Grassley and others and said, “Look, I don’t think I can support this.”
NARRATOR: And Grassley was under intense pressure from his own party.
JONATHAN COHN, The New Republic: Charles Grassley is in line for a committee chairmanship. The Republican Party plays hardball with its members. I think the message got through that he was jeopardizing his standing in the party by playing too nice to health care reform.
MIKE MYERS, Sr. Adviser to Sen. Kennedy: It became clear that the Republican game plan was going to be just to say no, to deny this president any victories.
JOSHUA GREEN: And McConnell was saying, “Don’t agree to anything. Don’t agree to anything. Keep me informed, but keep talking.”
Rep. NANCY PELOSI: The Republicans were very clever in what they did. They pretended that they were interested in this. I call it the dance of the seven veils. “I’m going to be there, and then I’m not, and I’m going to be there, then I’m not, now you see it, now you don’t.” It was all an illusion.
NARRATOR: However, some Republicans, including the minority whip, Eric Cantor, say there were real disagreements.
ERIC CANTOR: They wanted the government to be a provider in competition with the private sector. And to me, that just didn’t make any sense. And I said if that is the price of collaboration─ I mean, it’s basically saying bipartisanship means my way and nothing else. I said we can’t work like that.
NEWSCASTER: ─members of Congress telling the president to slow down─
NARRATOR: As Congress bickered, Obama could only watch.
JEFF ZELENY, The New York Times: He didn’t carry a big stick. He wasn’t like LBJ, of course, because he hadn’t sort of come up through the ranks of the Senate. But it didn’t seem like he had any leverage or any ability to bring people along.
NARRATOR: And some said the president’s political style didn’t help.
CASSANDRA BUTTS, Dep. White House Counsel: He’s not the person who’s going to be the back-slapper. He’s not an arm-twister. He has people who work with him who are able to do aspects of the role of engagement that he doesn’t necessarily─ that he doesn’t necessarily find a value in himself engaging in.
DAVID MARANISS, The Washington Post: He is not the type of person that can, you know, invite Boehner and the Republicans to dinner at the White House every night and schmooze them, like LBJ or Clinton could. That’s not him. He doesn’t even want to do that. So he has this grander vision of what he is and what the world should be, but that doesn’t mean he can bring other people along with him to that place because he doesn’t have that personality.
NARRATOR: And out in America, right-wing radio was fueling people’s outrage over health care reform.
TALK RADIO: Americans are seriously worried that this is going to seriously destroy the health care their parents─
NARRATOR: They were worried about big government taking away choices.
TALK RADIO: It’s about too much power going to the Federal Government!
TALK RADIO: The whole point of this is get everybody enrolled in the government health care plan.
NARRATOR: Skyrocketing costs.
TALK RADIO: Got a plan that increases deficit spending when we’ve already got trillion dollar deficits as far as the eye can see.
NARRATOR: And Sarah Palin said the government would use “death panels.”
TALK RADIO: She introduced the term “death panels.”
TALK RADIO: You might even say that we got death panels going on here.
NARRATOR: Stoking fears that Obama’s plan would let Americans die to save money.
TALK RADIO: ─allegation arose out of an idea to allow─
PETE ROUSE: The charges made against health reform, like death panels, to many of us seemed so ridiculous and so absurd that we probably didn’t take it as seriously soon enough,
TALK RADIO: We now have leftist radicals in charge of your health care decisions, rather than doctors! We’re hanging by a thread!
NARRATOR: The president had seen divisions explode over his handling of the economy and health reform.
DISPATCH: 911. What’s the exact location of your emergency?
NARRATOR: And that summer, another flash point would re-emerge race.
CALLER: ─an older woman standing here and she had noticed two gentlemen trying to get in a house at that number, 17 Ware Street.
DISPATCH: Were they white, black, or Hispanic?
NARRATOR: It involved a friend of the president’s.
POLICE OFFICER: ─gentlemen says he resides here, but was uncooperative. But it’s a Henry Louis Gates, Jr., of the Harvard faculty.
WESLEY LOWERY, Author, They Can’t Kill Us All: Henry Louis Gates is one of the most prominent and esteemed, you know, black academics and researchers in the nation. He was returning to his home, gets himself, you know, locked out, and his cab driver helping him get inside, and a police officer arrives. And they’re going back and forth with this question of, you know, should he be there, is this his house, what’s happening. You know, and at one point, you know, he ends up getting, you know, detained by this officer.
NARRATOR: Gates was arrested for disorderly conduct.
NEWSCASTER: Prominent African-American Harvard scholar, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.─
NEWSCASTER: ─arrested in his own home.
NEWSCASTER: His arrest is prompting outrage.
NARRATOR: In the year since his Reverend Wright speech, Obama had rarely addressed race.
EVAN OSNOS, The New Yorker: One of the paradoxes of Barack Obama’s candidacy was that at the same time that he was on his way to becoming the first black president, he was very uncomfortable talking in overtly─ in overt terms about race. He tended to be elliptical. He tended to try to operate at 30,000 feet.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: Good evening. Please be seated.
NARRATOR: But now he would not avoid the topic.
REPORTER: Recently, Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., was arrested at his home in Cambridge. What does that incident say to you and what does it say about race relations in America?
DAVID REMNICK: Obama then addresses it at a press conference. I don’t think he went out of his way to, but he was asked to. And this was an instance where he, I’m sure in retrospect, felt he went too far because he dared to say that this could have happened to him in Chicago.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: I mean, if I was trying to jigger into─ well, I guess this is my house now, so─ [laughter] ─it probably wouldn’t happen. But let’s say my old house in Chicago. [laughter] Here, I’d get shot. [laughter]
DAVID REMNICK, Author, The Bridge: And then he even joked, “If I had been trying to break into my own house now,” meaning the White House, “I would have gotten shot.” Ha, ha, ha.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that, but I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, The New Yorker: What was so striking about the Skip Gates incident was that Obama’s very careful articulation on racial issues in general gave way to a sort of normal human reaction, which is, “Of course they treated the black guy badly.”
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: Number two, that the Cambridge Police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home.
NARRATOR: Obama’s comments ignited a fierce backlash.
TALK RADIO: We learned last night, ladies and gentleman, that President Obama did after all listen to Reverend Wright all those 20 years.
TALK RADIO: A rookie president annoyingly waded into a media firestorm when he said that the Cambridge Police Department acted, quote, “stupidly.”
TALK RADIO: What we got was the reaction of a community organizer.
TA-NEHISI COATES, Author, Between the World and Me: Obama was surprised by the intensity of the reaction to what seemed pretty obvious, that you would effectively arrest a senior citizen with a cane because you didn’t like how he sassed you, seemed pretty stupid. Seemed pretty stupid.
TALK RADIO: What kind of president of the United States immediately jumps on the police?
TALK RADIO: The president says the cops are stupid. The president says the cops are racist.
JELANI COBB, The New Yorker: That was something that people were not willing to hear from the first black president, certainly not willing to hear from the person who they voted for hoping that they could, you know, be done with race once and for all. And now this person’s actually saying, “Hey, this looks like racism.”
GLENN BECK: That is unbelievable. This president I think has exposed himself as a guy over and over and over again who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture. I don’t know what it is.
PETER BAKER, The New York Times: The uproar that came afterwards really singed, I think. It really did sort of teach him, No, don’t get near this stuff unless you really have to because it’s only going to cause trouble. And it’s going to distract from the things he felt like he had to do.
GLENN BECK: You can’t sit in a pew with Jeremiah Wright for 20 years and not hear some of that stuff and not have it wash over.
JASON ZENGERLE, GQ Magazine: It matters that it’s a black man. It matters that his name is Barack Hussein Obama. I think for a lot of people, that was very threatening. That was not the direction they wanted to see the country go in.
NEWSCASTER: Listen, you can’t say he doesn’t like white people. David Axelrod is white. Rahm Emanuel is white.
GLENN BECK: I’m not saying he doesn’t like white people. I’m saying he has a problem. He has a─ this guy is, I believe, a racist.
EVAN OSNOS: So Barack Obama in his own way ambled into a moment that even I don’t think he at the time realized what it would represent, and that was a constellation of indicators to a certain kind of far-right American conservative that the situation was changing and changing very fast, and that white Americans were going to find themselves, as they saw it, disenfranchised and certainly disaffected.
NARRATOR: In front of the press, Obama went into full damage control.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: These are issues that are still very sensitive here in America. And you know, so to the extent that my choice of words didn’t illuminate, but rather contributed to more media frenzy, I think that was unfortunate.
NARRATOR: He didn’t leave it there. He and his staff created a photo op. He called it a teachable moment.
DAVID REMNICK: And so Obama did this very awkward thing where he called in Henry Louis Gates and the police officer, and they had this beer summit.
NEWSCASTER: What’s the big news of the day, a beer summit outside─
NEWSCASTER: President Obama will have those beers with a policeman and a professor─
MARK LEIBOVICH, The New York Times Magazine: He would probably say that that was one of the most ridiculous moments of his presidency.
NEWSCASTER: The drinks are on the house tonight, the White House.
MARK LEIBOVICH: Not so much that he brought a black Harvard professor and a white Cambridge cop together, but the fact that the media anointed it a beer summit.
TALK RADIO: Beer summit, President Obama hopes a cold beer and a conversation will put an end to the controversial arrest─
TALK RADIO: Time for a little healing over some beers, my friend!
TALK RADIO: He wants you to pay attention because it’s his poll numbers are tanking.
TALK RADIO: This is a just─ folks, it is a lousy, lousy image to present to America!
PETER BAKER: This is a great example how Obama simply believed at that time that if you simply sat down at a table, of course rational people of good will could find a way to join hands and get together.
TALK RADIO: Hopefully, today’s happy hour at the White House will finally put this one incident to rest.
NARRATOR: After 4o minutes, the event was over. The president said he had learned an important lesson.
DAVID REMNICK: Obama said, “Look, you have to remember that for me to talk about race, and if I set a foot a little bit wrong, I have the capacity with a word to inflame a huge number of people on this side or that.”
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON, Author, The Black Presidency: He certainly told me in the Oval Office that he didn’t want to be seen as the black president, which is why he kept telling black people, “I am not the president of black America.”
WESLEY LOWERY: What the beer summit in so many ways further exposed and underscored was that the black president was actually one of the least equipped or positioned persons to facilitate this conversation because his very presence or involvement in one of these issues or one of these flare-ups would only further politicize it.
NARRATOR: The beer summit controversy added to the growing anger across America directed at the president─
TALK RADIO: Barack Obama lying to the people, deceiving the people─
TALK RADIO: A giant step backwards in race relations!
NARRATOR: ─over race─
TALK RADIO: He was more Carlton Banks than─
NARRATOR: ─over health care reform─
TALK RADIO: ─rammed it down America’s throats!
NARRATOR: ─over Wall Street bailouts and Obama himself.
TALK RADIO: ─call half the country racists. What’s that going to do for your fund-raising?
TALK RADIO: ─Nancy Pelosi deceiving the people and─
NARRATOR: The discontent Sarah Palin had first tapped into now exploded. They called it “the tea party summer.”
MARK LEIBOVICH: The economic frustration that was being felt blended with a kind of racial backlash that probably was underestimated.
MARK LEIBOVICH: That period was sort of a nesting house for a number of kind of shared resentments that enacted themselves in great opposition to the president.
PROTESTER: Radical communists and socialists!
EVAN OSNOS: You would go to a Tea Party rally. You would see placards, for instance, of him depicted as an African tribal chief, very racially charged pictures of Obama dressed as Hitler.
JELANI COBB: Obama’s face transposed onto that of the comic book villain, The Joker. There are the pictures of Obama kind of made out to be ape-like.
PROTESTERS: USA! USA! USA! USA!
DAN BALZ: You could just see the intensity on the part of people and just the anger that they were expressing─
PROTESTER: No! Don’t do this to us!
DAN BALZ: ─a manifestation of this fear that, you know, we’ve got a president in the White House who we can’t trust.
PROTESTER: His church was based on racism!
JEFF ZELENY: The anger by ‘09 had just─ had reached a boiling point.
FRANK LUNTZ, Republican Pollster: The Tea Party rose up. I give Glenn Beck considerable credit for it, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity. These are people who encouraged the grass roots to rise up and say, “Enough is enough.”
PROTESTER: You want to kill my grandparents, you come through me first!
PROTESTER: The things that Obama’s doing are the exact things that Hitler did.
NEWSCASTER: There is an ugliness with these fringe people who are comparing the president to Hitler.
NARRATOR: At the White House, they struggled to make sense of what had gone wrong.
RYAN LIZZA, The New Yorker: He came into office with a very naive view of politics and very quickly was reeducated, right? And I think he would say that probably his biggest misunderstanding about American politics was that it wasn’t polarized. It was literally the essential characteristic of American politics.
NARRATOR: By late summer, the president saw the polarization grow to include Republicans who were supporting what was now being called “Obamacare.”
SARAH PALIN: So how’s that hopey, changey thing working out for ya?
PETER BAKER: Health care became not just a lightening rod but a driving force behind this movement. The specifics almost didn’t matter at that point, it was just sort of─ you know, just the very name “Obamacare” was enough to generate deep anger and upset and resentment.
Rep. MICHAEL BURGESS (R-TX): Boom, the summer town halls literally blow up in our faces. The fat really hit the fire when we went home in August for what usually is a fairly leisurely stroll through the district.
NEWSCASTER: The surprise is just how out of hand these town hall meetings are getting.
Rep. MICHAEL BURGESS: A town hall here─
PROTESTER: Baby killer! Abortion is murder!
Rep. MICHAEL BURGESS: ─a summer parade there, an ice cream social here. No, it was all health care all the time. And people were─ were red hot about it. It was a radioactive issue all summer.
FRANK LUNTZ: I never saw town halls like this. Normally, 50 people would show up─ 500 were coming. In places you would have 200 people, they’d have 1,500 people there. And they were all angry and they were very aggressive. They were informed. They were educated. They were persuasive and aggressive, which made for perfect television coverage.
TOWN HALL PROTESTER: I’m not a lobbyist with all kind of money to stuff in your pocket!
ERIC CANTOR: People who had never been involved in politics before all of a sudden were now speaking up. “Hey, wait a minute. I didn’t elect this president. I didn’t think that Washington should take my health care from me.”
TOWN HALL PROTESTER: ─and the rest of your damned cronies up on the Hill!
NARRATOR: They were furious at Republicans who had worked with the president, like Senator Charles Grassley.
TOWN HALL PARTICIPANT: Thank you, Senator Grassley. My question’s on Medicare, and you’re working with─
Sen. CHARLES GRASSLEY: I had people come to my town meeting with sheets of paper that thick off the Internet and quoting from the bill. You know, I’ve never had that happen before. People were up on it, and people didn’t like what they were reading.
TOWN HALL PROTESTER: Democrat or Republican or whoever, senator or congressman vote for this bill, we will vote you out! [cheers]
PETER BAKER: And suddenly, the idea of cutting a deal with President Obama no longer looked like it was good politics, no longer looked like it was good policy.
Sen. CHARLES GRASSLEY: There’s a bill out of the House of Representatives put together under Speaker Pelosi’s leadership. I’m─ I’m─ [boos] I am─ I’m─ I would not vote for that. [cheers and applause]
PHIL SCHILIRO, Obama Adviser: The ground was shifting for Republicans, to have a very difficult time with their base. And so it became politically toxic for a lot of Republicans to be associated in any way with the president. There’d be a political price to pay.
Sen. CHARLES GRASSLEY: Thank you all very much for coming.
PETER BAKER: Once they sort of lost Grassley, they lost arguably their last chance to really get a bipartisan bill.
PROTESTERS: Kill the bill! Kill the bill! Kill the bill!
NARRATOR: The summer of 2009 had been difficult. For the president and his staff, a new reality was sinking in.
TOM DASCHLE: They were stunned. They were disappointed. They were very, very concerned about the implications of all this in the summer.
NARRATOR: For the president, there was a clear lesson.
PETER BAKER: Very quickly, Barack Obama learns that it’s not going to work out the way he thought it was. You could not be a powerful, uncompromising liberal champion at the same time you are─ you know, reach across aisle and building bridges with conservatives and the center. You can’t mix and match those things.
NARRATOR: But the president was determined to push on, and he hadn’t given up on health care reform. He asked his staff if it still had a chance.
PHIL SCHILIRO: I told him I couldn’t guarantee success. I couldn’t even tell him how we were going to get from A to Z. What I thought it came down to was, did he feel lucky?
VALERIE JARRETT, Obama Senior Adviser: And the president walked over to his desk and he looked out the window and he said, “Phil, where are we?” And Phil says, “We’re in the Oval Office.” And the president said, “And what’s my name?” And he said, “Barack Obama.” And he said, “Of course I’m feeling lucky. Now, get back to work and figure out how to get this passed.”
NEWSCASTER: And the young president prepares to deliver the most important speech of his first term in office.
NARRATOR: To revive health care, they decided it was time to once again draw on Obama’s strength as a campaigner and orator.
NEWSCASTER: President Obama gets ready to take the stage in a high-stakes effort─
NARRATOR: He summoned a joint session of Congress.
JOHN PODESTA, Obama Adviser: After consulting with a number of people, I think the president concluded, “I need to take back control of this.”
SERGEANT AT ARMS: Madame Speaker, the president of the United States!
RAHM EMANUEL, Obama Chief of Staff: He understood that his presidency was at stake. He understood that he was asking people to make a very difficult vote. He also tried to explain the historic opportunity.
JOHN PODESTA: His audience really in that speech wasn’t the public in general, it was the people sitting in that chamber.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: The time for bickering is over. The time for games has passed. [applause] Now is the season for action! Now is when we must bring the best ideas of both parties together and show the American people that we can still do what we were sent here to do!
PETER BAKER: It was an attempt to sort of recapture the high ground. It was an attempt to, you know, bring the debate back to a loftier level.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: If you misrepresent what’s in this plan─
NARRATOR: But the Tea Party fury had spread to Washington, D.C.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: There are also those who claim that our reform efforts would insure illegal immigrants. This, too, is false. The reforms─ the reforms I’m proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally.
Rep. JOE WILSON (R-SC): You lie! [boos]
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: Not true.
PETER BAKER: A lone congressman says, “You lie.”
NARRATOR: It was Republican representative Joe Wilson from South Carolina.
DAN BALZ: It was shocking when it happened. It was unprecedented when it happened. You could see the look on the president’s face.
DAVID REMNICK: Obama dealt with it in the Obamian way, which is to say he just kept on going. But again, you have to wonder what he really felt, what he really thought about such a moment. And it was emblematic of a lot of the rage, some of it racial, some of it ideological, that was being felt all over the country.
DAN BALZ: I think that moment was one in which people began to realize that we’re dealing with something different than we thought we were going to be dealing with in this administration And the Wilson, you know, “You lie” comment was that exclamation point.
NEWSCASTER: An outburst that continues to reverberate across the country, two words shouted out─
NARRATOR: The Washington establishment was outraged.
NEWSCASTER: How did we get to the point where it’s OK to yell “You lie” at a president while he’s speaking to Congress?
NARRATOR: But to some on the right, Congressman Wilson had become a hero overnight.
RUSH LIMBAUGH, Radio Talk Show Host: Joe Wilson voiced what millions of Americans have been saying about Barack Obama for months!
EVAN OSNOS, The New Yorker: Joe Wilson received a flood of donations, and that was a sign that something was happening. He had crossed a boundary of the kind of civility that used to govern the relationship between Congress and the president. Joe Wilson wasn’t punished for it. In fact, he was celebrated for it.
RUSH LIMBAUGH: That was a blatant lie! I’m going to tell you something. It’s about time somebody said this to Obama!
NARRATOR: It was a lesson other Republicans were paying close attention to.
ROBERT COSTA, The Washington Post: On the right, going against the president in an extreme way, in a personal way, it became not the worst way to get attention. You could get attention and you could get some political capital, you could get some political stature by going against President Obama.
NEWSCASTER: Fifty-two percent of the American people disapprove of President Obama’s handling of─
NEWSCASTER: There are rising doubts about his approach on domestic issues─
NARRATOR: Obama’s efforts to restart bipartisan health care reform had failed.
PHIL SCHILIRO, Obama Adviser: 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 80 votes, that wasn’t possible.
NARRATOR: The only path forward, to abandon bipartisanship and rely on the Democratic majority in Congress.
DAVID AXELROD, Obama Adviser: Choice was to do nothing or to do something with the tools you had and the majority that you had. He chose to do that.
TOM DASCHLE: It was an admission of failure, really, an admission that in spite of his best efforts, there was no way he could bring the Republicans along on something that looked so obvious when it all started.
NARRATOR: The president would play the Washington game, unleashing his hard-nosed chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, to pressure Democrats to push through the bill.
CECI CONNOLLY, Co-Author, Landmark: I don’t think that Rahm Emanuel ever worried much about bipartisanship. He was focused on winning.
Sen. ORRIN HATCH (R-UT), Finance Committee: They just felt they could ram this right through and to heck with Republicans, to heck with conservatives.
NARRATOR: But even winning over some Democrats became difficult after special interests, like the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, opposed parts of the bill.
TELEVISION COMMERCIAL: New hidden taxes that Congress wants on your health care, hidden health care taxes on medicines, medical devices and health insurance, hidden health care taxes.
NARRATOR: Millions of dollars went into a tough ad campaign by the Chamber of Commerce.
TELEVISION COMMERCIAL: Call Congress. Tell them no hidden health care taxes in a recession.
NARRATOR: And powerful Democrats were listening.
CECI CONNOLLY: There were still some─ Senator Lieberman was one, Senator Nelson of Nebraska was another─ who still said there’s merit to what the insurance industry is saying. And those were critical swing votes.
NARRATOR: The president had promised to transform Washington, but now they were doing deals just to win over Democrats. They killed a government insurance option, pleasing Senator Lieberman and others. They lowered proposed taxes for medical device makers for Evan Bayh.
The final hold-out was the Democrat from Nebraska, former insurance executive Ben Nelson.
PETER BAKER: Ben Nelson is one of the more conservative members of the Democratic caucus in the Senate, and they needed his vote. They had to have his vote.
CECI CONNOLLY: That meant sitting down and hammering out a deal, really giving him almost what he wanted, anything he wanted.
HOWARD DEAN, Fmr. Chairman, DNC: The focus at the end on a bill like this is always about how you’re going to get those last two or three votes. And compromises are made and thrown at senators’ feet in order to get them to vote.
NARRATOR: When Nelson complained about a number of provisions, including the cost to states, they added $100 million for Nebraska’s Medicaid expansion.
Sen. ORRIN HATCH: To a lot of us, we were very, very upset about it. It was very poorly done. But the only way they could get it through was basically to bribe their members.
NARRATOR: Nelson insisted the money didn’t buy his vote and that other states eventually got help, too. But many in Washington and in the media saw it differently. They called it the “Cornhusker kickback.”
RUSH LIMBAUGH: Prostitution has been legalized in Washington, D.C.!
COMMENTATOR: Is this deal for Ben Nelson forever and ever, amen? Forever and ever and only for Nebraska?
COMMENTATOR: You’ve got to compliment Ben Nelson for playing The Price is Right.
DAVID GERGEN, Fmr. Presidential Adviser: It’s not a pretty process. There is deal making. That’s the way it’s been done for a long time. But those deals done in your front parlor can be pretty smelly. The public was already up to here with what they were seeing in Washington, and I think it just put them over the side.
Sen. ORRIN HATCH: That was very sour stuff to most people in this country. They realized that this is not the way to legislate.
NARRATOR: By Christmas Eve, the vote.
SENATE CLERK: Mr. McConnell, no. Mr. Menendez, aye.
NEWSCASTER: The Senate convened to send President Obama a hard-fought Christmas present.
SENATE CLERK: Ms. Murkowski, no. Mrs. Murray─
NEWSCASTER: ─first roll call vote on Christmas Eve since 1895.
SENATE CLERK: Mr. Nelson, Nebraska.
Sen. BEN NELSON (D-NE): Aye.
Vice Pres. JOE BIDEN: The yeas are 60, the nays are 39. HR 3590 is passed.
NEWSCASTER: Tonight, the ayes have it. The Senate passes an historic health care bill─
NEWSCASTER: This was a strictly party-line vote, all the Democrats voting yes, all the Republicans voting no, the final tally 60 to 39.
CECI CONNOLLY: On Christmas morning, everyone was sitting around thinking that he was an LBJ-like genius because it appeared that he was on the verge of accomplishing what no president had for 70 years.
SHERYL GAY STOLBERG: They were so close. They were inches away from getting this bill.
PETER BAKER: They had 60 votes on record in the Senate. They had the House bill in hand. The Emerald City was right there in the distance.
NARRATOR: All they needed now was for the House and Senate to iron out some details between them. Then the unexpected. Before Congress could act, there was a special election in the Democratic stronghold of Massachusetts for the Senate seat vacated by the death of Ted Kennedy.
NEWSCASTER: The polling numbers are all over the place─
NEWSCASTER: This could be a breakthrough for the Republicans.
NEWSCASTER: The headline in The Boston Herald says it all, “Mass hysteria.”
NARRATOR: The election was the first test of the power of the Tea Party and the Republican insurgents.
NEWSCASTER: The Tea Party people are very active in Massachusetts.
CHARLES DUHIGG, The New York Times: We’d been hearing about the Tea Party for months, but it was unclear if it was more than a fringe issue.
RUSH LIMBAUGH: ─camp surge. Scott Brown has caught the Democrat establishment off guard.
NEWSCASTER: Republican Scott Brown is riding a wave.
NEWSCASTER: Brown’s campaign language has the aura of a revolutionary crusade.
SCOTT BROWN (R-MA), Senate Candidate: Business as usual is not the business we like! And all those back room deals from Nebraska and others─ it’s just wrong, and we can do better! [cheers]
PETER BAKER: Scott Brown effectively used that as a way of saying that change has not come to Washington.
NARRATOR: The Democrat, Martha Coakley, was sinking in the polls. For health care reform to survive, the White House needed her to win.
PETER BAKER: Only belatedly does it dawn on the White House what’s about to happen. The president’s not going to go up there to campaign for her until the Friday before the election, when Martha Coakley calls David Axelrod personally, and says, “I need him to come up.”
MARTHA COAKLEY (D-MA), Senate Candidate: President Barack Obama! [cheers]
CECI CONNOLLY: They frantically sent Obama up to Massachusetts the weekend before.
PETER BAKER: He makes very clear to the Massachusetts electorate what’s at stake here is the Obama presidency, and do they want to hand the Republicans the power to stop his agenda on health care, on everything else?
NARRATOR: By election day, the president knew they would lose.
CECI CONNOLLY: January 19th, 6:30 PM, about an hour-and-a-half before the polls close in Massachusetts, Obama calls for Pelosi, Reid, Biden and Rahm Emanuel to come to the Oval Office.
NARRATOR: At the emergency meeting, they considered what to do.
DAN PFEIFFER, Obama Comm. Director: From the very moment that it was clear that Scott Brown was going to win that seat, he began thinking through what the next steps would be to be able to right the ship and get health care done.
NARRATOR: The president asked Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi if she could get the House to pass the Senate bill without any changes.
CECI CONNOLLY: Pelosi is annoyed and quite adamant that there’s no way she can sell that to her House members, almost kind of lecturing, saying, “You don’t understand the realities in the House. This won’t work.” And Obama finally snaps, uncharacteristically for him, and he says, “I understand that, Nancy. What’s your suggestion?” And there is no suggestion.
DAN PFEIFFER: We went from, basically, beginning to plan how and when the president would sign the bill to if we could even resuscitate the bill.
NEWSCASTER: Scott Brown is the winner of the Massachusetts United States Senate race.
NARRATOR: It was a victory for the Tea Party and a sign of what was to come.
NEWSCASTER: Brow’s victory shakes up Massachusetts and it shakes up the nation!
NEWSCASTER: ─a Republican taking over the seat that Ted Kennedy held for 46 years.
CAMPAIGN WORKER: Here he is, the United States Senator from Massachusetts, Scott Brown! [cheers]
Sen.-Elect SCOTT BROWN: People do not want the trillion- dollar health care plan that is being forced─ [cheers] ─that is being forced on the American people!
Sen. CHARLES GRASSLEY (R-IA), Finance Committee: In one election was a composite of all that ill feeling from the grass roots of America. And if it can be expressed in liberal Massachusetts, they know it’s a lot worse in Montana and Wyoming.
Sen. ORRIN HATCH: If they replace the so-called Kennedy seat with a Republican, then my gosh, you better wake up.
NARRATOR: The Massachusetts seat gave Republicans the crucial vote they needed to block changes on the Senate’s health bill. Even Mother Nature got into the act. One of the worst blizzards in history buried Washington.
NEWSCASTER: But getting a health care bill passed now looks more difficult than ever.
NEWSCASTER: All of the options for health care─
NEWSCASTER: I don’t see any way you go forward from here with health care.
NEWSCASTER: They’re shell-shocked. They’re going to need a whole new strategy on health care reform─
NARRATOR: Barack Obama had to come to terms with what looked like his first significant failure as president.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: This is a complex issue. And the longer it was debated, the more skeptical people became. I take my share of the blame for not explaining it more clearly to the American people.
DAN PFEIFFER: The process was messy, and so it turned people off. It ended up being behind closed doors. It was filled with a lot of partisan wrangling, people yelling at each other across the table. We ended up having a process that represented a lot of what the American people hated about Washington.
DAN BALZ: The president is in some ways kind of rebalancing himself. The year had been very hard on him. The Massachusetts defeat symbolically was terrible, and practically, had a devastating effect.
NEWSCASTER: The president admitted he’s made some mistakes in his first year in office, but said he won’t quit.
NEWSCASTER: He’s got an uphill fight here.
PETER BAKER, The New York Times: By the end of the first year, the promise of January 20th, 2009, feels like it’s slipping away every day. He was clearly aggravated, frustrated, testy sometimes with his aides, not happy that he couldn’t get through things he ought to get through, not happy that his message didn’t seem to get through.
RON SUSKIND, Author, Confidence Men: And he is dispirited. And he says to his senior staff, “I’ve lost my narrative. I have no narrative,” which for a guy like Barack Obama is like saying, “I’ve lost my way. I’ve lost my identity. I’m not having a conversation with the American people anymore.”
NARRATOR: The president decided to reclaim the narrative. He hit the road, got out of Washington, fired up the base to pressure the Democratic lawmakers in the House to pass the Senate bill.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: Do not quit! Do not give up! We keep on going! We are going to get this done! We are going to make history! We are going to fix health care in America with your help! God bless you, and God bless the United States of America! [cheers]
TALK RADIO: This is the end of prosperity in America forever if this bill─
TALK RADIO: It is clearly a constitutional crisis!
NARRATOR: After an entire year spent on health care reform, their last hope was now with the House Democrats.
TALK RADIO: I’ll go to─ I’ll go to Costa Rica!
NEWSCASTER: ─down to the wire on health care reform. The House votes just hours from now─
NEWSCASTER: After months of rancor in the streets─
VALERIE JARRETT, Obama Senior Adviser: The president’s assistant called and said, “The president wants everybody to come back to the White House and watch it together, and that means everybody from the most junior staff person who worked on it to the vice president.” And so everyone was together and watched the vote.
CLERK: Members will record their votes by electronic device.
DAN PFEIFFER: Sitting in the Roosevelt Room, the president, the vice president─ we sat─ there was a small bit of anxiety as we watched the votes tick up.
CLERK: It is a 15-minute vote.
DAN PFEIFFER: We’ve had victory snatched from us before.
CLERK: On this vote, the yeas are 219, the nays are 212. The motion is adopted.
SHERYL GAY STOLBERG: When the 216th vote comes over, a big cheer erupts.
NEWSCASTER: It’s 219 to 212. No votes from Republicans.
NEWSCASTER: ─all Democrats, no Republicans─
NEWSCASTER: This is a huge victory for this president.
NEWSCASTER: For decades, they’ve been trying to do it. It has now been done.
VALERIE JARRETT: He invited everybody up to the Truman Balcony to celebrate. And this is about 1:00 o’clock in the morning. And as the crowd started to weed out─ and the president was so happy that night, and was just totally joyful and in a great mood, I asked him, I said, “How does this night compare to election night?” And he looked at me and he said, “Valerie, there’s just no comparison. Election night was just about getting us to a night like this.”
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: Good evening, everybody. This legislation will not fix everything that ails our health care system, but it moves us decisively in the right direction. This is what change looks like.
NARRATOR: It was an historic piece of legislation, but neither the president nor his staff could foresee what the consequences would be.
PETER BAKER: It was obviously a big moment of success for President Obama getting it passed, but it sowed the seeds for years of division and really leaves open the question as to whether or when the country might finally come to accept what he’s done.
NARRATOR: Obama had failed to convince a single Republican in the House or Senate to vote for the bill.
Rep. CATHY McMORRIS RODGERS (R-WA), Republican Leadership: It’s a huge piece of legislation. And it is extremely unusual. When any of the other major programs were passed, signed into law, they were ultimately done with both Democrat and Republican votes. And it’s very─ it’s very telling that not a single Republican in the House or the Senate ultimately voted for the health care bill.
TALK RADIO: Every single Republican senator votes consistently against government-run health care should be a clear indication─
NARRATOR: The vote would fuel the continuing rise of the Tea Party.
TALK RADIO: This is the most brazen assault on a fundamental aspect of our republic ever!
NARRATOR: It all came down to one word, Obamacare.
TALK RADIO: Lies, damn lies. That’s what Obamacare was all about!
DAVID MARANISS, The Washington Post: What happened after it was passed, and because of the way it was passed, it became the symbol of the divide, and the reality of it in many ways. And I don’t think Obama was expecting that.
Rep. MIKE PENCE (R-IN): Welcome back to your nation’s Capitol! The Pelosi-led Congress is about to get a crash course in the consent of the governed.
Rep. RAUL LABRADOR (R-ID) The Affordable Care act became sort of a turning point for the Tea Party movement, where they were just upset now with both parties, and they wanted to come to Washington and change everything that was happening in Washington, D.C.
SARAH PALIN: Do you love your freedom? [cheers]
NARRATOR: And Sarah Palin was back, now as a prominent voice of the Tea Party.
SARAH PALIN: We’ll keep clinging to our Constitution and our guns and religion, and you can keep the change!
FRANK LUNTZ: You now had social media just entering. You actually had a way for people to organize, a way for them to talk to each other. Now that you had talk radio fully developed, you had a mouthpiece. And the combination of those two, and the frustration from the grass roots, all came together to create this incredible movement.
SARAH PALIN: ─because the voters are coming!
NARRATOR: Some Republican leaders believed they could harness that energy.
TELEVISION COMMERCIAL: America is at a crossroads, and Washington remains out of touch.
TELEVISION COMMERCIAL: There is a better way, and a new team is ready to bring America back─ Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy, Paul Ryan, joined by common sense conservative candidates from across the country─
NARRATOR: They aimed at taking back control of the Congress.
TELEVISION COMMERCIAL: Together, they are the young guns!
NARRATOR: And they decided to target the mid-term elections.
Rep. ERIC CANTOR, (R-VA), Minority Whip: There were a lot of angry citizens across America. And I think it was much in response to this health care bill. They saw that the Democratic majority, along with the president, were going in a direction where I don’t think people thought they would go.
DAN BALZ: They’re seeing something at the grass roots of the Republican Party that says to them, “We can have a big election in 2010. As down as we were after 2008, we can come back.”
VIN WEBER, Republican Strategist: The Republicans were crushed at that point. And the first signs of life, if you will, came from the Tea Party movement. And there was an initial sense that we need to figure out how we can harness this movement and take advantage of it.
NARRATOR: Cantor and the other “young guns” set out to recruit candidates who could help them win back the House.
Rep. ERIC CANTOR: We need people who want to come not to be a part of divvying out the goodies here in Washington, but people who are here intent on reforming our government. The way you do that is you recruit like-minded people to come and join you so you can succeed.
ROBERT COSTA, The Washington Post: As they saw all this grass roots fervor for smaller government and the Tea Party movement, Cantor saw an opportunity to build his own power base by building the party’s power base by recruiting young conservatives, Tea Party people around the country.
RYAN LIZZA, The New Yorker: He finds conservatives who are fed up with Washington, who are fed up with Obama, and who frankly think that the Republicans are not standing up to Obama, that they’re not standing up to the Democrats.
NARRATOR: And the young guns helped put together a platform for their candidates. They called it “A pledge to America.”
Rep. TIM HUELSKAMP (R-KS), Tea Party Caucus: I always go back to the Pledge to America, which was put together by Paul Ryan, Kevin McCarthy and Eric Cantor.
TELEVISION COMMERCIAL: We will stop out of control spending, repeal and replace the government takeover of health care, make Congress more open and transparent and─
Rep. TIM HUELSKAMP: They’re the one ones that promised we could repeal Obamacare. Those are the ones that promised we’d pass a new tax code.
MOLLY BALL, The Atlantic: In order to win elections in 2010, Republicans were promising their constituents that they would stop Obamacare. Obamacare was already the law of the land. And Republicans didn’t have a majority in both houses. But they were promising their constituents, “If you just send me to Washington, I will get rid of Obamacare.”
NEWSCASTER: Polls open across the country─
NEWSCASTER: It’s going to be a fierce battle for control of the House and the Senate.
NEWSCASTER: ─one of the most closely watched midterm elections in years.
NARRATOR: On election night, the strategy of the “young guns” and Eric Cantor paid off.
NEWSCASTER: CNN is now ready to make a major projection, the Republicans will take control of the House of Representatives.
NEWSCASTER: Historic election for the Republicans─
NEWSCASTER: ─whole new political world for the president─
ERIC CANTOR: Now, what I saw, the Republican election in 2010, I saw that as a move on the part of the electorate to say, “Hey, hey, hey, wait a minute. Obama’s gone too far. We need a check and balance on this president.” And that’s why the Republicans, I believe, we were elected into to majority in 2010.
NARRATOR: 87 new Republicans were elected. They were called “the Tea Party class.”
Rep. ALLEN WEST (R-FL): You all are the salt of the United States of America! You all are the light that will shine in the United States of America!
FRANK LUNTZ: I credit young guns with so much of what happened in 2010 because they took that mood out there, attached candidates that best fit that mood, found candidates who were really good communicators, that could speak to that anger. And they didn’t sound like politicians because they weren’t politicians.
NEWSCASTER: House Democrats of every stripe were voted out of off─
NEWSCASTER: ─more losses than the White House had expected─
NARRATOR: For Barack Obama, the 2010 mid-term elections would become a humbling and bitter turning point.
NEWSCASTER: Tuesday’s election was a game-changer.
ALEC MacGILLIS, ProPublica: That loss in the fall of 2010 was so massively consequential because after just two years, it essentially ended the hopes of getting anything big done on anything else because they lost the House.
NEWSCASTER: ─a repudiation of the president and his policies.
NEWSCASTER: No sense in sugar coating last night’s election results─
NEWSCASTER: Voters send a message to Barack Obama.
JEFF ZELENY, The New York Times: And that, I think, came as a surprise to this person who thought that people, you know, pretty much loved him.
NEWSCASTER: The GOP gaining at least 58 seats─
TOM DASCHLE: They won, Democrats lost, and we’re still paying the price.
NEWSCASTER: The president of the United States took their eye off the ball─
TOM DASCHLE: That was more than a shellacking. This was an embarrassing collapse of the Democratic agenda in Congress.
NEWSCASTER: A president trying to figure out what he does with this─
NEWSCASTER: One Democrat called last night a bloodbath─
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: I can tell you that, you know, some election nights are more fun than others. Some are exhilarating. Some are humbling.
DAN BALZ: He felt bad for a lot of the people who lost because he knew that in some ways, it was on his shoulders, that he had pushed them to take a very tough vote on the health care bill, and people had done that and it had cost them their seats.
NARRATOR: And the president knew that many of the new Republican legislators had won their elections on a promise of stopping him.
PETER BAKER: It’s clearly one of the most critical moments in the Obama presidency because it says we’re now solidifying and accelerating this polarization, this division between the parties. We’re now throwing out this idea that Washington should be about finding bipartisan compromises, and instead it should be about fighting for principle until the last breath.
TALK RADIO: The Tea Party movement has given life to the Republican Party and hope to the nation that we can start to reverse course!
NARRATOR: That election was the beginning of a political revolution, one that would not only transform Barack Obama’s presidency but would also dramatically change the Republican Party.
DIVIDED STATES OF AMERICA (PART II)
PRODUCED AND REPORTED BY
Michael Kirk & Mike Wiser
MIKE PENCE (R-IN), Vice President-elect: The President-elect of the United States of America, Donald Trump!
ROBERT COSTA, The Washington Post: The Trump we saw on election night ─ that face almost welled up with emotion, tight grimace, bewilderment in the eyes ─ that was a different Trump. I’d never seen that Trump in all my time covering him.
DONALD TRUMP: Sorry to keep you waiting. Complicated business, complicated.
NARRATOR: Donald Trump rode to victory as the ultimate political outsider. His election capped a revolution inside the Republican Party.
ROGER STONE, Trump Political Adviser: Let’s face it, he was larger than the Republican Party. In fact, his nomination was the hostile takeover of the Republican Party.
NARRATOR: For years, he had been watching and waiting.
MICHAEL KRANISH, Co-author, Trump Revealed: He saw this moment. He saw that the GOP had been breaking up, and he seized that.
NARRATOR: He had harnessed the anger of an increasingly frustrated segment of the American public.
FRANK LUNTZ, Republican Pollster: Trump was so unfiltered that he was speaking straight to tens of millions of Americans who think that they’ve been betrayed─ not anger, betrayal by both Washington and Wall Street. And they were looking for someone who─ who spoke their language and had their passion and wouldn’t back down.
NARRATOR: Donald Trump had stepped into a conflict that had been building throughout Barack Obama’s presidency.
DAN BALZ, The Washington Post: To see the two of them in the Oval Office was kind of the─ you know, the final moment of, how in the world did this happen? And what have we just gone through?
NARRATOR: During the Obama years, clashes over politics, race and the economy revealed deep divisions that gave rise to a political insurgency.
NEWSCASTER: Polls open across the country─
NEWSCASTER: It’s going to be a fierce battle for control of the House and the Senate─
NEWSCASTER: One of the most closely-watched mid-term elections in years─
NARRATOR: The first clear sign of the insurgency to come was in November 2010.
MATT BAI, The New York Times Magazine: You can’t understand what happened with this divide without understanding the 2010 elections because that’s the whole deal.
NEWSCASTER: An historic election for the Republican Party─
NARRATOR: The Democrats and the president suffered an historic defeat and had lost control of Congress.
NEWSCASTER: And a whole new day in Washington, a major victory─
DAVID AXELROD, Obama Senior Adviser: Well, it was obviously a sobering outcome, the mid-term. And he was very unhappy and sad about the loss. We had a meeting at the White House, and the president began by saying, “We got our butts kicked, and there’s no doubt about it.”
NEWSCASTER: Now the Republicans back in power in the House of Representatives─
NEWSCASTER: What you’ve got is a very unhappy electorate─
NARRATOR: Many of the new Republicans had run on a pledge to oppose the president and enact a conservative agenda.
RAHM EMANUEL, Fmr. Obama Chief of Staff: Once you change power on the Capitol Hill, it changes how the other side of Pennsylvania Ave deals with it─ who are the players, what’s possible, whether they want to get anything done, whether they even want to work with you.
NARRATOR: The president called the election “a shellacking,” but he could not know just how consequential the loss would be.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: You know, some election nights are more fun than others. Some are exhilarating. Some are humbling.
PETER BAKER, The New York Times: It’s clearly one of the most critical moments in the Obama presidency because it says we’re now solidifying and accelerating this polarization, this division between the parties.
NARRATOR: Just two years before, Barack Obama had arrived on a promise that he could unify the country and transform Washington.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: We have never been just a collection of red states and blue states. We are, and always will be, the United States of America!
NARRATOR: But in his first year, he faced unexpected populist anger from what was called the Tea Party─
PROTESTER: You want to kill my grandparents, you come through me first!
TALK RADIO: Government run amok!
NARRATOR: ─over health care reform─
SARAH PALIN: Rammed it down America’s throats─
NARRATOR: ─Wall Street bailouts─
NEWSCASTER: Devastated by losses in mortgage investments─
NARRATOR: ─and Obama himself.
TALK RADIO: How about being able to call half the country racist? What’s that going to do for your fund-raising?
RYAN LIZZA, The New Yorker: He came into office with a very naive view of politics, and very quickly was─ was reeducated.
SARAH PALIN: So how is that hopey, changey thing working out for ya? [cheers]
RYAN LIZZA: His biggest misunderstanding about American politics was that it wasn’t polarized.
PROTESTER: You’re pathetic!
PROTESTER: We can’t afford it!
NARRATOR: But for the Republican establishment, the polarization was an opportunity.
Rep. ERIC CANTOR (R-VA): There were a lot of angry citizens across America. They saw that the Democratic majority, along with the president, were going in a direction where I don’t think people thought they would go.
PROTESTER: No! Don’t do this to us!
NARRATOR: It was an anger that gave the GOP an historic midterm victory and set the stage for an insurgency inside the Republican Party.
NEWSCASTER: New Year, new Congress, new strategy─
NEWSCASTER: Day one in Congress, sworn in─
NEWSCASTER: The 112th Congress─
Rep. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), Speaker of the House: Do you solemnly swear that you will support and defend─
NARRATOR: The Tea Party class of 87 new Republicans came to the Capitol armed with revolutionary fervor.
Rep. JOHN BOEHNER: ─so help you God.
HOUSE MEMBERS: I do.
Rep. JOHN BOEHNER: Congratulations! [applause and cheers]
NARRATOR: They arrived determined to transform the American government and their own party.
Rep. JEFF LANDRY (R- LA), Tea Party Caucus: I think all 87 came here with the idea to change Washington. There was a tremendous amount of energy when we first got here.
GROVER NORQUIST, Americans for Tax Reform: They came into office with the sounds of the Tea Parties, the concerns of the Tea Parties, their reaction to Obama’s massive overspending and a rejection of eight years of Bush, not just the cost of wars and occupation, but the complete disregard of cost of government as an issue.
NEWSCASTER: Republicans said this was not an election about─
NARRATOR: But to change Washington, the insurgent freshmen would first have to deal with their own leader, the consummate political insider, the new speaker of the House, John Boehner.
Rep. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): I now pass this gavel and the sacred trust that goes with it to the new speaker. God bless you, Speaker Boehner. [applause and cheers]
DAN BALZ, The Washington Post: He is a career politician, Ohioan, hardscrabble upbringing, arrived in 1990, was part of the gang that went after the Democrats over the bank scandals, rose to power, became a deal maker.
NARRATOR: Boehner had spent 10 terms in Congress, working his way up the leadership ladder.
ROBERT DRAPER, The New York Times Magazine: John Boehner regards himself as an institutionalist, a guy who really loves, reveres even, the House of Representatives.
JOHN BOEHNER: I didn’t need to be speaker because I needed a fancy title or a big office. I wanted to be speaker so I could lead an effort to deal with the serious issues that are facing our country.
NARRATOR: Now Boehner would have to deal with the insurgents who came to Washington to take on the establishment he embodied.
LORI MONTGOMERY, The Washington Post: I don’t think he knew what had fallen into his lap. I don’t think he recognized that this was going to be such a hard ride.
NEWSCASTER: House Republicans of the 112th Congress plotted strategy─
NARRATOR: The week after they were sworn in, Boehner and the House Republicans headed to a private retreat in Baltimore.
NEWSCASTER: ─to talk about getting back to work─
NEWSCASTER: The two-and-a-half days of presentations─
NARRATOR: They came together to bond and build a strategy. The star attraction in Baltimore was not John Boehner but his heir apparent and political rival, Eric Cantor.
DAN BALZ, The Washington Post: Cantor is more in tune with the newer Republican Party than John Boehner. He’s a very ambitious politician, a skilled operator─ and an operator─ and somebody whose ambitions to be speaker or to be the Republican leader have been evident from the start.
NARRATOR: Cantor told the Tea Party class that they had been sent to Washington to rein in the president.
ERIC CANTOR: The president and his team totally disregarded half the country, if not more, when he did things like health care reform strictly on a partisan basis. These are things are too big to be done with just one party. So we need a check and balance on this president, and that’s why the Republicans, I believe, we were elected into majority in 2010.
NARRATOR: At the Baltimore retreat, Cantor outlined a strategy for playing hardball with the president.
ROBERT COSTA, The Washington Post: Cantor talked about these leverage options they had, shutting down the government or cutting off funding for this or that. And it─ and it aroused all this excitement inside the Republican base. They started to think these things could actually happen.
NARRATOR: Cantor left Baltimore after telling the freshmen that one of their first jobs would be to get behind a tough new budget that would radically change the size and scope of the American government.
NOAM SCHEIBER, Author, The Escape Artists: A manifesto that would return the country to Eisenhower-era levels of government spending. I mean, it’s an incredibly austere document.
NARRATOR: It was written by Cantor’s friend, Congressman Paul Ryan, and was called the Ryan budget.
Rep. PAUL RYAN (R-WI): The nation’s fiscal trajectory is simply not─
NARRATOR: It was designed to take on the government’s debt, lowering taxes, repealing Obama’s health care law, even the privatization of Medicare.
Rep. JEFF LANDRY: Well, Paul Ryan is a very talented person. From a budget perspective and a number-crunching perspective, he gets it. He built a budget that was the best way to bring some of that fiscal sanity back in Washington.
TALK RADIO: Ryan is no doubt an upcoming star, particularly─ I mean, this guy on the budget─
NARRATOR: Backing Ryan and the Tea Party class, a chorus of voices on conservative talk radio and Web sites─
TALK RADIO: His proposal has a chance of saving our country─
NARRATOR: ─angry at Washington and looking for a fight.
TALK RADIO: There’s going to be a hundred years of darkness that follows us if we don’t win this battle today─
NARRATOR: It was an important test for Obama. Would he compromise or stand his ground?
TALK RADIO: They’re clearly threatened by him, just as they are threatened by Sarah Palin and the others─
PETER BAKER: They had this idea that he’d give this speech, a powerful full-throated defense of his view of the fiscal situation.
NEWSCASTER: President Obama will share his plans in a speech at George Washington University─
NARRATOR: He decided to push back, drafting an aggressive speech that would take on the Ryan budget.
WILLIAM DALEY, Obama Chief of Staff: The decision was made that we had to frame this in a very aggressive way about what we wanted and what the president believed in.
NEWSCASTER: President Obama will talk about his plans to reduce the national debt during a speech─
NARRATOR: But as the White House staff gathered Washington’s A-list, they made an error. They accidentally invited Paul Ryan and gave him a front row seat.
JACKIE CALMES, The New York Times: They had done what you normally do on one of these speeches, is they invited the congressional leaders. And somehow, it didn’t filter up to the top who just was─ who was going to be there.
NARRATOR: Obama’s chief of staff, Bill Daley, was one of the first to notice.
WILLIAM DALEY: When I saw him in the room, I thought, “Oh, my God.”
RYAN LIZZA: So in Paul Ryan’s mind ─ and he told me this ─ he goes to the George Washington University speech thinking, “Maybe this is the moment where after we’ve laid out our negotiating positions, we start to come together a little bit.” That’s what he thinks he’s stepping into.
NARRATOR: Daley tried to warn the president, but it was too late.
LORI MONTGOMERY, The Washington Post: Obama, you know, with the lights in his eyes, they say, unable to see who’s directly in front of him, just launches into a blistering condemnation of the Republican budget and how this is, you know, a very small and painful vision of a country shrinking.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: There’s nothing serious or courageous about this plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending $1 trillion on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. That’s not a vision of the America I know.
ROBERT DRAPER: It was an astonishing swipe at a congressman who happened to be sitting right there in the audience.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: And worst of all, this is a vision that says even though Americans can’t afford to invest in education, even though we can’t afford to maintain our commitment on Medicare and Medicaid, we can somehow afford more than $1 trillion in new tax breaks for the wealthy.
Fmr. Sen. ALAN SIMPSON (R-WY): I mean, Jesus, it was─ it was heavy. He didn’t use Ryan’s name, he just made fun of anyone who could propose anything like what he had read recently as a proposal presented to the House Republican leadership that did this to old people and─ oh, on and on! It was─ it was tough. And it was nasty.
JACKIE CALMES: Paul Ryan gets up after it’s all over and he makes a quick exit.
NARRATOR: The president’s top economic adviser, Gene Sperling, ran after Ryan.
ALAN SIMPSON: Sperling jumped up like he’d been sitting in an electric chair, rushed out to mollify him.
GENE SPERLING, Obama Economic Adviser: All I was trying to do was to let him know that─ that we did not know they were coming. His response was that he felt the president had poisoned the well.
NEWSCASTER: The president took to task in his remarks yesterday─
DAN BALZ: Ryan was deeply offended by having been put into that position, and his Republican friends were even more angry.
NEWSCASTER: President Obama blasted Paul Ryan’s budget this weekend─
TALK RADIO: That was a personal bitch-slap, primo insult─
NARRATOR: The Republicans were outraged.
NEWSCASTER: ─fury that the president was so partisan─
NARRATOR: That afternoon, Ryan and Cantor went on the offensive.
Rep. PAUL RYAN: What we got was a speech that was excessively partisan, dramatically inaccurate and hopelessly inadequate to addressing our country’s pressing fiscal challenges.
Rep. ERIC CANTOR: The only concrete proposal that he proposed was raising taxes, and that solution falls far short of dealing with the kind of crisis that we’re facing as far as the debt’s concerned in this country.
TALK RADIO: We are teetering on the brink of utter economic destruction state by state─
NARRATOR: Just months into the new Republican Congress, the battle with the president was only growing.
TALK RADIO: They are enslaving future generations to massive debt, massive government─
NARRATOR: In New York City, a political outsider was watching and listening.
TALK RADIO: This election was about defeating Obama! It was about stopping Obama! It was about stopping the Democrats! It was not about─
ROBERT COSTA: Donald Trump saw a vacuum in which he could step into and have some kind of influence. Trump saw an opportunity.
TALK RADIO: Obama’s hell-bent on weakening America, and he has told us─
NARRATOR: The real estate developer and reality TV star was looking for a way to raise his political profile.
TALK RADIO: Why won’t they release the birth certificate?
TALK RADIO: What is the logic? What is the connection?
TALK RADIO: Why don’t they just release it and get it over with? And then we don’t have to talk about it.
NARRATOR: Trump saw an opening in a conspiracy theory surrounding Obama’s birthplace.
TALK RADIO: The impression is that we have given the keys of the kingdom to a stranger, and that’s why these myths live─
EVAN OSNOS, The New Yorker: Donald Trump realized that this issue, which had been lurking in the shadows of American politics, basically ignored and mocked by the mainstream press, resonated with a certain kind of voter out there.
TALK RADIO: Back to this birther business for just a second─
TALK RADIO: Obama is an unknown man, may not be a citizen, surrounded by radicals, surrounded by terrorists─
TALK RADIO: Why President Obama would have spent $2 million to not show his birth certificate─
TALK RADIO: Mr. President, if you have nothing to hide, why are you hiding everything?
ROGER STONE: Trump understands among Republicans, there’s a very substantial majority who have questions about Obama’s origins and how he just pops up out of nowhere to become a national figure, and whether he was, in fact, eligible to serve as president.
NARRATOR: In cities and towns across America, the issue struck a chord.
TOWN HALL PARTICIPANT: ─and I want to know why are you people ignoring his birth certificate? [cheers and applause] He is not an American citizen! He is a citizen of Kenya! And I don’t want this flag to change! I want my country back!
NARRATOR: Establishment Republicans had tried to avoid the birther issue, but the questions were growing on the internet.
TALK RADIO: He won’t even produce a birth certificate. Don’t you love that?
TALK RADIO: Obviously, if there’s something there that the president doesn’t want people to see on that birth certificate─
NARRATOR: Trump seized the issue.
ROBERT COSTA: And he sat up in Trump Tower watching. And Trump, who comes out of the New York tabloid wars, saw that the Republican Party wasn’t countering Obama with really tabloid fervor.
TALK RADIO: More than 40 percent of the population still question whether he’s actually an American or not─
EVAN OSNOS: It was a universe in which there was already this reservoir of skepticism, and Trump walked in and just dropped a match into it.
BARBARA WALTERS, The View: Please welcome my friend, Donald Trump.
NARRATOR: He made himself the face of the birther movement.
DONALD TRUMP: Why doesn’t he show his birth certificate? I think he probably─
WHOOPI GOLDBERG, The View: Why should he have to?
DONALD TRUMP: Because I have to and everybody else has to, Whoopi. [crosstalk] Why wouldn’t he show─ excuse me. No, excuse me. I really believe there’s a birth certificate. Why─look, she’s smiling. Why doesn’t he show his birth certificate?
MICHAEL D’ANTONIO, Author, _The Truth About Trump: When he was becoming the leader of the birther movement, I think he understood who he was speaking to. It was the Archie Bunkers who were uncomfortable with an African-American president.
WHOOPI GOLDBERG: I never heard any white president asked to be shown the birth certificate.
DONALD TRUMP: Everybody does. Everybody does.
You are not allowed to be a president if you’re not born in this country. He may not have been born in this country─
NARRATOR: To Obama, the birther movement was about more than where he was born.
JELANI COBB, The New Yorker: It made it easy for people who had ideas that someone like him didn’t belong in the White House to make the short leap over to the idea that this person wasn’t even an American. And so people may have said he’s not an American figuratively, and all of a sudden, people are saying he’s not an American literally.
NARRATOR: It remained a problem he couldn’t ignore.
VALERIE JARRETT, Obama Senior Adviser: The president thought, “Well, let’s just deal with it,” as mounting numbers of people were beginning to wonder, “Well, is it true? Is he actually not born here?”
DAN BALZ, The Washington Post: The president just said, “All right, let’s put this to rest.” And he arranged to go get the long-form birth certificate.
NEWSCASTER: Another political story making news this morning, Donald Trump’s growing poll numbers─
NARRATOR: But Donald Trump didn’t know what Obama was about to do. He was in New Hampshire for what looked like the beginning of a presidential campaign.
NEWSCASTER: As promised, Donald Trump speaking now in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Let’s listen.
DONALD TRUMP: You ready? You get ready. Whenever you’re ready, I’m OK.
NARRATOR: Trump’s press conference was carried live on national television, but President Obama upstaged him.
NEWSCASTER: OK, we’re going to leave New Hampshire and go to Washington and the White House, where President Obama is speaking.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: As many of you have been briefed, we provided additional information today about the site of my birth.
NARRATOR: Obama had released his birth certificate.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: Yes, in fact, I was born in Hawaii, August 4th, 1961, in Kapiolani Hospital.
JELANI COBB: In some ways, it felt that all of black America had just been racially profiled. And people were saying if this can happen to him, the most powerful person in the world, what exactly can happen to us? What are the boundaries of what can happen to us?
NEWSCASTER: We’re talking about the White House correspondents dinner tonight. It’s an annual event right here in Washington─
NEWSCASTER: And Obama joins the reporters who cover him at the annual─
NARRATOR: For good measure, the president went even further.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: My fellow Americans─ [laughter and applause]
NARRATOR: At the White House correspondents dinner─
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: Mahalo! [laughter]
NARRATOR: ─he ridiculed Trump and the controversy.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: Donald Trump is here tonight. [laughter and cheers] No one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald. [laughter] And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter─ like, did we fake the moon landing? [laughter]
JELANI COBB: He engaged in what African-Americans would have called a game of the dozens, ritual insult that people go─ except this is all one-sided. And you can see the humiliation being returned, you know, and Trump looking increasingly uncomfortable.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: What really happened in Roswell? [laughter] And where are Biggie and Tupac? [laughter and applause] All kidding aside, obviously, we all know about your credentials and breadth of experience─
MICHAEL D’ANTONIO: Donald dreads humiliation and he dreads shame. So in the case of the president ridiculing him, I think this was intolerable for Donald Trump.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America. [applause]
NARRATOR: The president hoped he’d finally put the birther issue and Donald Trump behind him.
NEWSCASTER: The debt showdown, so many Americans─
NARRATOR: That spring in Washington, the president had a more pressing problem.
NEWSCASTER: The nation is on the brink of fiscal crisis─
NEWSCASTER: Time’s ticking on America’s debt ceiling─
NARRATOR: Eric Cantor and the Republicans were making good on their plans to threaten the White House with leverage points.
NEWSCASTER: ─to agree on how or even whether to raise the debt ceiling─
JOHN FARRELL, National Journal: And Eric Cantor appealed to the most militant feelings in the caucus. Cantor proposes that they do something which had not been done before, which is to use the debt ceiling vote for maximum leverage and threaten to throw the country into default.
NARRATOR: Cantor told the insurgents that they could stop the government from borrowing to pay its bills. They were ready for the fight.
Rep. TIM HUELSKAMP (R-KS), Tea Party Caucus: We all saw the debt ceiling as the─ the best lever we had to make some changes to deal with the spending problem, to deal with the big government problem.
TALK RADIO: We do not need to raise the debt ceiling! There is no crisis!
TALK RADIO: So we draw a line in the sand. This is our Waterloo.
NARRATOR: At the White House, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner warned the president failure to raise the debt ceiling would leave the country unable to pay its bills and trigger a global financial crisis.
TIMOTHY GEITHNER, Secretary of the Treasury: I was really─ was really terrified. We made trillions and trillions of dollars of commitments to try to hold things together not just in the United States but around the world. And that foundation rested on, in some sense, our ability to borrow. And that was what was at stake. And I think I felt that the consequences if we lost that ability would have been existential, much worse in many ways than what we faced in the fall of ‘08.
TALK RADIO: This is stimulus all over again! This is TARP all over again! This is the same lie repeated over and over again, the same attempt to make you think your country is coming to a screeching halt and is ending!
NARRATOR: With time running out, the president decided to act. He’d reach out directly to Cantor’s boss, the ultimate insider, the speaker of the House, John Boehner. He knew Boehner was a golfer, so he arranged a “get to know you” game.
JOHN BOEHNER: Before the golf match started, I told the president, I said, “Mr. President, this is about golf, not about anything else.” And he and I were partners. We played well and we won.
MATT BAI: And afterward, they go back to the clubhouse and they’re having a drink. And it’s at that point when Boehner says to the president, “Hey, you know, on this debt ceiling stuff, we ought to do something big.”
JOHN BOEHNER: And I suggested to the president, you know, “Why don’t we have a conversation?” And he agreed.
NARRATOR: Obama and Boehner met in secret. The speaker entered the White House through a side entrance.
WILLIAM DALEY, Obama Chief of Staff: Well, that was Boehner’s decision, not ours, obviously. It’s not every day that the speaker comes to see the president quietly and says, “I’m willing to do a deal” that everybody knows is going to be dangerous for him politically.
NARRATOR: Boehner kept Cantor and the Republican insurgents in the dark.
BOB WOODWARD, Author, The Price of Politics: He’s keeping it a secret from Eric Cantor. He knows how risky this is. Boehner kept telling Obama, “I’m taking a giant risk.” You know, “We’re risking the speakership because of this.”
NARRATOR: The president and the speaker, one on one, trying to reinvent the size and cost of government.
BOB WOODWARD: Boehner calls these the “Nicorettes and Merlot sessions.” As Boehner says, the president’s having iced tea and chewing a Nicorette, and Boehner’s having a glass of Merlot red wine and smoking a cigarette.
NARRATOR: They put together the outlines of a deal, what would be called “the grand bargain.” Obama would agree to entitlement cuts. Boehner would consent to the unthinkable for a Republican, raising tax revenues.
JOHN BOEHNER: Well, it was very dangerous. But it was─ became clear to me that the president wasn’t going to deal with the spending problem without having a conversation about revenues. We always believed that through tax reform, there were lower rates for everyone. So I felt comfortable putting revenue on the table as a way of trying to get the president to be serious about the spending problem that we have.
NARRATOR: After a few weeks, both of them thought they had a deal.
JOHN BOEHNER: There was a lot of excitement in the Oval Office. It was clear that we had an agreement, that there was $800 billion in revenues, more than that in reductions and reforms on the spending side. And there─ there, in effect, was an agreement.
LORI MONTGOMERY: When the president came out, he said, “I want this done,” and everybody scurried to move into action.
WILLIAM DALEY: And he looked at us and he said, “Get this deal done.” And there we went.
NARRATOR: But as they worked out the details, a surprise. A group of Republicans and Democrats in the Senate had their own outline of a plan, one that might even generate more tax revenue. It was hard for the president to resist.
JOSHUA GREEN, Bloomberg Businessweek: Obama went back to Boehner and said, “Look, things have changed. There’s this other plan out here. I can’t cut the deal that I thought I could cut before. I need $400 billion more to sign on the dotted line.”
JOHN BOEHNER: And I told the president, I said, “Mr. President, we had an agreement. We had an agreement on Sunday. And you know, if I make an agreement with someone, I’ve got to live up to the agreement that I made.” But he wanted more revenue, wanted more revenue.
NARRATOR: Still, Boehner wanted the grand bargain badly enough that he actually considered the president’s request.
JASON ZENGERLE, GQ Magazine: Boehner had gotten this far, and he thought, “OK, what can we offer to Obama?” And he was starting to think through how to do his own counterproposal.
NARRATOR: To get the deal done, Boehner needed Cantor’s help. But Cantor couldn’t believe what Boehner was thinking about doing.
BOB WOODWARD: Cantor gets Paul Ryan and other people together, and they say, “My God, we’ve got a runaway speaker. How do we get control of him?”
ERIC CANTOR: I said, “The president’s come back now with even more revenues.” I said, “I know that my sense, being the whip, being trying to be close to where the members are, they’re not going to be for tax increases if we can’t get a transformative deal.” And I was totally supported in that conversation─ Jeb Hensarling, Paul Ryan and others at that time.
NARRATOR: He confronted the speaker.
ERIC CANTOR: I went to the speaker and I said, “Look, we can’t do this. We can’t do it at the increased revenue number. We can’t do it at the lower revenue number.”
MATT BAI, The New York Times Magazine: From Cantor’s perspective, he’s now trying to walk Boehner off a cliff. He’s saying, “You want this deal so badly that what you are thinking about doing will destroy you and will destroy the caucus, and I won’t let you do it.”
NARRATOR: The president didn’t know what was going on.
MATT BAI: He calls Boehner that night and leaves a voicemail. Boehner doesn’t pick up.
WILLIAM DALEY: So the president, he said, “Get back to me tonight, John.” The president didn’t hear. I think he called me around 10:00 o’clock, 10:30, and said, “Have you heard anything?” I said no. I tried to reach the speaker. And I had his cell phone and he didn’t answer, which is very unlike him because he always answered his cell phone. I reported that I hadn’t heard back from him yet. So we were- you know, there was─ trying to figure out what the hell was going on here.
NARRATOR: Eventually, Boehner returned the president’s phone call.
BOB WOODWARD: In the Oval Office when the president’s on that phone call, Rob Nabors, the head of congressional relations, sees the president is so angry, Nabors worries that he’s going to break the phone receiver. Boehner put it quite succinctly. He said that the president was angry, and so angry and so hot, he was spewing coals.
NARRATOR: Outraged, Obama immediately called a press conference.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: I just got a call about a half hour ago from Speaker Boehner. It is hard to understand why Speaker Boehner would walk away from this kind of deal, and frankly, I think that, you know, one of the questions that the Republican Party’s going to have to ask itself is, can they say yes to anything? Can they say yes to anything?
NORM ORNSTEIN, American Enterprise Institute: That moment, more than anything else, and the anger that Obama demonstrated, when he came out to speak about it ─ something very unusual for Obama, visceral anger ─ was a pivot point in terms of the president’s understanding about what he could do with the Congress.
Rep. JOHN BOEHNER: Now, let me just say what I said several weeks ago─
NARRATOR: Then it was Boehner’s turn.
Rep. JOHN BOEHNER: Dealing with the White House is like dealing with a bowl of Jell-O. The White House moved the goalposts. There was an agreement on some additional revenues until yesterday, when the president demanded $400 billion more, which was going to be nothing more than a tax increase on the American people.
TALK RADIO: Obama is knowingly and happily driving this nation into bankruptcy!
TALK RADIO: A real debt limit seems to me to be exactly what we need here!
TALK RADIO: Our country literally could be lost!
NARRATOR: Just two days before the deadline, the Senate stepped in, working out a stopgap deal to defuse the debt ceiling crisis, avoiding a default, but pushing the country’s fiscal problems down the road and deepening the political polarization. There was no “grand bargain.”
Sen. TOM DASCHLE (D-SD), Fmr. Majority Leader: It was a realization that the environment had changed dramatically, that it was beyond personalities, that we had created a monster. And this monster was virtually out of control and running the country in large measure.
TALK RADIO: We can’t afford to have Obama’s very radical agenda!
TALK RADIO: We are not stronger, we are not freer since the regime took over.
TALK RADIO: He must be defeated! He must be driven out of Washington!
DAN BALZ: If you talked to people at the time, and in the aftermath of that, they say that period in August of 2011 was as low a point in his presidency as he had.
NARRATOR: Barack Obama had promised to change Washington, but the dysfunction had only grown.
TALK RADIO: Barack Obama is trying to dismantle the American dream! There’s no other way to put this!
NARRATOR: And the hope of many that he could bridge the country’s racial divide was about to be tested.
POLICE DISPATCHER: Sanford Police Department. Line is being recorded.
GEORGE ZIMMERMAN: This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something.
DISPATCHER: OK, and this guy, is he white, black or Hispanic?
GEORGE ZIMMERMAN: He looks black.
NARRATOR: The caller was George Zimmerman. He had spotted a 17-year-old African-American high school student near his home.
GEORGE ZIMMERMAN: These [expletive deleted] they always get away.
DISPATCHER: Are you following him?
GEORGE ZIMMERMAN: Yeah.
DISPATCHER: OK, we don’t need you to do that.
NARRATOR: That student, Trayvon Martin.
DISPATCHER: Do you need police, fire or medical?
CALLER: There’s someone screaming outside.
DISPATCHER: All right, what is your─
CALLER: Just─ there’s gunshots!
DISPATCHER: You just heard gunshots?
DISPATCHER: How many?
CALLER: Just one.
NARRATOR: He was shot and killed by Zimmerman.
NEWSCASTER: Trayvon Martin was walking back from a convenience store when he was allegedly shot by a neighborhood watch captain.
NEWSCASTER: Police have the gun, they’ve got the shooter─
NARRATOR: To some, the shooting suggested that race may have played a role.
WESLEY LOWERY, Author, They Can’t Kill Us All: Trayvon Martin’s only sin was his skin color, and that had he been a white kid in a hoodie trying to walk home that night, no one would have confronted him or bothered him. And I think that that is why Trayvon Martin becomes such a pivotal tension point on race and justice during the Obama years.
NEWSCASTER: ─mountain of evidence in the Trayvon Martin shooting case─
NEWSCASTER: ─story that’s ignited fierce passions across the nation, as allegations of racism and miscarriage of justice tear apart─
NEWSCASTER: The man who shot Trayvon hasn’t been charged. He’s claiming self-defense─
NARRATOR: At first, the president did not make any public remarks about the shooting.
JELANI COBB, The New Yorker: The contradiction of this happening in the midst of a black presidency sharpened the irony and intensified the pain I think people felt around this.
NARRATOR: Obama was reluctant to deal with race head on. He had learned to be cautious on the subject.
NEWSCASTER: Police did not arrest George Zimmerman, saying they didn’t have probable cause─
NARRATOR: But now the pressure to say something was growing.
NEWSCASTER: Protests are being planned tonight for a national day of justice─
NEWSCASTER: The shooting sparked outrage across the country. Martin’s parents say it was racially motivated─
NEWSCASTER: Rallies were held across the country today, including here in D.C., demanding─
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON, Author, The Black Presidency: People were pushing him, “Say something. Are you going to say anything? You’re a black man. A young black boy has been murdered by a guy who’s a hyped-up, you know, neighborhood watchman. Black America is traumatized by this.” Silence from the White House, nothing, no leadership, no─ no insight.
NARRATOR: Finally, almost a month after the killing, Obama was confronted with it at a news conference in the Rose Garden.
MICHAEL SHEAR, The New York Times: We were pressing the White House to say something, you know, to have─ to have the president say something about it.
REPORTER: Can you comment on the Trayvon Martin case, sir?
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: Well, I’m the head of the executive branch and the attorney general reports to me, so I’ve got to be careful about my statements to make sure that we’re not impairing any investigation that is taking place right now.
DAVID REMNICK, Author, The Bridge: Every time there’s an incident, his rhetoric is examined with a tuning fork. It never satisfies everybody. It’s very, very difficult.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: But obviously, this is a tragedy. I can only imagine what these parents are going through.
MICHAEL SHEAR: And when he finally comes out, it was a rare moment of emotion for a president that liked to, you know, keep that in check.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: But my main message is─ is to the parents of Trayvon Martin. You know, if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon. And you know, I think they are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves and that we’re going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Finally, when he’s pushed, he makes it a personal one. You know, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon Martin.” Innocent remark, anybody listening to that would see it’s the father’s heart looking at what might have been his own son.
TA-NEHISI COATES, Author, Between the World and Me: The president’s a black dude, and so on some level, he has some sort of familiarity with that. He understands the kind of fear that has, you know, typically pervaded, you know, the notions of black male-hood.
TALK RADIO: The president has inserted himself in a racial way─
NARRATOR: On the right-wing airwaves, outrage.
TALK RADIO: His whole goal is to provoke a racial confrontation!
TALK RADIO: He’s got it in for this country!
WESLEY LOWERY: It became this huge tension point by the president literally just acknowledging his own skin color, that, “Look, I mean, I have two daughters, but if I had a son, he’d probably look like that kid.” That’s an objective fact. But it became this─ this huge firestorm.
TALK RADIO: If the president had a son, he wouldn’t look anything like Trayvon Martin. He’d be wearing a blazer from his prep school. He’d be driving a Beamer.
TALK RADIO: We have a president who has frozen racial tension in our country instead of thawing racial tension!
JELANI COBB, The New Yorker: All of a sudden, it goes into this racially retrenched place, and people are kind of seeing this as a kind of indicator that he’s not fair or perhaps he favors African-Americans. In the context of Trayvon Martin, this really explodes.
TALK RADIO: The president’s goal is to heighten African-American turnout by stoking a feeling of victimization in the African-American community.
NEWSCASTER: The field of GOP candidates for 2012 taking shape─
NEWSCASTER: More Republican candidates are poised to enter the race for president─
NEWSCASTER: The GOP race is still wide open.
NEWSCASTER: More republicans make up their minds whether they will─
NARRATOR: 2012 was also an election year. Although anti-Washington anger was growing, the GOP choice was an establishment candidate, Mitt Romney.
MITT ROMNEY (R-MA), FORMER GOV., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This country we love is in peril. And that, my friends, is one reason why we’re here today. Barack Obama has failed America.
NARRATOR: He was a successful businessman and an experienced politician, a former governor.
MITT ROMNEY: I believe in America, and I’m running for president of the United States! [cheers]
NARRATOR: But many in the Republican base, especially in the Tea Party, could barely stand him.
TALK RADIO: ─verges on hysterical. Mitt Romney has never done a single thing to favor the conservative cause─
TALK RADIO: I swear, every time Mitt Romney opens his mouth, I have no─ I think he’s running against me!
Rep. RAUL LABRADOR: I don’t think that Romney was somebody who understood the angst of the American people. He didn’t understand what─ what especially the Republicans throughout the United States were feeling, how disaffected they felt.
PETER BAKER, The New York Times: Mitt Romney just further exacerbates the frustration among the Republican base and the Tea Party wing of the party. How could it be that they end up with Mitt Romney as their nominee when there’s so much anti-Washington, anti-establishment energy out there?
TALK RADIO: What does Mitt Romney believe?
TALK RADIO: And is he truly a conservative?
TALK RADIO: Not exactly a person of conviction─
TALK RADIO: What type of values─
NARRATOR: Romney knew he had to bolster his appeal among Republicans and win over the Tea Party and insurgents. He named the author of the Ryan budget his running mate.
MITT ROMNEY: ─an honor to announce my running mate and the next vice president of the United States, Paul Ryan! [cheers]
NARRATOR: He took a tough stand on immigration.
MITT ROMNEY: The answer is self-deportation. We’re going to encourage─
NARRATOR: And he said he would finally deliver on that Republican promise to repeal Obamacare.
MITT ROMNEY: If we want to get rid of Obamacare, we’re going to have to replace President Obama.
NARRATOR: But one move that seemed a curiosity at the time would later take on greater significance. In Las Vegas, he would accept a controversial endorsement from the leader of the birther movement.
DAN BALZ: Mitt Romney looks completely uncomfortable. Donald Trump is totally in his element. It’s─ in a curious way, it’s Donald Trump’s event, not Mitt Romney’s event. He─ you know, he commands the stage.
DONALD TRUMP: It’s my honor, real honor and privilege to endorse Mitt Romney.
MARK LEIBOVICH, The New York Times Magazine: It was literally one of the most bizarre political scenes I’d ever seen.
DONALD TRUMP: And by the way, this is a great couple.
MARK LEIBOVICH: Mitt and Ann Romney were standing up there, and I kept looking at Ann Romney, who looked like she was using every single bit of energy she had not to start cracking up uncontrollably. At that moment, it seemed like─ you know, not unlike Sarah Palin four years earlier, kind of a comic diversion, something that was different.
DONALD TRUMP: So Governor Romney, go out and get ‘em. You can do it. [applause]
MARK LEIBOVICH: It was hilarious. It was bizarre. In retrospect, I guess it represented some kind passing of the torch.
NARRATOR: Romney and the GOP establishment formally embraced Donald Trump.
MITT ROMNEY: There are some things that you just can’t imagine happening in your life. This is one of them. Being in Donald Trump’s magnificent hotel and having his endorsement is a delight.
TIM O’BRIEN, Author, TrumpNation: For Trump, it was the Republican establishment saying, “You’re one of us, and we’ll stand on a stage with you.”
MITT ROMNEY: Thank you so much for your help and your endorsement today, and look forward to seeing you out on the trail. Thank you, Donald. [applause]
MARK LEIBOVICH: It was a tacit endorsement in the other direction of Mitt Romney to the kind of rhetoric that Donald Trump was vociferous in trafficking in around Obama’s birth certificate, the perpetrator of a sort of blatantly nativist campaign against the president of the United States.
NEWSCASTER: President Obama is battling for his own second term─
NARRATOR: That fall, the president had dropped in the polls and was fighting to keep his job.
NEWSCASTER: ─President Obama out on the campaign trail today than we saw─
NARRATOR: Four years earlier, he had promised to bridge differences.
NEWSCASTER: A difficult road ahead for the president─
PETER BAKER: I think you see President Obama with thicker skin, more jaundiced eyes, has grown more skeptical, even cynical perhaps, about Washington.
NARRATOR: As he made the case for reelection, the man who once promised to transcend differences now emphasized them.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: If I said the sky was blue, they said no! If I said there were fish in the sea, they said no! They figured, “If Obama fails, then we win.”
JEFF ZELENY, The New York Times: It’s hard to believe that it─ it is the same person who was talking about bringing red America and blue America together because he is now a polarizing figure.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: ─because of their policies. The Republicans messed up so bad─
DAN BALZ, The Washington Post: Having seen the collapse around Washington, he knew he had to go into a different mode. And he was prepared to do it. And it was a much tougher campaign. It was a grittier campaign. It was not a message of uplift in the same way, by any means, that the first campaign was.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: It’s the same agenda that they have been pushing for years!
RYAN LIZZA: And his entire campaign message is about the differences between the two parties, not the similarities.
NEWSCASTER: The voters vote, the counters count as the candidates and their supporters hold their breath! We will take you through all of it─
NARRATOR: By election day, at Romney-Ryan headquarters, they believed they were about to reclaim the White House.
DAN BALZ: Paul Ryan on election day was talking to people about resigning from his House seat immediately to concentrate on being vice president-elect, believing that, you know, that was going to happen that night.
NARRATOR: But just after 11:00 o’clock─
NEWSCASTER: This is a Fox News election alert. Fox News can now project that President Obama will win the crucial battleground state of Ohio. This was the entire ball game.
NARRATOR: To the Fox News team, including Karl Rove, it was a shocking surprise.
CHRIS WALLACE, Fox Anchor: Do you believe that Ohio has been settled?
KARL ROVE, Republican Strategist: No, I don’t.
MOLLY BALL, The Atlantic: Republicans were stunned by the outcome of the 2012 election. They believed it was all but inevitable that they would win.
SARAH PALIN: I just cannot believe, though, that the majority of Americans would believe that incurring more debt is good for our economy, for our children’s futures─
MOLLY BALL: So many people today live in whole neighborhoods, whole communities where nobody disagrees with them, that if you were a Mitt Romney voter, you thought everybody hated President Obama. You couldn’t imagine that anybody would vote for that guy, he was so terrible.
SARAH PALIN: You know, it’s a perplexing time for many of us right now, if things continue in this trend that we have seen earlier tonight.
NARRATOR: In Boston, there would be no victory party. The loss would have a profound effect on one particular Republican, Donald Trump.
MICHAEL KRANISH, Co-Author, Trump Revealed: Trump went to Boston, in fact, to be at the victory party that never occurred. He got on his plane, turned around, went back to New York City, and he started tweeting.
“This election is a total sham and a travesty. We are not a democracy!”
“We can’t let this happen. We should march on Washington and stop this travesty. Our nation is totally divided!”
“We should have a revolution in this country!”
NARRATOR: Just six days later, Trump filed this trademark application for the phrase “Make America great again,” laying the groundwork for a presidential campaign in 2016.
ROGER STONE, Trump Political Adviser: Right after Romney lost, we had a brief chat. “Can Hillary be beat? Who else is going to run?” He’s already handicapping. Romney’s body isn’t even cold yet, and he’s already handicapping this election. It was clear to me then he was going to run.
NARRATOR: But for Barack Obama, that night seemed to be a second chance, the mandate he needed to finally deliver on that promise to move beyond the partisan divide.
PETE ROUSE, Obama Adviser: I think he honestly felt, “OK, I’ve won. I’m here for four more years. I’m not running again. I’m not on the ballot. And hopefully, we can sit down here and find some common ground to move forward.”
RYAN LIZZA: “If I beat them, if I beat Mitt Romney, I will have won the debate. I will have a mandate and they won’t.”
MARK LEIBOVICH: He and his people kept saying that, “We think that if we can defeat the Republicans and we can do it decisively, that finally will break the fever. Republicans will have gotten some kind of message that the obstructionism that─ that─ you know, that I have endured will not continue.”
NARRATOR: Hope and change were in the air again. And it looked like some Republicans were rethinking their strategy of confrontation. Speaker John Boehner was once again the highest-ranking Republican.
RYAN LIZZA: He’s strengthened a little bit within his caucus right after the election because whether he says this outright, it’s implied that, “Look, I tried it your way, guys, and Obama beat us.”
NARRATOR: And for Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan, the election seemed to signal that the Tea Party moment was over.
JASON ZENGERLE, GQ Magazine: Cantor’s a pragmatist, in a way. I mean, he’s─ he’s going to go where the power is, and maybe the Tea Party isn’t quite as strong as it was before.
NARRATOR: Cantor would now publicly stand behind the speaker.
JOHN FARRELL, National Journal: The majority leader, Cantor, was a much different person, much more reasonable, much more moderate, very worried about the fact that he was being seen as angling for the speaker’s job and undercutting Republican unity.
NARRATOR: With Cantor in line, Boehner moved to take control of his caucus.
NEWSCASTER: A purge is under way, with Speaker Boehner dumping uncontrollable right-wingers─
NEWSCASTER: ─seen as not being team players within his own party─
NEWSCASTER: ─the speaker removing four conservative congressmen from key committees, a move seen by some─
NARRATOR: He purged Tea Party insurgents from key committee assignments.
ROBERT COSTA, The Washington Post: Boehner needed to enforce some discipline, so he booted four members from their committees. This caused ripples throughout the entire Republican caucus. Republicans were shocked.
TALK RADIO: I mean, leadership gets rid of challenges, gets rid of people it doesn’t want─
NARRATOR: And Boehner made an overture to the president.
JOHN FARRELL: They wanted to get a card out there and put it down quickly. So they prepared a speech and went through 18 drafts, and it was tinkered with right there on the teleprompter up until the final moments.
NEWSCASTER: Speaker John Boehner is going to be speaking to reporters─
NEWSCASTER: ─speaker Boehner on this very evening─
Rep. JOHN BOEHNER: Good afternoon, everyone. We’re ready to be led, not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans.
Rep. PAT TIBERI (R-OH): The speaker came out and acknowledged the president won. Elections have consequences, and he acknowledged that right away.
Rep. JOHN BOEHNER: If there’s a mandate in yesterday’s results, it’s a mandate for us to find a way to work together on the solutions to the challenges that we all face as a nation.
I had been preparing for months for one of two scenarios, either the president was going to win or Romney was going to win. And so when it was clear that the president won, I wanted to go out to the public and to the─ and show the president that I was being willing to be reasonable and responsible.
We want you to lead not as a liberal or a conservative, but as president of the United States of America. Let’s rise above the dysfunction and do the right thing together for our country. Thank you.
NARRATOR: But it wasn’t long before that optimism was put to the test.
911 OPERATOR: 911. What’s the location of your emergency?
CALLER: Sandy Hook School. I think there’s somebody shooting in here, in Sandy Hook School! Down the hallway─
NARRATOR: A shooting─
CALLER: They’re still running! There’s still shooting!
NARRATOR: ─154 rounds from a Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle at a Connecticut elementary school. It was the 15th mass shooting of Obama’s presidency.
CALLER: Sandy Hook Elementary School, inside, I believe there’s shooting at the front─ it’s still happening!
NARRATOR: This time, it was 6 and 7-year-olds.
CALLER: I keep hearing shooting! I keep hearing popping.
CALLER: Please hurry. Please hurry! We smell fire from the gunshots. You guys come in my room now. Get in here.
CALLER: There’s still shooting going on! Please!
CALLER: I need─ I need assistance here immediately!
911 OPERATOR: OK, ma’am.
CALLER: I still hear him shooting!
NARRATOR: Twenty children and six adults were shot and killed.
911 OPERATOR: OK, get everybody you can going down there. All right, let me─
CALLER: My daughter’s in that building, please!
CALLER: I have 5 children who ran from Sandy Hook School.
MARK BARDEN, Sandy Hook Parent: There were just more emergency vehicles and personnel and helicopters than I had ever seen in my life. I couldn’t─ I just─ it was a surreal scene. I just couldn’t believe it.
NARRATOR: Mark and Jackie Barden’s son, Daniel, was a 1st-grader at Sandy Hook Elementary.
MARK BARDEN: More and more of the kids were being collected by their families, and no Daniel. And there was this growing group of parents that were growing in concern, “Where’s my child?” They told us that, “If you haven’t been reunited with your loved one yet, you’re not going to be.”
NARRATOR: That morning, President Obama received news of the shooting.
VALERIE JARRETT, Obama Senior Adviser: Newtown was the worst moment of the presidency. It was unfathomable to imagine 20 children, 6 and 7-year-old 1st graders, being gunned down in that violent and destructive way, and then six adults who were there trying to help.
PETER BAKER, The New York Times: He has two daughters. He’s thinking about these parents who are never going to see their children again, and he’s─ he’s weeping. He’s just openly weeping in the Oval Office in the White House, and he comes out to the briefing room to talk about it.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: The majority of those who died today were children, beautiful little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old. They had their entire lives ahead of them, birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own.
PETER BAKER: And he can’t control himself. He chokes up. He─ he’s very emotional about it.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: As a country, we have been through this too many times. May God bless the memory of the victims, and in the words of scripture, heal the broken-hearted and bind up their wounds.
NARRATOR: During his first term, Obama had avoided the controversial issue of guns. But now he wouldn’t.
PETER BAKER: He’s so upset that he says he’s going to make it a mission of his presidency to change the gun laws of this country. I think it surprised even his staff how determined he sounds in that moment. And I think he thinks that having just won reelection, he’s got a mandate to do it.
NARRATOR: Obama saw an opportunity to do something about guns, and maybe in a bipartisan way.
Vice President JOE BIDEN: It was in a context of sorrow, extreme, I mean, anger and frustration about why can’t we do something about this. It was, like, “Enough is enough is enough. Put together something for me, Joe.”
NARRATOR: It would become the first major test of Obama’s second term.
SHAILAGH MURRAY, Obama Adviser: Newtown, I think, struck everyone as just the point of no return on an issue that, like some of these other issues, had languished for some years. It just seemed like a given that─ that this was the moment where the two sides could come together on just some of these basic principles.
NARRATOR: What Obama needed was someone from Congress who could try to find middle ground in the highly polarized world of gun politics.
Sen. JOE MANCHIN (D-WV): [campaign commercial] As your senator, I’ll protect our 2nd Amendment rights. That’s why the NRA endorsed me. I’ll take on Washington and this administration to get the federal government off of our backs and out of our pockets. And I’ll take dead aim at the cap-and-trade bill.
NARRATOR: Joe Manchin, an A-rated NRA member and Democratic senator from West Virginia, was shaken by the Newtown shootings.
Sen. JOE MANCHIN: It really got to me. These are babies, 5 and 6-year-old children. Who would have ever─ it’s just beyond my imagination, most Americans’, to conceive that anything this horrific could happen in America.
ED O’KEEFE, The Washington Post: Lightbulbs went off at the Capitol. Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer and their aides realize, “Wait a second. We now have a Democrat with an A rating from the NRA saying he wants to do something.”
NARRATOR: Manchin joined with Republican senator Pat Toomey to draft a bill that could attract Republican votes.
NORMAN ORNSTEIN, American Enterprise Institute: We have what looks to be a model of bipartisan action, Joe Manchin of West Virginia joining with a conservative Republican who had headed up the Club for Growth, Pat Toomey, And they propose a modest change in the gun laws, but one that would begin, at least, to turn an issue that had gone entirely in one direction in a somewhat different direction.
ALEC MacGILLIS, ProPublica: They join together to draft a bill that’s going to finally close the gun show loophole, this─ this loophole that we have that allows you to buy guns without a background check at gun shows or in private sales. And it looks like this bill might make it through.
NARRATOR: And with polls showing wide public support for expanding background checks, Manchin and the vice president figured they had a chance.
Vice Pres. JOE BIDEN: I was optimistic. Over 91 percent of the American people supported expanding background checks, 80 percent of the households that had an NRA member supported it.
TALK RADIO: I’ve had enough of all these people, all their talk, tough talk!
TALK RADIO: It’s what the Democrats do, folks. They always try to hide their agendas behind women and children, and most of all, victims.
TALK RADIO: They apparently don’t believe liberty is on the line! They apparently don’t believe the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are on the line!
NARRATOR: Larry Pratt represented some of the most fervent gun owners.
LARRY PRATT, Gun Owners of America: The Manchin bill was not aiming at loopholes, it was aiming at nailing down some remaining freedom that American people have. Gun control simply kills people. And for Senator Manchin to wave the bloody shirts of those children from Newtown is despicable.
TALK RADIO: I have no faith in these people. None.
TALK RADIO: You would think now, if ever, that a so-called conservative Republican in the Senate would have learned the lesson that this president cannot be relied on to follow the law, that this attorney general─
NARRATOR: One by one, key Republicans and even some Democrats in Congress backed away from the bill.
TALK RADIO: Cutting deals over what? Over the 2nd Amendment? I despise these people!
ROBERT COSTA: There was immense pressure from conservative groups to not respond to Newtown with legislation. That’s what we’ve really seen in the Obama era, conservatives urging Republicans to not do anything in response to national events, whether it was a tragedy or something else. Inaction became the new priority.
NEWSCASTER: It’s decision day for new gun control legislation─
NEWSCASTER: ─votes taken today on the gun safety legislation─
NEWSCASTER: ─members of the families in the gallery today as this vote happens─
NARRATOR: As the bill faced a crucial vote in the Senate, the families of Newtown victims watched from the Senate gallery.
MARK BARDEN: I remember sitting there kind of in a daze─
CLERK: Mr. Lautenberg, Mr. Leahy, Mr. Lee─
MARK BARDEN: And that’s about all. I just─ I’m sorry that I have such a─ you know, I think my psyche was just kind of letting in little bits at a time. It was just all so─ it was such a whirlwind of craziness for me.
CLERK: Mr. Wyden.
Vice Pres. JOE BIDEN: On this vote, the amendment is not agreed to.
NARRATOR: The bill fell five votes short.
Vice Pres. JOE BIDEN: They felt betrayed. That’s the word, “betrayed.” “How could they vote that way? Don’t they understand what happened? How can they do that? How can this be?” I mean, it was disbelief and a sense of betrayal. That was the mood.
NARRATOR: The president watched the vote with disbelief.
DAN BALZ, The Washington Post: It was an emotional setback for the president. It was a huge political setback for the president, and─ and in some ways, helped to set the tone again for what was going to come after, in other areas.
NARRATOR: Obama invited the Newtown families to the White House after the vote.
MARK BARDEN: Daniel was a 1st-grader at Sandy Hook Elementary School─
I know that he felt─ he felt a sense of responsibility to us and to the nation and to that 90 percent of the country that wanted this. You know, I think he felt a strong sense of responsibility toward that. And his─ his disgust was palpable.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: It came down to politics, the worry that that vocal minority of gun owners would come after them in future elections.
JASON ZENGERLE, GQ Magazine: After Newtown, I think his inability to get something done really made him feel powerless. And that was─ that’s not a feeling you expect to have as a president, and I think it─ I think it really rattled him.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: So all in all, this was a pretty shameful day for Washington. Thank you very much, everybody.
DAN BALZ: It’s an odd diminishment of the power of the president who’s just won a pretty substantial reelection victory. And it is a reminder of the kind of─ the─ the degree to which elections no longer settle things.
NARRATOR: On guns, Obama had failed to turn the tragedy of Newtown into action. And soon another crisis, another challenge to moving the country forward.
NEWSCASTER: We are watching the trial of George Zimmerman very closely, waiting for a verdict─
NARRATOR: There was a verdict in the case of George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed Trayvon Martin in what he claimed was self-defense.
JURY FOREMAN: In the circuit court of the 18th, we the jury find George Zimmerman not guilty─
PROTESTERS: Oh, no!
JURY FOREMAN: ─so say we all, foreperson.
PROTESTER: Not guilty. Not guilty─
PROTESTER: Of what, everything?
PROTESTER: Are you [expletive deleted] kidding me?
PROTESTER: It’s crap! Like always. And that’s right, these men get away with it all the time~!
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON, Author, The Black Presidency: Obama initially, after George Zimmerman is found not guilty, releases a nearly cryptic press release that says, you know, “We’re a nation of laws. The jury has decided. We must abide by those laws.”
NARRATOR: The president watched as the protests grew.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Stop. Are you serious? I mean, this is─ this is─ this is epic tides of grief washing across the collective soul of black America, the trauma that they are enduring.
MICHAEL SHEAR, The New York Times: The people inside the White House could see that he just desperately wanted to come out and say something.
NARRATOR: And he did, surprising the press corps.
MICHAEL SHEAR: When he finally came out that─ it was, like, a last minute thing.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: The reason I actually wanted to come out today is not to take questions but to speak to an issue that obviously has gotten a lot of attention over the course of the last week, the issue of the Trayvon Martin─
WESLEY LOWERY, Author, They Can’t Kill Us All: He walks into the press room and begins essentially to riff on what his experience as a black man has been, and why in black America there is such a distrust, or lack of trust of the system, of the police, of these processes.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.
JELANI COBB, The New Yorker: It is a very literal placement of himself in this person’s shoes in saying to African-Americans that this is an experience that he is familiar with.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.
WESLEY LOWERY: That was actually a unique moment for the president. It’s him speaking to his own experience as a black American, something that no one can seize away from him.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: There are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: He began to speak for black people for the first time in his administration. It was apparent that we had a friend, we being black people, in the White House.
TALK RADIO: Why must he go behind a microphone today and give a speech that’s intended to rile up─
TALK RADIO: Obama is grievance politics, and the primary reason for that grievance is race!
NARRATOR: But as before, his comments lit up the airwaves.
TALK RADIO: He fed into the victimization that the left has been peddling for decades to excuse─
NARRATOR: This time, Obama seemed to accept that he could not convince everyone.
TALK RADIO: This president doesn’t stand for anything that I stand for.
JELANI COBB, The New Yorker: He doesn’t have to worry about another potential election. He’s already kind of been stymied in his political agenda by, you know, intransigent Republicans. At this point, you know, speaking his mind is not going to make that any worse.
NARRATOR: That fall, the Republican civil war entered a new phase.
Sen. TED CRUZ (R-TX): Madam President?
SENATE PRES. PRO TEM: The Senator from Texas.
Sen. TED CRUZ: Madam President, I rise today in opposition to Obamacare.
NARRATOR: The freshman senator from Texas launched a direct challenge to President Obama and the GOP leadership.
Sen. TED CRUZ: Madam President, I intend to speak in support of de-funding Obamacare until I am no longer able to stand.
NARRATOR: It looked like an old-fashioned filibuster.
ROBERT COSTA: And it was a stepping out moment for Ted Cruz. Cruz wanted to make his name known.
Sen. TED CRUZ: And I love this story, and so I’m going to read it to you.
ROBERT COSTA: And he has Dr. Seuss books.
Sen. TED CRUZ: Sam-I-am. That Sam-I-am. That Sam-I-am. I do not like that Sam-I-am.
ROBERT COSTA: What conservatives wanted at that time was a fight, even if it didn’t make strategic sense, even if there wasn’t a clear plan.
Sen. TED CRUZ: I do not like green eggs and ham.
NARRATOR: Cruz was making the first move in a larger strategy, to shut down the government if Obamacare was not stopped.
Sen. TED CRUZ: I sincerely hope that Senator Reid and President Obama do not choose to force a government shutdown simply to force Obamacare on the American people. That would be a mistake.
NARRATOR: Cruz was trying to rally the Republican insurgents, tapping into Tea Party anger that Boehner and the establishment hadn’t kept their promise to repeal Obamacare.
DAN BALZ, The Washington Post: Ted Cruz recognizes the state of the Republican Party and the frustration of conservatives in the Republican Party that’s been welling up, you know, from Sarah Palin time, Tea Party time, all through this period. And he was going to be the embodiment of the that grass roots anger.
TALK RADIO: Obamacare is a cancer! It’s a cancer unleashed by the federal government!
TALK RADIO: You Republicans get off your backside and stand as a bold contrast to Obamacare─
MOLLY BALL, The Atlantic: You had talk radio─
TALK RADIO: Any Republican who votes against this strategy is not worth your vote!
MOLLY BALL: ─saying, “We’re going to run a primary against you if you can’t stop Obamacare. “
TALK RADIO: ─because I’m not going to support anybody that doesn’t vote to defund Obamacare.
MOLLY BALL: So Ted Cruz leaps to the front of this movement, and he decides he’s going to exert some leadership.
NARRATOR: Cruz was pushing the renegade House members to shut down the government.
ROBERT DRAPER, Author, When the Tea Party Came to Town: He found support in the lower chamber. Cruz began to meet with them at this Mexican restaurant on Capitol Hill, Tortilla Coast, to urge them to stand up to the Republican establishment and essentially invite a government shutdown.
NARRATOR: Eric Cantor was concerned. He had once encouraged the insurgents to use “leverage points,” but now he believed Cruz had gone too far.
ERIC CANTOR: The false notion that this shutdown would have gotten rid of Obamacare is what never sat well with me. It was─ it was inaccurate and it was frankly a falsehood. It was a lie.
NARRATOR: But it no longer seemed to matter what Eric Cantor and John Boehner thought.
TALK RADIO: I think we could use a good government shutdown right about now, just to prove the point.
TALK RADIO: Government shutdown? Losing elections? What do you guys think you’ve been doing?
TALK RADIO: What is this threat of a shutdown going to do to the stock market? Oh my God, the stock market!
NARRATOR: The calls for a shutdown were growing.
TALK RADIO: Now, we elected them to block Obama─
EVAN OSNOS, The New Yorker: If John Boehner didn’t go along with the shutdown, he might no longer be speaker.
TALK RADIO: Your government shut down as of Tuesday─
NARRATOR: Boehner relented. He’d let them shut down the government and hope the public backlash would teach the insurgents a lesson.
MOLLY BALL: He was going to let them, I think the phrase was touch the hot stove, get burned, see what it felt like, and hopefully, learn the lesson for next time.
TALK RADIO: What is the Republican establishment afraid of?
NARRATOR: All across America─
TALK RADIO: This is real!
NARRATOR: ─the federal government shut down.
TALK RADIO: This is about freedom!
TALK RADIO: This is about saving the republic, what’s left of it.
NARRATOR: National parks, art galleries─
TALK RADIO: My advice to the Republicans─ hold the line.
NARRATOR: Hundreds of thousands of federal workers were furloughed.
TALK RADIO: Stand with the American people.
NARRATOR: The shutdown continued for more than two weeks. In polls, most Americans blamed the Republicans.
Rep. ERIC CANTOR (R-VA), Majority Leader: Wow. I mean, that was really one of the darkest days. We, you know, shut down. Unfortunately, they included things like the VA. They include things like clinical trials for pediatric cancer patients. You know, these are things that when they’re shut down, you’re not helping anybody.
MOLLY BALL: This was the moment that they saw how far the Tea Partiers were willing to go. These people will stop at nothing. There’s no line they won’t cross, no potential consequence too dire for them to continue to fight.
NARRATOR: But Boehner and Cantor had had enough. They heeded the public outcry and crossed the aisle to vote with Democrats to end the shutdown.
NEWSCASTER: The vote is under way to end the─
NEWSCASTER: House Speaker John Boehner moments ago saying he will allow a vote─
RYAN LIZZA, The New Yorker: The shutdown’s over. Boehner and Cantor believe that the─ the sort of more rambunctious members of the─ of the House Republican conference have been tamed, that they’ve learned their lesson, that they’re not as influential, that other Republicans now will no longer listen to them.
NARRATOR: With the shutdown over, Boehner moved fast to get something done. And he had an issue, immigration reform. It grew out of this document, known as the Republican autopsy, an analysis of what the party had to do in the wake of the loss to President Obama.
FRANK LUNTZ, Republican Pollster: The Republicans did a sobering study of where things stood, and they realized after 2012, that America is changing and that if you wanted to win the White House, not just Congress, you had to appeal to younger voters, Latinos and women.
AUTOPSY TEXT: “We must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our party’s appeal will continue to shrink.”
ERIC CANTOR: Too many millennials, minorities and others have rejected us at the polls because they sense that somehow, we’re not inclusive. And unless we show the American people that conservative principles actually help them in a real and not just theory, we’ll never get the majority confidence back.
NARRATOR: Republican Paul Ryan reached out to Luis Gutierrez, a Democratic congressman and immigration reform advocate.
Rep. LUIS GUTIERREZ, (D-IL), Congressional Hispanic Caucus: He said, “I got to tell you, I don’t want to do it because it’s the politically expedient thing to do, I want to do it because it’s the right thing to do.” And I remember─ there are times when people tell you stuff that you just remember. And he said, “I am Catholic and my religious beliefs, my─ my convictions do not allow me to continue to have a permanent underclass of people that are exploited in America.” And I said to myself, “Wow, I can work with this guy.”
NEWSCASTER: Will immigration reform finally happen?
NEWSCASTER: There is a possible deal on immigration reform─
NARRATOR: It took months of negotiations, and by the spring, they believed they had the votes they needed.
TALK RADIO: First, secure the border, pathway to citizenship, you know, whatever little-
NARRATOR: But in the meantime, the Republican insurgency had spread to Eric Cantor’s home district.
DAVID BRAT TELEVISION COMMERCIAL: Join me in voting to term limit Eric Cantor. It’s time to restore the true conservative values we all stand for.
NARRATOR: Cantor faced a challenge in his primary.
TELEVISION COMMERCIAL: Cantor’s deal cutting with Obama, Pelosi and Boehner has to end.
TALK RADIO: Eric Cantor became a creation of Washington, and his constituency became Barack Obama and the House leadership.
MOLLY BALL: And if you listen to talk radio─ if you were listening to, you know, Laura Ingraham or Mark Levin, Cantor was part of the Republican establishment that they were against.
TALK RADIO: Cantor─ the power’s really gone to this guy’s head. I mean, he’s trying to take over the Republican Party.
TALK RADIO: What are the Republicans getting out of Eric Cantor being House Majority leader? I’m not sure─
NARRATOR: The central issue became immigration.
TALK RADIO: Any Republican who stands up and says we’re going to give a special pathway to the people who are here illegally are in violation of their oath of office!
Rep. DAVE BRAT (R-VA): Back when I ran, I was running pretty much just on immigration. And so illegal immigration didn’t seem to me was too─ that controversial an issue to run on, right? You should follow the law of the land. And so that was the basic calculus.
TALK RADIO: If Dave Brat here can get a big turnout, he’s going to─ he’s going to make a difference, right?
TALK RADIO: Dave Brat for Congress, Eric Cantor’s district. Let’s send a real message.
NARRATOR: Early on election night, it looked like Cantor was in trouble.
NEWSCASTER: Eric Cantor is definitely in trouble in his district─
Rep. RAUL LABRADOR (R-ID): I was sitting at the Capitol Hill Club eating dinner, and I get a text from somebody that Eric Cantor is losing his─ his primary. I was as shocked as anybody else.
FRANK LUNTZ, Republican Pollster: Cantor never saw it coming. I didn’t see it coming. And as they’re giving me the numbers, I couldn’t believe it. I thought my staff was joking with me, and I didn’t find it funny.
NEWSCASTER: History-making upset, House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor─
NEWSCASTER: Eric Cantor was unexpectedly upset─
NARRATOR: By 8:30, Cantor knew it was over.
NEWSCASTER: This morning, a stunning upset is shaking things up on Capitol Hill─
ALEC MacGILLIS, ProPublica: Eric Cantor, who vastly outspent his opponent, who had the entire party machinery behind him, loses by 11 points to this─ to this economics professor that no one had ever heard of.
ERIC CANTOR: I’ve never had a loss. And it was a huge one in a very public way. And I remember telling my wife, “We’re going to go up on that stage. You’re not going to cry. You’re not going to cry.”
ROBERT COSTA, The Washington Post: Cantor thought he could always manage all this disorder and that the anger on the right was something that he could control and actually even use for political gain, whether it was personal or for the majority. But what Cantor didn’t recognize is that the anger was much bigger than him.
Rep. ERIC CANTOR: Thank you all very, very much.
NARRATOR: His defeat was yet another sign of how the Republican establishment was losing its grip.
TALK RADIO: Now, his loss marks a huge victory for the Tea Party movement─-
TALK RADIO: ─and clobbered by a novice, Dave Brat.
FRANK LUNTZ, Republican Pollster: If you weren’t angry enough, then you didn’t represent them. If you didn’t shout and yell and scream, if you didn’t call Barack Obama a traitor, if you didn’t use the same language that they’re using on talk radio or in social media, then you weren’t strong enough, tough enough, anti-establishment enough.
NEWSCASTER: Also raising questions this morning about Tea Party power─
NEWSCASTER: He said he will step down as majority leader on July─
JASON ZENGERLE, GQ Magazine: Cantor was kind of like a Labrador retriever who falls in with a pack of coyotes, and you know, for a while, they kind of recognize him as, like. a canine. He’s one of us. But at a certain point, they realize, No, he’s a domesticated house pet, and we’re wild coyotes, and they ate him.
NEWSCASTER: Tea Party challenger David Brat beat Cantor in his Virginia district─
NEWSCASTER: ─little known Tea Party-backed─
Rep. TIM HUELSKAMP (R-KS), Tea Party Caucus: You can almost feel the Capitol shake. I certainly wasn’t a friend with Eric Cantor, but you didn’t see─ I’ve never seen so many people crying with long faces, all upset on Capitol Hill. I mean, that’s I think the worst drubbing the establishment has had in─ in many years.
NARRATOR: Cantor’s loss ended Republican talk of immigration reform and put the rest of the GOP leadership on notice.
JASON ZENGERLE: It put the fear of God in some of these guys, that if this can happen to Eric Cantor, it could happen to me.
911 RECORDING: ─a black male in a white T-shirt. He’s got red cargo pants, white T-shirt, yellow socks─
NARRATOR: August 2014, race would once again be thrust into the national spotlight. A young black man, Michael Brown, was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
IPHONE FOOTAGE: Holy [expletive]! They just killed this nigger! There’s blood everywhere─
They just killed this nigger for no reason.
Officer DARREN WILSON: Get us several more units over here. There’s going to be a problem. We’re going to need crowd control here.
IPHONE FOOTAGE: He ain’t armed. He don’t got no gun. They just killed this nigger.
WESLEY LOWERY, Author, They Can’t Kill Us All: You could feel it in the air, how palpable the anger and the pain was, how a line had been crossed.
PROTESTERS: What do we want? Justice! When do want it? Now! What do we want? Justice! When do want it? Now!
JELANI COBB, The New Yorker: All these things that had been culminating, that had been kind of slowly building up over the course of Obama’s presidency, it seemed like they all converged in Ferguson, Missouri.
POLICE OFFICER: You’re violating a state-imposed curfew!
NARRATOR: In the streets, anger, and for many, a feeling that things had not changed enough under the first black president. By nightfall, violence.
WESLEY LOWERY: We are now seeing officers in full riot gear looking through sniper scopes in these large MRAP vehicles, these militarized vehicles.
NARRATOR: Night after night, the streets of Ferguson were a war zone.
JELANI COBB: And you know, this had become kind of an American crucible within the span of five days.
NARRATOR: On the day of the shooting, the president had headed out of town on vacation.
JELANI COBB: It’s kind of a perfect storm of racial calamity. There’s a great deal of pressure, and people are feeling like the president should come off vacation, and you know, respond to this.
NARRATOR: The president knew many black Americans expected him to do something.
WESLEY LOWERY: President Obama is so handcuffed, no matter─ no matter what he says, no matter what he does. You have a president who, as the chief spokesperson for the American government, is obligated by the nature of his position to defend the police officers, to defend the state, to argue for the protection of property. But to black Americans who thought they had their black president who would understand them, who would get them, it’s just deeply lacking.
NARRATOR: On vacation, he met with Attorney General Eric Holder to figure out how to respond.
PETER BAKER, The New York Times: It was such a treacherous area for him to navigate, and I think it took him a while to sort of find his voice and figure out how he wanted to approach it in a way that he was comfortable with and that didn’t cause him, you know, maximum political damage.
NARRATOR: Finally, after five days, he went before the press.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: There is never an excuse for violence against police, or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting.
EVAN OSNOS, The New Yorker: It pulled him back into some of the same problems that he’s had throughout, which is how can he talk about race in America as a black president without alienating the institutions that he needs on his side to function?
NARRATOR: He chose the cautious route.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: So now is the time for healing. Now is the time for peace and calm on the streets of Ferguson.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON, Author, The Black Presidency: When Ferguson blew, it blew up as well and exploded his inability to grapple straightforwardly with the issue of race. As brilliant as he had been with Trayvon Martin, he was contorted and tragically twisted when it came to Ferguson.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: Thanks very much, everybody.
NARRATOR: The president would keep his distance. For months, the controversy simmered as a grand jury weighed whether to indict the police officer, Darren Wilson. As the announcement approached, authorities urged calm.
MICHAEL BROWN’S MOTHER: Everybody wants me to be calm! Do you know how them bullets hit my son, what they did to his body as they hit his body?
NARRATOR: When Officer Wilson was not charged, the anger exploded again.
NEWSCASTER: A grand jury finding not enough evidence to charge the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown. The situation getting more violent─
NEWSCASTER: And an hour after the decision, protesters set squad cars on fire, burned and looted stores─
NEWSCASTER: Police say the violence is worse than anything they saw back in August, just after Brown’s death.
NEWSCASTER: It’s been nine hours since the decision not to charge a Ferguson police officer with the killing of an unarmed teenager. There is still no calm on the streets─
NARRATOR: The president tried to avoid taking sides.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: So to those in Ferguson, there are ways of channeling your concerns constructively and there are ways of channeling your concerns destructively.
WESLEY LOWERY: The split screen was the line that showed his disconnect with America. On one side of the screen, you’re seeing the nation’s black president begging that a city do not go up in flames. And the other side of the screen, you’re seeing young black people saying, “We’re done waiting. We’re not putting up with this anymore.”
NEWSCASTER: Protesters were back out on the streets today in Ferguson, and just a short time ago─
NARRATOR: As Ferguson burned, the deep divide over race only grew.
TALK RADIO: We elect a black president, and eight years later, we have this?
NEWSCASTER: Hundreds of people marched in the bay area today to protest recent police─
NARRATOR: The Black Lives Matter movement─
NEWSCASTER: ─include what demonstrators took to the streets─
WESLEY LOWERY: And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that from activists in Cleveland and Baltimore and Ferguson, “I voted for Barack Obama twice. I canvassed for Barack Obama. And Trayvon Martin is still dead and Jordan Davis is still dead and Oscar Grant is still dead and Sandra Bland is still dead. “
NEWSCASTER: The Black Lives Matter protest shut down traffic in Frederick, Maryland.
NARRATOR: ─and the backlash─
TALK RADIO: Black Lives Matter is just a complete fraud!
NARRATOR: ─exposing two very different Americas.
TALK RADIO: Are you going to riot, loot, roast more pigs, what?
TALK RADIO: Absolutely unbelievable! All lives matter!
WESLEY LOWERY: There was no post-racial utopia for us to enter into. It only laid bare the undercurrents of racism that still existed.
TALK RADIO: See to me, dividing lives that matter by color sound downright racist. No!
PROTESTERS: Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter!
NARRATOR: In the fall of 2014, Barack Obama was entering the final years of his presidency and facing a harsh reality. The insurgents in Congress were increasingly powerful. By now, Republicans even had the Senate.
SHAILAGH MURRAY, Obama Adviser: All is lost. It was our darkest moment. We found ourselves alone in the world. The Congress had gone in a different direction, and we weren’t sure if we’d ever get them back on anything.
NARRATOR: Time was running out.
PETE ROUSE: “I got two years left. If they’re not going to move on some of this stuff, I’m going to do it myself.”
ROBERT DRAPER, Author, When the Tea Party Came to Town: It was finally just time to do the things that he wanted to do, irrespective of what kind of outrage might be prompted by the conservative side.
NARRATOR: He decided to act on his own.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: Tonight I’d like to talk with you about immigration.
NARRATOR: In a dramatic move, the president would sign an executive order, acting unilaterally and cutting out Congress.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: There are actions I have the legal authority to take as president. Tonight, I’m announcing those actions.
PETER BAKER: He’s going to go forward with or without Congress, that’s his phrase, with or without Congress. He’s given up. He’s given up.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: Thank you, God bless you, and God bless this country we love.
NARRATOR: Immigration was only one of the president’s executive actions. He also moved on climate change─
NEWSCASTER: President Obama signed a landmark climate change deal on his final trip to China today─
NARRATOR: ─gun control─
NEWSCASTER: Executive action on gun control, President Obama─
NARRATOR: ─worker pay─
NEWSCASTER: President Obama announced a sweeping change to the country’s overtime rule.
NARRATOR: ─and the environment.
NEWSCASTER: President Obama says the Keystone XL pipeline project is dead.
NEWSCASTER: No to Keystone. President Obama rejects─
RYAN LIZZA, The New Yorker: This creates, like, this sort of next big war between the Republican Party and Obama. That is that Obama, has─ is no longer listening to Congress. He’s ignoring the will of Congress, and that he’s become a kind of─ a kind of Caesar.
NARRATOR: The insurgents were particularly infuriated.
Rep. DAVID BRAT (R-VA): You couldn’t have a more cynical statement or a more unconstitutional statement. The House hasn’t acted, therefore, I’m a dictator, right, [laughs] is in essence what was just stated.
TALK RADIO: The Constitution is going to cease to exist as we know it!
NARRATOR: And as the right-wing fury grew─
TALK RADIO: Where does this end? Does it ever end?
TALK RADIO: At what point do we roll back this home-grown tyranny?
TALK RADIO: Executive order. What they really are are imperial fiats.
NARRATOR: ─it turned against the leaders of the Republican Party, too.
TALK RADIO: A transformation has taken place among the Republican leadership. They don’t do what their voters believe.
TALK RADIO: The speaker of the House, turns out he’s a coward, a political coward!
Rep. TIM HUELSKAMP (R-KS), Tea Party Caucus: I think there were quite a few Republicans, including John Boehner, who were, you know, secretly half cheering with the president, you know, “If we can’t get it done through these Republicans and through the Republican base, we’ll just blame it all on the president and let him do it.”
TALK RADIO: I think that what is happening here is that Boehner wants to deal with Obama!
TALK RADIO: We have men and women much more junior to these so-called leaders who will do a hell of a lot better job!
ROBERT COSTA: As conservatives on the blogs, on talk radio, they hammered Boehner day after day, almost as much as they’d hammer the president.
TALK RADIO: The RNC needs to be fumigated.
TALK RADIO: Get rid of all the cockroaches, clean it out, start new, bottom up, top down.
NARRATOR: In New York City, at Trump Tower, Donald Trump had watched the unrest in the GOP and was about to make his move.
ROBERT COSTA: Trump watches the defeat of Eric Cantor in 2014. He sees the rising unrest on the right, and he sees an opportunity.
ROBERT DRAPER: Donald Trump entered the field pretty late, in June of 2015, and did so in what would be quintessential Trumpian fashion.
NARRATOR: He had risen to political prominence questioning the president’s legitimacy and now wanted the presidency for himself.
DAN BALZ, The Washington Post: He figures out that there is a white working class constituency who see Republican leaders as having been accommodationists, or in Trump’s estimation, just weak.
VIN WEBER, Republican Strategist: It’s hard to explain the Trump phenomenon without explaining the fact that Donald Trump was willing to go where previous leaders wouldn’t go in terms of arousing people against each other and appealing to their darker sides.
NARRATOR: The Republican establishment had embraced immigration reform, but as he announced his candidacy, Trump would go in the opposite direction.
DONALD TRUMP: When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you.
RYAN LIZZA: If there’s a single issue that Trump seizes on that represents this gap between the grass roots and elites like Paul Ryan, it is undoubtedly immigration.
DONALD TRUMP: They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.
NORMAN ORNSTEIN, American Enterprise Institute: Donald Trump, having used the birther issue to his effect, suddenly looks out there and sees that if he gets to the right of everybody else in a bombastic fashion on immigration, he emerges as first among equals.
DONALD TRUMP: When do we beat Mexico at the border? They’re laughing at us, at our stupidity.
NARRATOR: Trump’s advisers had prepared him to take advantage of the anger over the airwaves and on the internet.
GABRIEL SHERMAN, New York Magazine: They had been listening to thousands of hours of talk radio. And so they built this whole campaign message around trade and immigration. And so when Trump descended that stairwell, he had already pinpointed the issue that was going to define the race.
DONALD TRUMP: I would build a great wall─ and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I’ll build them very inexpensively.
NARRATOR: His rhetoric got him attention and fueled his rise.
KELLYANNE CONWAY, Trump Campaign Manager: Donald Trump was a great candidate for some of those platforms, like talk radio and some of the Web sites, because he gave content. He gave─ he talked about illegal immigration in the way they had been doing it for years.
DONALD TRUMP: How stupid are our leaders? How stupid are these politicians to allow this to happen! How stupid are they!
NARRATOR: Trump promised that he could do what the Republican establishment failed to do.
ERIC CANTOR: He’s an outsider, and he can say, “Don’t blame me for that mess. I’m the one who can go in and fix it.”
DONALD TRUMP: We will make America great again! Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you very much.
FRANK LUNTZ, Republican Pollster: You cannot be laconic to an electorate that is mad as hell. And for tens of millions of Americans, that willingness to fight political correctness and not back down told them that he was the only candidate who would really blow things up in Washington.
TALK RADIO: I’ll tell you what I like about him. He doesn’t take any crap from Obama!
TALK RADIO: He’s the leader right now of the entire conservative movement that America─
TALK RADIO: Donald Trump has changed the entire debate on immigration!
NARRATOR: The very next evening, the president was once again confronted with two of the most difficult issues he had faced, race and guns.
POLICE OFFICER: I copy several victims regarding that active shooter. Give me at least four medic units, plus two supervisors.
DISPATCHER: All units responding to 110 Calhoun St.
NARRATOR: The president was briefed.
NEWSCASTER: We have breaking news. Police and emergency responders are on the scene of what police confirm was a shooting inside a church─
NARRATOR: The shooting had taken place at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina.
NEWSCASTER: Officers are still looking for the gunman─
NARRATOR: The shooter had entered a bible study group. He was a white supremacist. The police found a journal.
DYLANN ROOF JOURNAL: “The event that truly awakened me was the Trayvon Martin case. How could the news be blowing up the Trayvon Martin case while hundreds of these black-on-white murders got ignored?”
WESLEY LOWERY, Author, They Can’t Kill Us All: He thought this country was being seized and taken away, that this was the rise of black and brown people, that you’ve even got a black president.
DYLANN ROOF JOURNAL: “No one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well, someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”
NARRATOR: By 9:15, eight parishioners and their minister were shot to death.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON, Author, The Black Presidency: He went into the church, he said, “You people are taking over.” Who? He’s speaking about Obama. That’s the president of the United States of America. He’s unconsciously, to a certain degree, and perhaps consciously, got Obama in the crosshairs. But he can’t shoot Obama. He can’t assassinate him. So vulnerable black people become the proxies for our president.
NARRATOR: Obama again faced a decision.
WESLEY LOWERY: The Charleston moment is so vitally important in the Obama presidency because it speaks to these two intractable issues of his presidency, mass shootings and race and these racial incidents.
NARRATOR: The president decided to attend the funeral for the slain pastor in Charleston.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: That massacre in South Carolina let Obama finally know that “Black Americans are the proxies for me.” And I think that he was aware of the fact that he had to address this. He could no longer avoid this, that this was something that we as a nation must grapple with.
NARRATOR: On the way to Charleston, sitting with Michelle Obama and his top aide, Valerie Jarrett, the president posed a question.
PETER BAKER: He told Valerie Jarrett on the way down, as he was flying, he was thinking about singing Amazing Grace.
VALERIE JARRETT, Obama Senior Adviser: He mentioned it to me and to the first lady, and he said, “There’s a moment in my eulogy where I think I might sing.” And I said, “Don’t sing. Don’t sing!” And he goes, “I think I’m going to sing.”
PETER BAKER: She wasn’t sure it was a good idea. She remembered that he had once sang in public before and it hadn’t gone over very well.
PASTOR: The president of the United States of America, the honorable Barack Obama, will come at this time─
WESLEY LOWERY: What you see is the president coming into a black space, and you see him not attempting to play the politics of the nation, not attempting to be the steady hand assuring everyone that everything is OK and will be OK.
NARRATOR: To a mostly black audience, he would be moved to speak in a way that he had never done as president.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind. [applause] If we can tap that grace, everything can change. Amazing grace. Amazing grace.
VALERIE JARRETT: He paused. And I remember thinking, Is he thinking, “Am I going to sing or am I not going to sing?”
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: [singing] Amazing grace, how sweet the sound─ [organist, choir, congregation join in] ─that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.
Clementa Pinckney found that grace! Cynthia Hurd found that grace!
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Finally, on this date, when he gave voice to singing and naming the names of the people who had fallen, he was as beautiful and as black as he had ever been and as American as he had ever been, and there was no contradiction in any of them. His blackness didn’t qualify his American identity. His American identity didn’t qualify his black identity. They were seamlessly brought together in a holistic expression of empathy and grief and determination to move the nation forward.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: May grace now lead them home. May God continue to shed his grace on the United State of America.
WESLEY LOWERY: He wasn’t attempting to be all things to all people. He was attempting to be the thing he needed to be to black America that day. I don’t know that there’s been a moment in the Obama presidency that has more encapsulated both how far we have come on race and yet how far we still have to go.
NARRATOR: By that fall, Speaker of the House John Boehner was facing his own moment of truth. A devout Catholic, he waited to meet Pope Francis.
Rep. JOHN BOEHNER: He’s on Boehner time.
MOLLY BALL, The Atlantic: It was a capstone to his career, that as a Catholic, it was personally powerful and meaningful to him, and he helped to make it happen.
NARRATOR: It was the first time a pope had visited the United States Congress.
Rep. JOHN BOEHNER: Your holiness, welcome. Really glad that you’re here.
RYAN LIZZA: There’s this incredible confluence of events in his life, where he’s got the pope, he’s brought the pope to Washington, to the House of Representatives. At the same time, he’s trying to fend off this budding rebellion against his leadership.
NARRATOR: The visit came just as the Republican civil war was entering a new phase.
Rep. RAUL LABRADOR (R-ID), Freedom Caucus: Nine of us got together and we said, “Enough is enough. Let’s start a group that actually listens to the people back home, that actually has a good feeling for what the people back home want to do.”
NARRATOR: There was a new Tea Party offshoot. They called themselves the Freedom Caucus, and their ranks quickly grew.
ROBERT COSTA, The Washington Post: The Freedom Caucus was a group of about 30, 40 members of hard-liners. And they didn’t really have anything that united them beyond being hard-line in opposition to the Republican leadership.
NARRATOR: Eric Cantor had already been taken out. Now the insurgents had their sights set on Speaker John Boehner.
JASON ZENGERLE, GQ Magazine: Now they actually have a structure that they can use to exact concessions from Boehner or punish him or even launch a challenge to his speakership. And it just becomes an even more ungovernable caucus for Boehner.
MARK LEIBOVICH, Author, This Town: It was becoming clearer, I mean, by the month that John Boehner had, you know, increasingly less control over his caucus.
PHIL SCHILIRO, Obama Adviser: 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.
TALK RADIO: Is it time for new leadership in the House of Representatives?
TALK RADIO: If you’re going to shoot the king, you know, you better kill the king.
TALK RADIO: It speaks to the increasing political polarization─
DAN BALZ: At every turn, John Boehner was reminded that he had very little power.
TALK RADIO: Do you want to know the wrath of the conservatives? They’re going to get what they wished for!
DAN BALZ: You know, there were, like, these pop-up rebellions happening all the time that were just, you know, further evidence of kind of the humiliation of the power structure, and in particular of John Boehner.
TALK RADIO: But he has no one to blame but himself. I mean, I’m not going to sit over─ we─ I’m going to do the waterworks of John Boehner.
TALK RADIO: And they’re not going to take John Boehner’s crap sitting down anymore!
NARRATOR: The insurgent members were threatening a vote to remove him as speaker.
TALK RADIO: Speaker Boehner, unfortunately, didn’t listen. When you campaign one way─
RYAN LIZZA: The Freedom Caucus very ingeniously knows that if that vote is called, the outside groups, the conservative groups, conservative talk radio, the Freedom Caucus members themselves─ they will turn the vote for John Boehner into a conservative litmus test issue.
TALK RADIO: If you call yourself a conservative, why be here if you’re not going to fight?
Rep. TIM HUELSKAMP (R-KS), Freedom Caucus: He was gone. Any time a vote would have taken place, he would have been removed. And if there’s one thing John Boehner could do was count votes. But he woke up one morning and says, “My gosh. I don’t have the votes anymore.”
NARRATOR: As he stood with the pope, Boehner’s days were numbered.
ROBERT COSTA: He’s weeping as he stood there with the─ with the pope there on stage.
MOLLY BALL: I always thought of John Boehner as the loneliest man in American politics.
POPE FRANCIS: [through translator] ─to pray for me.
MOLLY BALL: The Tea Party hated him. The Democrats didn’t like him very much, either.
NARRATOR: The visit had been a high point, but now reality set in.
ROBERT COSTA: I’m one of two reporters outside of Boehner’s office the night the pope is in Washington. Boehner starts to walk away, and I say, “Mr. Speaker, are you going to resign? Are you going to step down?” And he just shrugs off the question and walks out.
NARRATOR: The very next day─
Rep. JOHN BOEHNER: [singing] Zippity-do-dah, zippity-ay, my, oh, my, what a wonderful day─ [laughter] I like to sing that on my way to work in the morning.
It’s become clear to me that this prolonged leadership turmoil would do irreparable harm to the institution. So this morning, I informed by colleagues that I would resign from the speakership and resign from Congress at the end of October.
I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished, especially proud of my team. I’m doing this today for the right reasons. And you know what? The right things will happen as a result. Thanks.
NARRATOR: On Capitol Hill, the insurgents celebrated. Freedom Caucus member Tim Huelskamp was one of them.
Rep. TIM HUELSKAMP (R-KS), Freedom Caucus: I remember walking down the hallway and Democrats coming up to me, Democrats as well, they started calling me Speaker Slayer. You know, and I didn’t assume that title. That’s what they had given to me. But it was─ it was just this frustration with Washington. Yeah. In a way, that─ I think for─ the establishment probably thought John Boehner would be the scalp and move on. But then next, here comes Donald Trump.
NEWSCASTER: Donald Trump is back on the road campaigning in Iowa today─
NEWSCASTER: Three campaign events in Iowa today─
NEWSCASTER: ─Trump’s campaign blitz in Iowa. The Republican front-runner is─
NARRATOR: That winter, Trump traveled the country in pursuit of the Republican nomination and waged his own war with the Republican establishment.
DAVID REMNICK, Editor, The New Yorker: Trump is driving the Republican Party elders ─ not the electorate, the elders ─ nuts because of his ideological inconsistency, because of his thousands and thousands of contradictions, because of his “wing it as you go,” his lack of reliance on the party elders.
NEWSCASTER: The endorsement provides Mr. Trump with a potentially significant─
NEWSCASTER: In the Cruz team’s view, Donald Trump is simply not conservative enough─
NARRATOR: The establishment largely shunned him. He received one key endorsement from one of the party’s first insurgents.
DONALD TRUMP: Governor Sarah Palin, special, special person. [cheers] Thank you.
SARAH PALIN: Thank you so much! It’s so great to be in Iowa! We’re here just thawing out, lending our support for the next president of our great United States of America, Donald J. Trump!
MARK LEIBOVICH: Palin is absolutely emblematic of conservative populism that was unleashed on the right─
SARAH PALIN: Heads are spinning! Media heads are spinning!
MARK LEIBOVICH: ─that became the Tea Party that I think, you know, is somewhat of a piece to what Donald Trump has been able to do.
SARAH PALIN: You know, they stomp on our neck, and then they tell us, “Just chill, OK? Just─ yeah, just relax.” Well, look, we are mad, and we’ve been had. They need to get used to it.
RYAN LIZZA: What Palin and Trump managed to tap into is that a yawning gap opened up between the agenda of the grass roots of the Republican Party and the elites in the Republican Party. That is what Donald Trump took advantage of.
SARAH PALIN: Being here tonight, supporting the right man who will allow you to make America great again! God bless you! God bless the United States of America and our next president of the United States, Donald J. Trump!
NEWSCASTER: Donald Trump is running against the establishment─
NEWSCASTER: The Republican party better pay attention─
NARRATOR: The establishment was furious.
MITT ROMNEY: Here’s what I know. Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University.
NARRATOR: Mitt Romney had once courted Trump’s endorsement.
MITT ROMNEY: He’s playing the members of the American public for suckers.
NARRATOR: But now Romney became the face of the establishment opposition.
MITT ROMNEY: He gets a free ride to the White House, and all we get is a lousy hat.
NARRATOR: But it didn’t matter. Riding a wave of anti-Washington, anti-elite fervor, Trump took on and defeated 16 Republican candidates.
DONALD TRUMP: Bush is failing. Highly low on energy. He really is. He’s low!
NARRATOR: Including Jeb Bush, the establishment front-runner.
DONALD TRUMP: But he’s a nice person!
NARRATOR: And even Ted Cruz.
DONALD TRUMP: Lyin’ Ted, the bible held high, he puts it down and then he lies!
Rep. RAUL LABRADOR (R-ID), Freedom Caucus: The people, they decided to completely reject the Republican Party, not even Ted Cruz, if you think about it. Ted Cruz is one of us. Ted Cruz is a conservative person who came to Washington, D.C., to change, and the party felt that even he was too tainted because he was a sitting senator, that the party was so bad that they wanted a complete outsider.
NEWSCASTER: With 18 days to go before this election day, it appears the race is about to get even uglier.
NEWSCASTER: It’s absolute dog-eat-dog─
NEWSCASTER: ─the race for president sinking deeper into the gutter─
NARRATOR: Barack Obama knew his legacy was on the line, from health reform to those executive actions. But he believed the stakes were even bigger.
NEWSCASTER: The nominees are neck and neck with a little more than two weeks until election day.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON, Author, The Black Presidency: Donald Trump is the representation of the anti-Obama. To embrace Donald Trump is a direct repudiation of the universe that Barack Obama set in order.
FRANK LUNTZ, Republican Pollster: If you wanted the exact opposite of Barack Obama, it’s Donald Trump. Obama was cool. Trump is hot. Obama was cerebral and laid back. Trump is rough and in your face. Obama is Mr. Teleprompter. Donald Trump is a no-card and no-limits, no-boundaries, no-editing─ Obama is intellectual. Trump is emotional.
DONALD TRUMP: He has done such a lousy job as president! I think he’s the worst president maybe in the history of our country. I think he’s been a disaster. He’s been weak. He’s been ineffective.
NARRATOR: The president decided to take Trump on. He headed out of the White House and onto the campaign trail on behalf of Hillary Clinton.
DONALD TRUMP: ISIS is honoring President Obama─
RYAN LIZZA: In the final weeks of the campaign, Obama was very clear about what the stakes were. He didn’t mince words, and he said that his entire legacy was on the ballot.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: What we’ve seen in this election is a dark, pessimistic vision of a country where we turn against each other.
Donald Trump is uniquely unqualified to be president! He is temperamentally unfit to be commander-in-chief!
RYAN LIZZA: There’s a lot of pretty harsh stuff that presidents and presidential candidates say about one another, but rarely do you hear them just outright say, “He’s a threat to America.” And I don’t think Obama was being hyperbolic. I think he believed that.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: They’re just fanning resentment and blame and anger and hate, and that is not the America we know. That’s not the America I know!
WESLEY LOWERY, Author, They Can’t Kill Us All: The great irony of the Obama presidency, right, is someone who came in on the mandate of changing Washington as we know it, someone who came on the mandate of ending this gridlock and this polarization, by his very presence and by his very humanity, who he was, the color of his skin, the sound of his name, forced more polarization and gridlock than we had seen in the eight years prior.
NEWSCASTER: Today is finally the day. The presidential nominees have made their─
NEWSCASTER: We’re counting down to the first poll closings right now, and as we do─
NEWSCASTER: After a long, contentious presidential race, we are near the end─
NEWSCASTER: You know, it’s such a close race. You just cannot call it right now.
NEWSCASTER: This night is turning out to be a real nail biter─
NEWSCASTER: Donald Trump is currently leading in─
NARRATOR: Then on election night, the president watched the votes come in.
NEWSCASTER: I wouldn’t call anything encouraging for Hillary Clinton at the moment, to be honest.
NEWSCASTER: The Clinton campaign believed they had a lock on this─
DAN BALZ: I assume what was going through the president’s mind on election night was shock, surprise, as it was throughout the Democratic world and the Clinton campaign and all of her allies. But for him, it’s very personal.
NEWSCASTER: CNN projects Donald Trump wins the presidency!
NEWSCASTER: Donald Trump will be the 45th president of the United States─
NARRATOR: By daybreak, the results were in.
NEWSCASTER: One of the largest upsets in U.S. political history─
NARRATOR: It had been a clean sweep for Republicans─ the House of Representatives, the Senate and the White House.
NEWSCASTER: We’ve got Republicans winning all three branches of government, the White House, Senate and House─
NARRATOR: The president’s staff gathered to hear a statement from him.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: Good afternoon, everybody. It is no secret that the president-elect and I have some pretty significant differences─
RYAN LIZZA: He obviously despised Trump. I’m sure he was devastated. If you saw the faces of the White House staff, they were crushed.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: And I had a chance to invite him to come to the White House tomorrow to talk about making sure that there is a successful transition between our presidencies. All right? Thank you very much, everybody.
NARRATOR: Barack Obama was elected on a promise to change Washington and bridge divisions. Now he turns over the White House to a new president promising his own change, and hands over a country not more unified but increasingly more divided.