Television news

Inside Obama's White House

BBC Two, March/April 2016 – 4 parts

Financial Times: “Domestic bargaining, international gatecrashing and struggles to keep promises, starring the world’s most powerful man and a supporting cast of vivid, frank-talking vignettes … Not a new drama about the Washington corridors of power but Inside Obama’s White House (BBC2) an even more gripping four-part documentary.”

When Barack Obama was elected, not only America cheered.  The first African-American-President, inspired hope around the world.  

His promises – to end the war in Iraq, close Guantanamo, fight climate change, reform American healthcare – seemed to mark a new era of civility and change.  But he faced the worst economic collapse in living memory, a Republican opposition that refused any sort of cooperation, and the rise of a populist anti-government Tea Party.

Four one-hour programmes look at how Obama brought America out of the Great Recession; how his triumphant reform of America's healthcare system was followed by defeat at the polls; his failed attempt to close Guantanamo; his determined and ambitious – but unsuccessful – engagement with the Arab Spring and the inside story of the secret nuclear negotiations with Iran; his frustrating struggle for gun control and his response to the racial unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. 

The episodes:

One: 100 Days. Even before his inauguration, Barack Obama is forced to put his plans for change aside to deal with a huge economic crisis. By the time he pushed through the largest stimulus in history, his honeymoon is over, hampering his attempt to close Guantanamo and pass legislation on climate change.  But at the Copenhagen summit, he amazes everyone by crashing a meeting of four fellow heads of government and persuading the Chinese to agree a climate deal.

Two: Obamacare. How Obama overrules his team and decides to risk his presidency in an effort to bring healthcare to 46 million uninsured Americans.  Obama passes healthcare, but the fight for it energises a populist anti-government movement. The Republican Party dominated by the Tea Party triumph in the midterm elections costing Obama his majority in Congress.  For the rest of his presidency he would be unable to pass any major reforms. 

Three: Don’t Screw It Up. Obama set out to end George Bush’s interfering wars in the Middle East and reset relations with the rest of the world. These goals are soon tested by the Arab Spring. He bullies Hosni Mubarak into standing down as president of Egypt and launches military action that brings down Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. But these actions don’t bring the Democracy he had hoped for.  His consequent refusal to get involved in Syria is criticized as the killing there escalates.  But he scores one big win: he negotiates a secret deal – behind the backs of his UN allies – to end nuclear arms development by Iran.

Four: The Arc of History. Insiders describe the tense moments before Obama took the risky decision to raid Abbottabad and to kill or capture Osama bin Laden. The success of that action boosted his re-election chances. As the campaign proceeded the President was faced with a choice – would he back women’s right to contraception over the objections of the Catholic Church?  His choice helped secure a winning coalition of women, African-Americans and the young. But as soon as he is elected, a massacre of primary-school children spurs him to take on the gun lobby – and he loses.  For much of his second term Obama tackles guns and America’s other intractable social problems: immigration and race – not through legislation, but by trying, in the words of his hero Martin Luther King, ‘to bend the moral arc of the universe.’ 

Series Producer: Norma Percy
Executive Producer: Brian Lapping and Paul Mitchell
Producer/Directors: Paul Mitchell, Sarah Wallis, Delphine Jaudeau, Mick Gold
Assistant Producers: Paddy Duffy and Lotte Murphy-Johnson
Archive Researcher: Declan Smith 

Produced by Brook Lapping Productions in association with LES FILMS D’ICI 2 for BBC in co-production with AL JAZEERA AMERICA and ARTE France, in association with SBS-TV Australia, NHK, SVT, VPRO, RTS, NRK, DR, RDI/Radio Canada, YLE, TVP, With the support of the MEDIA Programme of the European Union, CNC and Procirep-Angoa.

What the papers say…

“Imagine that you had to choose only one series to watch every year. Chances are, you would want it to be on a subject that mattered. You would want the film-makers to tell you something you didn’t know, and it would be reasonable to expect a masterclass in film-making. With those criteria in mind, the obvious choice would be any series by Brook Lapping.” David Chater, The Times

“Hitherto unrevealed conversations … at the heart of the US government … brought to light in a fascinating new … series.” The Daily Mail, Weekend

‘A compelling new four-part documentary series Inside Obama’s White House … Filmmakers Norma Percy and Paul Mitchell have spent three years securing candid interviews with an extraordinary array of senators, representatives, the president’s staff and, at the eleventh hour, with the 44-th President of the United States himself.’ The Sunday Telegraph

‘The manner in which deals were done, compromises battered out, backs scratched, was as absorbing as any episode of The West Wing.’ The Guardian

‘Future historians should put up statues to Lapping, Percy and their colleagues…Brook-Lapping are the gold standard.’ Mark Lawson, The Guardian

‘British viewers have been thrilled … by BBC Two’s unprecedented look at Barack Obama’s two terms as U.S. president in Inside Obama’s White House’ Newsweek

‘The programme has an air of authority that never wavers. But even that set of virtues could add up merely to the sum of its parts. Inside Obama’s White House is more than that because it embodies a truth about politics which is so rarely aired. Power is elusive, even in the West Wing.’ Prospect