updated 11/19/2010 1:33:58 PM ET 2010-11-19T18:33:58

The day after he signed health care reform into law, and into the history books, Barack Obama was walking the hallways of the West Wing in unusually high spirits. He had just endured the most desperate struggle for political survival since his presidential campaign.
Two months earlier, on the anniversary of his extraordinary inauguration, his presidency was pronounced dead, his political capital spent, his party in disarray. His domestic agenda was lost, along with the Senate seat held by the late Ted Kennedy, who had loudly championed both health care and Obama’s election.

But today he paced through his aides’ offices in his shirtsleeves, with an energy that had been absent from those hallways for the last several weeks. “We’re fired up and ready to go!” he said as he burst out of the office of his press secretary and longtime aide
Robert Gibbs. The next day he would return to Iowa City, for a rally with the students of the University of Iowa, where he had promised to deliver health care reform three years earlier. The young voters of Iowa had believed in him and his candidacy at a time when his campaign was flatlining and even he harbored doubts about his prospects.
Yet Iowa had proved the pundits wrong about the renegade candidate, and health care had done the same for the ambitious new president.

The last two months seemed to mirror the long campaign, with its huge pendulum swings from failure to triumph and back again. Looking back through the prism of his ultimate victory, Obama seemed destined to win. But that was not the reality of the campaign in real time. He was an ingénue until he won in Iowa; then he was an overnight phenomenon. His defeat in New Hampshire turned him into just another fl ash in the pan; then victory in South Carolina turned him into a postracial healer. He was on a winning streak for a month of primaries; then he was a loser who could not close the deal for several months. He united a confident party with Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton in Denver; then he watched his party promptly lose its head for the next several weeks over Sarah Palin.

  1. Books featured on MTP
      'Leadership and Crisis' by Bobby Jindal
    2. Richard Wolffe's 'Revival'
    3. Bethany McLean's 'All the Devils Are Here'
    4. David Plouffe's 'The Audacity to Win'

His presidency followed the same trajectory: from the historic unity of his inauguration to the determined opposition of congressional Republicans; from the quick passage of the vast Recovery Act to the slow death of health care and the defeat in Massachusetts. Now the pendulum had swung back toward triumph with his signing of health care reform, and he was savoring the moment of delivering on a big campaign promise.

“Hey, what are you doing here?” he asked me, as he glimpsed me sitting in the corner outside Gibbs’s office, waiting to interview one of his aides. “How did you get one of those big fancy passes?” he asked, pointing to the red press pass around my neck.

“Stand up,” one of his staffers whispered to me as she jumped to attention. I looked at her, and looked at him. The president rolled his eyes, and I rolled mine. “Yeah, sorry,” I said, standing up slowly. I asked how it felt to have just made history with health care.

“I’m good,” he said. “This is a big day.”

They were all big days at this stage of his presidency. When he wasn’t confronting Republicans, negotiating with members of Congress, or rallying Democrats, he was confronting the Irani an regime, negotiating with the Israeli prime minister, and rallying allies. All presidents need to balance their domestic and international policies, and they all bounce between the planned events of their agenda and the chaos of the latest crisis. But he was emerging from a series of crises with a spirit of revival and a sense of humor.

“Gibbs, do you know Wolffe is here? Have you all checked the thumb drives?”

This book is the result of more than two months of intensive, daily reporting from the White House, and several more months of extensive interviews with every senior West Wing official from the president and vice president on down. While Obama’s aides did not share their thumb drives, they did share memos, PowerPoints, notes, and many hours of real- time and rearview observations.

The initial idea was to paint a portrait of a White House at work, as it pivoted from governing to campaigning in the midterm elections and beyond. The traditional notion of the first year (or the first one hundred days) seemed totally arbitrary; you could only tell the full story of a presidency after four or eight years. So this book was intended as a picture of a work in progress, covering thirty days of action from the economy to national security. Gibbs identified mid- January to mid- February 2010 as a good month to start the stopwatch, “because health care will be over by then,” he assured me two months earlier. He could not have been more wrong. Health care, along with the presidency, moved from the disaster of the Massachusetts defeat to the realization of a Democratic dream. In a two- month span, around the first anniversary of Obama’s inauguration, you could trace the arc of this presidency. On the journey from near death to rebirth, you could see the near- fatal flaws and the dogged defense, the internal rifts and the instincts that led to recovery.

More than capturing the behind- the- scenes drama of the West Wing, one of my goals was to examine the core question of this new presidency: how did the president and his staff transition from campaigning to governing? The Obama White House faced a unique version of this age- old challenge. Obama had spent twenty- one months campaigning to be president, far longer than any of his recent predecessors. The campaign was more than just the formative experience of his aides: it was their shared identity. Not until the midterm elections of 2010 had they spent the same length of time inside the White House as on the campaign trail. For a president who had managed nothing of size until his own campaign, this was more than just a question of counting months. His adaptation from electioneering to governing— finding a balance between his campaign spirit and his presidential persona— was the essential challenge inside the Obama White House. Could he bring Change to Washington without Washington changing him?

When you witness how quickly presidents age in office, it is hard to believe they can pass through the Oval Office unchanged. Obama’s fresh candidate face had rapidly grown as scored and worn as his temples had grown gray. Perhaps a president’s core principles survive intact even as he shifts his positions on policies. But even Obama’s closest aides conceded there were changes, if only in his style of decision making. “It’s like watching kids grow. If you’re there every day you don’t really see it,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s senior adviser and chief strategist. “The remarkable thing about him was how natural governing was from the beginning. He looked comfortable in there on the first day. I’m too close to know how he’s changed. When you have to make the kind of decisions he’s made you become wiser. I think the decision- making process becomes easier. You know what you need to make decisions and you know what you need to get there.”

If Axelrod did not know how Obama had changed, other aides confessed they shared the outside world’s incomprehension of Obama’s true feelings. There was an inscrutable quality to his steadiness, which could make him seem calm in a crisis and clinical in a catastrophe. Did he ever enjoy the office of the presidency, which he had worked so long and hard to win? “I would love to know the answer to that question,” said one long- standing aide. “Does he enjoy being president? He doesn’t show it. Other than getting gray hair, there seems no difference to me. He still has a sense of humor. But he’s an amazingly steady guy.”

Others witnessed something other than steadiness: a steeliness when shutting down even close aides, and a soft touch when opening up to others. Senior staff spoke privately of policy discussions that ended with a piercing presidential stare and an icy, abrupt command from Obama: “Next!”

That brusque manner was a stark contrast to the personal attention he paid to those who needed help. He encouraged overweight staffers to shed pounds. He gave one aide a salad for lunch, then listened to him protest that he could take care of his own health. “I love you, man,” Obama said. “I want you to look after yourself. Eat the salad.”

He sympathized with staffers when the media came after them, as they came after him on a regular basis. Axelrod felt miserable when a New York Times profile criticized his own performance after the Massachusetts defeat. Later that day, Obama walked into Axelrod’s office and slumped into his sofa. “It’s just Washington nonsense,” he said. “Don’t worry about it.” Axelrod was surprised that his boss took the time to lift his mood. “He’s not cold and detached,” he said. “He’s the first person to be concerned if you’re having a bad day. He’s attuned to people’s moods in ways you don’t expect.”

For all his self- discipline and steadiness, Obama found it hard to dismiss the Washington nonsense quite so easily himself. Despite his advice to Axelrod, he seemed obsessed by the media coverage and consumed it voraciously. “He reads everything,” said one close aide. “And I mean everything. Every news story, every column. It’s driving everyone crazy.”

As their political fortunes declined around the anniversary of the inauguration, Obama’s aides started to miss the old campaign days of constant travel and uncertainty. “I told the president I long for the carefree days of simply getting him elected to this office,” said Gibbs in the middle of the health care debate. “Everything that comes to me is hard and it hasn’t been solved because it’s hard. Then I understand why the days are so long here. I look at my schedule every morning and there aren’t a lot of things going great. You go to the Situation Room and everything isn’t going great. You feel it at the end of the week.”

The solution for Gibbs and other campaign veterans was to revive the campaign spirit inside the White House. If they did not return to the mood of the 2008 election, they would be facing far more people like Scott Brown, the Republican candidate who won Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in one of the safest Democratic states in the country. “I think in many ways what drove people to vote for Barack Obama in ’08 is the same thing that drove people to vote for Scott Brown in ’10,” Gibbs said. “They’re frustrated with what is happening in this country. People also understand this isn’t going to happen overnight. It’s going to take two years to dig out of this hole. I think people have seen recently somebody who is willing to challenge both sides to get a solution. We have to keep reminding them that the Barack Obama [who] is president of the United States is the same guy who ran. He has the same cares and concerns.”

Perhaps that was true of his politics. But the pressures of the presidency— the constant scrutiny and security— seemed to turn his focus inward once he entered the black gates of the White House. Obama’s circle of friends and confidants shrank rather than expanded. “Our conversations are a little more intimate now because there are very few people he can really talk freely with, without them misreading something into it,” said Obama’s close friend Marty Nesbitt. “He’s more inclined to think out loud when I’m around.”

How and why Obama grew detached from Change— even as he was enacting big changes— is one of the stories at the heart of his White House. It is the paradox of a president who wanted to effect change while seeming unchanged, who entered office on a wave of public emotion while appearing unmoved by it all, who campaigned as an outsider and governed as an insider. In this defining period of his presidency, he was forced to reexamine himself and his team. From the depths of a brutal winter inside the Oval Office to the beginnings of spring in the Rose Garden, this is a tale of despair and discovery, of survival and revival.

Photos: 64 years of ‘Meet the Press’

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  1. First ‘Meet the Press’ photo

    December 4, 1947: The earliest photograph in existence of the longest running television program in history. Sen. Robert Taft was the guest on "Meet the Press" that day, less than a month after the program debuted on NBC television at 8 p.m., November 6, 1947. James A. Farley, the former postmaster general and former Democratic National Committee chairman, was the guest on the first broadcast. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. All women

    December 10, 1949: With Washington's leading male reporters otherwise occupied at the men-only Gridiron Dinner, "Meet the Press" presented its first all-female program. Moderator (and program co-founder) Martha Rountree, panelists Doris Fleeson, May Craig, Judy Spivak and Ruth Montgomery question the guest, Democratic politician India Edwards. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Billy Graham

    March 6, 1955: Rev. Billy Graham’s first "Meet the Press" appearance. He tells panelist (and program co-founder) Lawrence Spivak "anything that makes any race feel inferior ... is not only un-American but un-Christian." (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Jackie Robinson

    April 14, 1957: Jackie Robinson, the first man to break the racial barrier in Major League Baseball, also becomes the first athlete to appear on "Meet the Press." Robinson joins moderator Lawrence Spivak in a discussion about civil rights and Robinson’s work with the NAACP. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Eleanor Roosevelt

    October 20, 1957: Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in one of her six "Meet the Press" appearances. Here she talks about her trip to the Soviet Union. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Robert Frost

    December 28, 1958: Poet Robert Frost was introduced by moderator Ned Brooks as "the poet of all America. Indeed, it can be said that he is the poet of all mankind." Two years later, Congress awarded Robert Frost a gold medal in recognition of his poetry, saying it enriched the culture of the United States and the philosophy of the world. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Fidel Castro

    April 19, 1959: Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro appears on "Meet the Press" during his first visit to the United States since the revolution. Castro was annoyed that permanent panelist and producer Lawrence Spivak would not allow him to smoke cigars in the studio. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Martin Luthur King Jr.

    April 17, 1960: Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., pictured here in one of his five "Meet the Press" appearances. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. John F. Kennedy

    October 16, 1960: After this interview, then-Senator John F. Kennedy calls Meet the Press the nation's "fifty-first state." (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Jimmy Hoffa

    July 9, 1961:This first "Meet the Press" appearance by Teamster president Jimmy Hoffa had to be rescheduled several times due to Hoffa’s string of indictments. After the interview, Hoffa was furious about being asked whether his insistence on dealing only in cash and keeping few records gave the appearance of impropriety. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Edward Kennedy

    March 11, 1962: Edward Kennedy’s first appearance on the program. The potential Senate candidate was coached by his older brother, President John F. Kennedy. President Kennedy and his aide Theodore Sorensen prepared "Teddy" for his “Meet the Press” debut by staging a run through of questions and answers in the Oval Office. On the day of the program, President Kennedy delayed his departure from Palm Beach in order to watch the show, but later told his brother that he was almost too nervous to watch. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Bob Dole

    July 16, 1972: Bob Dole and "Meet the Press" moderator Lawrence Spivak prepare to discuss the break-in and bugging of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate. Former Senator Dole holds the record for the most appearances on “Meet the Press” in a career that included service as a Congressman, Senator, RNC Chairman, vice presidential candidate, Senate Majority Leader and finally, Republican presidential nominee. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Prime Minister Wilson

    September 19, 1965: "Meet the Press" conducts television’s very first live satellite interview. The guest is British Prime Minister Harold Wilson. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Ronald Reagan

    September 11, 1966: Ronald Reagan, making his first bid for public office, appears on "Meet the Press" with his Democratic opponent for the governorship of California, the incumbent Gov. Edmund G. Brown. Reagan appeared on "Meet the Press" seven times -- all before he was elected president. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Robert Kennedy

    March 17, 1968: Senator Robert F. Kennedy makes his ninth -- and final -- appearance on "Meet the Press" with Lawrence E. Spivak. Kennedy was assassinated in California less than 3 months later -- shortly after claiming victory in that state's Democratic presidential primary. He was 42 years old. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. John Kerry

    April 18, 1971: John Kerry, then a former Navy Lieutenant, makes his first "Meet the Press" appearance as a spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He has since appeared on the program as a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts 21 times. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Golda Meir

    December 5, 1971: Golda Meir, prime minister of Israel, appears on “Meet the Press” with moderator Bill Monroe to discuss the continuing instability in the Middle East and the prospect of meeting and negotiating with Egypt’s leaders. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Prime Minister Gandhi

    August 24, 1975: Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in one of her seven appearances on "Meet the Press" before her assassination in October 1984. After she was elected Prime Minister in 1966, Gandhi grew more concerned about her television image and contacted "Meet the Press" to request makeup samples used during her appearance on the program. The program’s makeup artist consulted her notes and sent Mrs. Gandhi a complete makeup set -- including sponges and instructions for application. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Gerald Ford

    November 9, 1975: President Gerald Ford becomes the first sitting American president to appear on the program. President Ford accepted the invitation as a tribute to "Meet the Press" co-founder Lawrence Spivak, who was making his farewell appearance as moderator of the program. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Jimmy Carter

    January 20, 1980: In one of the most dramatic newsbreaks in the history of "Meet the Press" President Jimmy Carter announces that the U.S. would boycott the Moscow Summer Olympics because of the presence of Soviet troops in Afghanistan. Despite initial outrage over Carter’s proposal, 60 nations eventually joined the boycott. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Richard Nixon

    April 10, 1988: In his first Sunday interview in 20 years, Former President Richard Nixon reacts to a comment on "Meet the Press. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Tim Russert's first show

    December 8, 1991: Tim Russert makes his debut as moderator of "Meet the Press." He has since become the longest-serving moderator in "Meet the Press" history. In the center of this photo is then-intern Betsy Fischer, who is now Executive Producer of the program. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Dan Quayle

    September 20, 1992: "Meet the Press" permanently expands from a half-hour to a one hour program. Vice President Dan Quayle is the guest. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Shaheen and Whitman

    February 2, 1997: The broadcast breaks television history as "Meet the Press" becomes the first network television program ever to broadcast live in digital high definition. Governors Jeanne Shaheen and Christie Todd Whitman share a light moment on the set that day. (Charles Rex Arbogast / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Bill Clinton

    November 9, 1997: President Bill Clinton appears in studio on "Meet the Press" to mark the program’s 50th anniversary. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Al Gore

    December 19, 1999: In a live Democratic presidential debate, Vice President Al Gore challenges former Sen. Bill Bradley to a "Meet the Press agreement" to have weekly debates in place of running political advertisements. (Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Dick Cheney

    September 16, 2001: Five days after the September 11th attacks, Vice President Dick Cheney joins moderator Tim Russert in the first live television interview ever broadcast from Camp David. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Senate Debate Series

    September 22, 2002: "Meet the Press" kicks off its "Senate Debate Series" with the Colorado Senate race: Republican Incumbent Sen. Wayne Allard vs. Democratic Challenger Tom Strickland. At the end of the election cycle, the series of three senate debates was awarded the prestigious "USC Walter Cronkite Journalism Award" for "Excellence in Broadcast TV Political Journalism." The debate series continued in 2004 and 2006. (Alex Wong / Getty Images for Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. George W. Bush

    February 8, 2004: President George W. Bush kicks off his re-election campaign in an Oval Office interview with Tim Russert on "Meet the Press." Robert Novak went on to write about the interview, "no president ever before had been subjected to such tough questioning in the Oval Office." (Getty Images for Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. James Carville

    November 14, 2004: In another "Meet the Press" first, Democratic strategist James Carville cracks an egg on his forehead to demonstrate he's got "egg on his face" after his projected outcome of the U.S. presidential election was wrong. Carville predicted 52 percent of the vote for U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), 47 percent for President George W. Bush and 1 percent for Ralph Nader. (Getty Images for Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Jim Webb

    November 19, 2006: The first edition of "Meet the Press" to be available via video netcast on the show’s Web site. U.S. Senator-elect Jim Webb (D-Va.) joins moderator Tim Russert on that program. (Alex Wong / Getty Images for Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Barack Obama

    November 11, 2007: "Meet the Press"celebrates its 60th anniversary live from Des Moines, Iowa with Democratic Presidential hopeful Senator Barack Obama (D-Illinois) for the full hour. (Eric Thayer / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. June 15, 2008: The chair of late moderator Tim Russert sits empty on the set during the first MTP taping following Russert's death. He died June 13, 2008 of a heart attack while at the NBC News bureau in Washington. He was 58 years old. (Alex Wong / Getty Images for Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Colin Powell

    October 19, 2008: A record-breaking 9 million viewers tune in to see Gen. Colin Powell, a Republican, announce his endorsement of Democratic Presidential Nominee Barack Obama. (Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. President-elect Obama

    December 7, 2008: President-elect Barack Obama makes his first Sunday morning television appearance since winning the election to discuss the challenges facing this country and the upcoming transition of power. (Scott Olson / Getty Images for Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. David Gregory

    December 7, 2008: Interim moderator Tom Brokaw announces that David Gregory has been chosen as the new moderator of the show. (Alex Wong / Getty Images for Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Rendell, Schwarzenegger & Bloomberg

    March 22, 2009: Gov. Ed Rendell (D-Penn.), Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-Calif.) and NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg appeared exclusively on Meet the Press one day after meeting with President Obama to discuss the economy. (Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images for Meet the Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Hillary Clinton

    July 26, 2009: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appears for a full-hour on Meet the Press. It's her first appearance on the program since joining the Obama administration. (William B. Plowman / NBC Universal) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. President Obama

    September 20, 2009: President Barack Obama sits down with David Gregory at the White House for Obama's first MTP appearance since taking office. (Pete Souza / The White House) Back to slideshow navigation
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