June 7, 2018
Witnessing the Obama Presidency
by George Packer
Ben Rhodes was the President’s speechwriter, foreign-policy adviser, and confidant. His book records the Administration’s struggle to shape its own narrative.
Barack Obama was a writer before he became a politician, and he saw his Presidency as a struggle over narrative. “We’re telling a story about who we are,” he instructed his aide Ben Rhodes early in the first year of his first term. He said it again in his last months in office, on a trip to Asia—“I mean, that’s our job. To tell a really good story about who we are”—adding that the book he happened to be reading argued for storytelling as the trait that distinguishes us from other primates.
Obama’s audience was both the American public and the rest of the world. His characteristic rhetorical mode was to describe and understand both sides of a divide—black and white, liberal and conservative, Muslim and non-Muslim—before synthesizing them into a unifying story that seemed to originate in and affirm his own.
At the heart of Obama’s narrative was a belief that progress, in the larger scheme of things, was inevitable, and this belief underscored his position on every issue from marriage equality to climate change. His idea of progress was neither the rigid millennial faith of Woodrow Wilson nor Bush’s shallow God-blessed optimism. It was human-scale and incremental.
Temperamentally the opposite of zealous, he always acknowledged our human imperfection—his Nobel Peace Prize lecture was a Niebuhrian meditation on the tragic necessity of force in affairs of state. But, whatever the setbacks of the moment, he had faith that the future belonged to his expansive vision and not to the narrow, backward-pointing lens of his opponents.
This progressive story emerged in Obama’s account of his own life, in his policies, and in his speeches. Many of them were written by Rhodes, who joined the campaign as a foreign-policy speechwriter in mid-2007, when he was twenty-nine; rose to become a deputy national-security adviser; accompanied Obama on every trip overseas but one; stayed to the last day of the Presidency; and even joined the Obamas on the flight to their first post-Presidential vacation, in Palm Springs, wanting to ease the loneliness of their sudden return to private life. Today, Rhodes still works alongside Obama.
The journalistic cliché of a “mind meld” doesn’t capture the totality of Rhodes’s identification with the President. He came to Obama with an M.F.A. in fiction writing from New York University and a few years on the staff of a Washington think tank. He became so adept at anticipating Obama’s thoughts and finding Obamaesque words for them that the President made him a top foreign-policy adviser, with a say on every major issue.
Rhodes’ advice mostly took the form of a continuous effort to understand and apply the President’s thinking. His decade with Obama blurred his own identity to the vanishing point, and he was sensitive enough—unusually so for a political operative—to fear losing himself entirely in the larger story. Meeting Obama was a fantastic career opportunity and an existential threat.
In “The World as It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House” (Random House), Rhodes shows no trace of the disillusionment that gave George Stephanopoulos’s tale of Bill Clinton its bitter, gossipy flavor, or of the light irony that came to inflect Peggy Noonan’s adoration of Ronald Reagan. More than any other White House memoirist, Rhodes is a creature of the man he served.
When Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., went to work as a special assistant to John F. Kennedy, in 1961, he was a middle-aged Harvard professor, the author of eight books, and a Democratic Party intellectual. Schlesinger was a worshipful convert with serious blind spots about Kennedy, but he did warn the new President not to go ahead with the Bay of Pigs, persistently enough that Robert Kennedy told him to back off. It’s impossible to imagine Rhodes giving Obama that kind of advice, or writing a book like “A Thousand Days,” which isn’t so much a White House memoir as a history of the New Frontier.
What Rhodes lacks in critical distance he gains in unobtrusive proximity. He spent thousands of hours with Obama in the Oval Office, on board Air Force One, and inside “the Beast,” the bulletproof Presidential limousine. “My role in these conversations, and perhaps within his presidency,” Rhodes writes, “was to respond to what he said, to talk and fill quiet space—to test out the logic of his own ideas, or to offer a distraction.” Although Rhodes took on important projects like normalizing relations with Cuba and building support for the Iran nuclear deal, his essential role was to be the President’s mirror and echo.
When Obama mused that Ray Charles’s version of “America the Beautiful” should be the national anthem, Rhodes added, “They should play it before every game.” Obama seems to have wanted his right-hand man to be smart, loyal, and unlikely to offer a serious challenge. Reserved and watchful himself, Rhodes provided just the level of low-key, efficient companionship that his boss needed. It’s not surprising that the aide whose company Obama tolerated best was another writer.
This is the closest view of Obama we’re likely to get until he publishes his own memoir. Rhodes’s Obama is curious, self-contained, irritable, and witty, and Rhodes—sixteen years younger and six inches shorter—is his straight man. On a Presidential trip to Latin America in 2011, at the start of the NATO air campaign in Libya, Rhodes found himself cast as spokesman for a country at war. The stress—he’s appealingly candid about the anxiety and self-doubt, as well as the arrogance, that went with his job—caused him to lose track of his razor.
Obama noticed. “What, you can’t even bother to shave?” the President chided him. “Pull yourself together. We have to be professional here.” Rhodes wanted to plead that he was overtasked and underslept, but instead he used the rebuke to understand Obama better: “I realized that these little flashes were how he relieved some of the stress that he had to be feeling, and that being composed and professional—doing the job—was how he managed to take everything in stride. I hadn’t just failed to shave; I’d deviated from his ethos of unflappability.”
With a fine writer’s sense, Rhodes includes, along with the important speeches and decisions of state, a quiet moment in which Obama, standing on a beach in Hawaii, points to a hill and says, “My mom used to come here every day and sit there looking out at the bay when she was pregnant with me. I’ve always thought that’s one of the reasons why I have a certain calm.” This ability to stand back from the passing frenzy and survey it at a distance was an intellectual strength and a political liability.
More than any modern President, Obama had a keen sense of the limits of American power—and of his own. But it’s hard to build a narrative around actions not taken, disasters possibly averted, hard realities accommodated. The story of what didn’t happen isn’t an easy one to tell.
What Rhodes conveys forcefully is the disdain that he and Obama shared for the reflexive hawkishness of the foreign-policy flock, the clichés of the establishment media, the usual Washington games. Even in the White House, they saw themselves as perpetual outsiders. This aversion to normal politics gave Obama’s story its cleanness and inspiration, while leaving the progress he achieved fragile and vulnerable to rougher practitioners with fewer qualms about the business they were all in.
There were two moments during their ten years together when a gap opened up between the President and his aide. The first came at the start of Obama’s second term, when the promises of the Arab Spring were unravelling. The second came with the election of a successor who pledged to dismantle everything Obama had stood for. In each case, Obama was forced into a reconsideration of his idea of progress, and Rhodes, a step or two behind, had to catch up. The drama of “The World as It Is” lies between these points.
After Rhodes, a New Yorker, witnessed the 9/11 attacks, he considered joining the Army but instead went to Washington to become a speechwriter at the Wilson Center, a foreign-policy think tank. He supported the Iraq War in order to be taken seriously by the older people around him—he was just twenty-five—but his staff work for the 9/11 Commission and the Iraq Study Group, which issued a damning report on the war, in 2006, made him suspicious of the foreign-policy establishment.
“The events of my twenties felt historic, but the people involved did not,” he writes. “I wanted a hero—someone who could make sense of what was happening around me and in some way redeem it.” Professional connections led him to the nascent Obama campaign. Rhodes showed that he could write under pressure and think against the conventional grain. He had found his hero.
Rhodes was a liberal idealist. He turned against the Iraq War, but not against American intervention to prevent mass atrocities around the world. He was strongly influenced by Samantha Power’s book on genocide in the twentieth century, “ ‘A Problem from Hell.’ ” Power was an adviser in Obama’s Senate office, and she and Rhodes became comrades in the Obama cause, with “a sense of destiny” about their work on the campaign and their place in “a movement that would remake the world order.”
Rhodes saw Obama as a symbol of aspiration for billions of people, including Muslims who had become alienated from the United States in the years since 9/11. He believed that the identity of the new President could transform America’s relation to the rest of the world.
Rhodes drafted a speech for Obama to give in Cairo in June of 2009, outlining the difficulties with the Muslim world and promising a new start. “It expressed what Obama believed and where he wanted to go, the world that should be,” Rhodes writes. Eighteen months later, the Arab Spring began.
Rhodes quotes a Palestinian-born woman telling him that Obama was its inspiration: “The young people saw him, a black man as president of America, someone who looked like them. And they thought, why not me?” A more seasoned adviser might have been skeptical, but Rhodes lets this dubious claim stand. His firsthand experience of the rest of the world came from the huge crowds that he saw through bulletproof glass lining the route of Obama’s motorcade in Lima and in Hiroshima, from the young people who posed earnest questions at town-hall meetings in Ramallah and Mumbai. He took them as evidence of the tide of progress.
Rhodes and Power were among the White House aides who wanted the United States to stand with the demonstrators in Tahrir Square. Obama encouraged Rhodes to speak up more in meetings: “Don’t hold back just because it’s the principals. You know where I’m coming from. And we’re younger.” After Egypt came the American-led military intervention in Libya—prompted by Muammar Gaddafi’s threats to rebel-held Benghazi—which ended up toppling the dictator. The spring of 2011 was the high-water mark of Obama’s foreign policy: Osama bin Laden dead, American troops withdrawn from Iraq and preparing to leave Afghanistan, the Arab Spring in full flower. “Barack Obama’s story was gaining a certain momentum,” Rhodes writes. “But something was missing—the supporting characters, in Congress and around the world.”
“The supporting characters”—Mitch McConnell, Vladimir Putin, Egyptian generals, Libyan warlords, reactionary forces that had no stake in Obama’s success—were in fact forces of opposition, and they weren’t just missing; they were gathering strength. You get the sense that Rhodes, and perhaps Obama, too, wasn’t ready for them. Relentless Republican obstruction didn’t fit with Obama’s tale of there being no red or blue America; rising chaos and nationalism were out of tune with his hymn of walls falling. In Libya, civil war killed thousands of people and left much of the country ungoverned and vulnerable to terrorists, and the U.S., as usual, had no plan or desire to deal with the aftermath of intervention. But Rhodes took the criticism that followed as a sign of the absurdity of American politics: “I couldn’t reconcile how much doing the right thing didn’t seem to matter. . . . I thought it was right to save thousands of Libyans from Gaddafi, but we were now being second-guessed.”
The failure of the supporting cast to join the march of progress came as a kind of irrational affront: how could they be so impervious to the appeal of Obama’s example and words? “One of Barack Obama’s greatest frustrations during his time in the White House was his inability to use rhetoric and reason to better tell the story of his presidency,” Dan Pfeiffer, Obama’s communications director, tells us in another new White House memoir, “Yes We (Still) Can: Politics in the Age of Obama, Twitter, and Trump” (Twelve).
Rhodes stuck to the ideals of the Arab Spring, but Obama was leaving him behind. “Our priority has to be stability and supporting the scaf (Egyptian Military Council),” he snapped at Rhodes in one meeting. “Even if we get criticized. I’m not interested in the crowd in Tahrir Square and Nick Kristof.” This sounded like cold realpolitik, and it came as a shock to Rhodes: “For the first time, I felt out of step with my boss.”
It got worse with the Syrian civil war. Rhodes again supported American military intervention, but without much faith, and Obama half-listened to Rhodes’s half-hearted arguments. “It was wrenching to read about the brutality of Assad every morning, to see images of family homes reduced to rubble,” he writes. “I felt we had to do something in Syria.”
In August of 2013, Bashar al-Assad killed hundreds of civilians with chemical weapons, and the White House debated whether to punish the regime for crossing Obama’s stated “red line.” The President decided to leave the decision to Congress, which meant no military action. “It will drive a stake through the heart of neoconservatism,” he told his advisers. “Everyone will see they have no votes.”
Obama regarded this decision as a clever tactical win, as if exposing Republican hypocrisy mattered more than trying to prevent another gas attack in Syria. He was willing to follow the logic of inaction as far as it led. “Maybe we never would have done Rwanda,” he told Rhodes during the Syria crisis. “There’s no way there would have been any appetite for that in Congress.” For Obama idealists, this stance was apostasy. “ ‘A Problem from Hell’ ” turned out to be one of the least relevant foreign-policy books for the Obama White House.
Rhodes had to choose between sticking with the principles that originally drew him to Obama and continuing to identify with his hero. He went with the latter. When Egyptian generals overthrew the elected Islamist government, and the Administration refused to call it a coup, Rhodes made one last pitch for Arab democracy, but “as with intervention in Syria, my heart wasn’t entirely in it anymore.” It’s hard to blame him. There was no obvious policy that could have reversed the Egyptian coup or, short of a full-scale military invasion, forced the departure of Assad. Worse to try and likely leave a bigger mess, Obama concluded, than not to try at all. Other voices—Secretary of State John Kerry; the National Security adviser, Susan Rice—argued for more American activism, but Obama was unmoved. Without congressional or allied support, without a clear answer to the question “And what happens after we bomb the runways and Russia, Iran, and Assad rebuild them?,” he dropped “Never again” for a more skeptical motto: “Don’t do stupid shit.” Rhodes adopted the more minimalist words and ideas, though never with the same equanimity as his boss. “It was as if Obama was finally forcing me to let go of a part of who I was.”
“The World as It Is” charts the education of Ben Rhodes through his White House years from liberal idealism to a chastened appreciation of how American power can be more wisely harnessed to limited ends—hence the title. With Obama’s encouragement, Rhodes spent the last years of the Presidency trying to realize his original ideals through diplomacy. He took the lead in talks with Cuba that achieved normalized relations after more than half a century of Cold War hostility. He helped prevent Congress from sinking the Iran nuclear deal. He involved himself in humanitarian issues in Southeast Asia. He became more emphatic in his contempt for the Washington establishment (although I’m not sure what makes you a member if not eight years in the White House), and he became a high-profile target of the conspiratorial right wing.
Rhodes concludes his book with the thought that “billions of people around the globe had come to know Barack Obama, had heard his words, had watched his speeches, and, in some unknowable but irreducible way, had come to see the world as a place that could—in some incremental way—change. The arc of history.”
That’s more qualified than the sense of high destiny with which Rhodes set out, but it’s still a story of progress, of the philosophy that he ascribes to both the chef Anthony Bourdain and Barack Obama: “If people would just sit down and eat together, and understand something about each other, maybe they could figure things out.” Yet Rhodes was still fighting the last war against the tired Washington establishment, the reflexive hawks, the carping ignoramuses in the media. Meanwhile, in places as far-flung as Turkey, India, the Czech Republic, Moscow, and Washington, the strongest political forces were running dead against the idea of sitting down together over a meal and figuring things out.
After Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, the burden of proof is on anyone who would make the case for military action as a force for good. But Obama, proudly defying political convention and confident in the larger forces of progress, was reluctant to acknowledge that inaction, too, is an action. We don’t know what a missile strike against Assad in 2013 might have achieved, but we do know what followed Obama’s refusal to enforce his own red line: more Syrian government atrocities (including the repeated use of chemical weapons), millions more Syrian refugees, the shift of European politics to the populist right, an emboldened Russia intervening militarily in Syria. It turned out that prudent inaction didn’t necessarily further the cause of progress any more than a naïve confidence in overt action. When America sobered up under Obama, other powers saw not wisdom but a chance to fill the gap.
Obama doesn’t seem to have known what to make of Vladimir Putin: “He neither liked nor loathed Putin, nor did he subscribe to the view that Putin was all that tough.” This dusting-off-the-shoulder attitude underestimated the Russian leader’s ambition to manipulate the resentments and hatreds of democratic citizens. Obama told Rhodes that he knew all about the Putins of the world—from the Tea Party, Fox News, and the Republican extremists who had been trying from the start to delegitimize his Presidency. “Obama was more sanguine about the forces at play in the world not because he was late in recognizing them,” Rhodes writes, “but because he’d seen them earlier.” Obama had come to think that he could work around Putin and McConnell and Fox News, by picking his shots, setting the right example, avoiding stupid shit, and bringing change in increments.
In fact, he was too sanguine, perhaps because he was overconfident in his own transformative power, perhaps because he wasn’t alert to the brittleness of his achievement. Progressives find it hard to imagine that there are others who in good faith don’t want the better world they’re offering and will fiercely resist it. Obama was always better at explaining the meaning of democracy than at fighting its opponents. Other than “Yes, we can” and a few other phrases, it’s hard to remember any lines from his speeches, including ones drafted by Rhodes. Many of them are profound meditations that can stand reading and rereading—Rhodes quotes some of the best—but Obama’s way was to rise above simplifications that would have stuck in people’s heads and given them verbal weapons with which to defend themselves.
His aversion to the dirty tasks of politics culminated in the moment during the 2016 campaign when U.S. intelligence about Russian meddling on behalf of Trump reached the Oval Office. Obama’s instinct was to avoid politicizing it at all costs. Rhodes urged the President to be more vocal, just as he’d urged him to intervene in Egypt, Libya, and Syria, but Obama replied, “If I speak out more, he’ll just say it’s rigged.” Trump, if he lost, was going to say the election had been rigged regardless. His supporters were going to disbelieve anything Obama said. The rest of us deserved to hear it, anyway. “I talk about it every time I’m asked,” Obama protested to Rhodes, concerning the issue of Russian interference. “What else are we going to do?” He wasn’t going to worry about it, true to character; Rhodes, true to character, did the worrying instead, and still does.
In “The Final Year,” a new documentary that focusses on Obama’s foreign policy at the end of his Presidency, Trump’s victory leaves Rhodes unable to speak for almost a full minute. It had been inconceivable, like the repeal of a law of nature—not just because of who Trump was but also because of who Obama was. Rhodes and Obama briefly sought refuge in the high-mindedness of the long view—“Progress doesn’t move in a straight line,” Rhodes messaged his boss on Election Night, a reference to one of Obama’s own sayings, which the President then revived for the occasion: “History doesn’t move in a straight line, it zigs and zags.” But that was not much consolation. On Obama’s last trip abroad, he sat quietly with Rhodes in the Beast as they passed the cheering Peruvian crowds. “What if we were wrong?” Obama suddenly asked. Rhodes didn’t know what he meant. “Maybe we pushed too far. Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe.” Obama took the thought to its natural conclusion: “Sometimes I wonder whether I was ten or twenty years too early.”
Rhodes wrestled with this painful blow. It sounded like a repudiation of everything they had done. But then he found an answer, and it was in keeping with the spirit of his years in service to Obama: “We were right, but all that progress depended upon him, and now he was out of time.” ♦