Out of the Bailout Bedlam, Obama Emerged on Top

By
Tuesday, May 04, 2010 at 1:02 pm

I’m just starting to dig through an advance copy of “The Promise,” Jonathan Alter’s new book on President Obama’s first year in office, set for publication on May 18. But there are some great nuggets right at the start. Alter describes the chaotic scene at a Sept. 25, 2008, meeting on the impending Wall Street bailout at the White House with Obama, John McCain, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, President Bush and congressional leaders from both parties — a meeting at which Obama decisively took the upper hand in the economic debate that was coming to dominate the presidential contest.

Participants at the meeting were impressed by Obama’s strong command of the issues at hand and appalled by McCain’s acknowledgment that he had not even read Paulson’s three-page bailout plan.

A Republican sitting some distance down the long table whispered to a pair of Democratic senators, “Everyone here is ready to vote for Obama, including the Republicans.” [Democratic House Financial Services Committee Chairman] Barney Frank was even more disgusted than usual. “This was about as unpresidential as it gets,” he said later.

Bush’s expressive face said it all. When Obama spoke, he paid careful attention, as if he knew that here was his successor. When McCain spoke, Bush’s face was quizzical and unconvinced, as if he’d eaten something sour.

But that was the civilized portion of the meeting. Shortly thereafter, Paulson begged Democrats not to attack the bailout plan. But it was the Republicans who had withdrawn their support, and Frank was incensed at Paulson’s suggestion that Democrats were somehow to blame.

Barney Frank muscled his way past Harry Reid and started yelling. “F— you, Hank! F— you! Blow up this deal? We didn’t blow up this deal! Your guys blew up the deal! You better tell [GOP Rep. Spencer] Bacchus and the rest of them to get their s— together!” When Paulson tried to equivocate, Frank threw in another “F— you, Hank!” — his third of the day.

For all the bedlam at the meeting, Obama and his team emerged confident that the election was theirs to win — and that the country needed them to win.

“That was surreal,” Obama said on the speakerphone from the car on the short ride back to the hotel, with several campaign aides on the call. “Guys, what I just saw in there made me realize, we have got to win. It was crazy in there.”

“Maybe I shouldn’t be president,” he said in his familiar wry tone, only with more amazement than usual. “But he definitely shouldn’t be.”

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