Barack Obama’s Triumph — And How It Went So Wrong

Advisor’s book offers a look at the White House failure to anticipate the rise of Trump.

By Crawford Kilian 9 Jul 2018 |

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

This is a story of remarkable triumph ending in bitter defeat: the eight-year presidency of Barack Obama, seen from the insider’s perspective of one of his closest aides. Ben Rhodes, who rose from minor campaign worker to speechwriter to national security adviser, helped advance his leader’s remarkable career. But both he and Obama seem baffled by what happened in November 2016.

Rhodes is a good writer, and he knows that a good story begins as close to the climactic moment as possible. So he opens The World As It Is with Barack Obama’s last overseas trip as president before handing the presidency and the republic over to Donald Trump.

In visits to Athens, Berlin, and a summit of Pacific nations in Lima, Obama discusses the transition with their leaders. His last meeting is with Justin Trudeau.

“In a back room at the convention center where the summit was held, the two sat in chairs next to each other with a few of us flanking them on either side... Obama — not usually an outwardly sentimental man — attempted to pass a torch of sorts. ‘Justin, your voice is needed more,’ he said, leaning forward and putting his elbows on his knees. ‘You’re going to have to speak out when certain values are threatened.’

“Trudeau said that he felt he had to, drawing on the example of his own father, who transcended his role as leader of Canada to become a global statesman. I modeled my campaign on yours, he added, referring to a brand of politics that now felt under threat.

“In person, Trudeau’s good looks tend to make him look younger than he is. Watching him, I thought about how much I had aged in my job; Trudeau looked younger than I did. I will fight them, he said, referring to the authoritarian trends in the world, with a smile on my face. That is the only way to win.

Trudeau’s optimism, seen through Rhodes’s eyes, seems naive; Trudeau is still where Obama was circa 2009, when “Yes we can” seemed a promise kept. Back then, the education of Ben Rhodes had just begun.

Provoked by 9/11 into wanting to be part of America’s response to it, Rhodes abandoned his plans to teach creative writing and used his writing skills instead in a Washington think tank. That led to a trip to Iraq, where he quickly saw what a failure the war had been. Back in the U.S. he was struck by Barack Obama’s opposition to it, and when Obama became a candidate for the Democratic nomination in 2007, Rhodes was soon on board as a campaign staffer.

Obama’s employee of the month

As a staffer Rhodes rose steadily, from foreign-policy wonk to speechwriter and eventually to deputy national security adviser. Each promotion was both exhilarating and terrifying as he took on more responsibility. Drafting a speech for candidate Obama to deliver in Berlin, Rhodes ran across an expression, “a community of fate,” that he put into the speech. Only at the last minute did a German translator explain to him that Hitler had used the expression in one of his first speeches to the Reichstag. Obama, hearing of this, responded with laughter and said of Rhodes, “We have our employee of the month!”

Rattled by his own brush with disaster, Rhodes was also grateful for Obama’s cheerful response to it. By then Obama had become a mentor as well as a boss. As they shared the experience of eight years in power, Obama’s education in the world as it is (instead of the world he wanted it to be) was also that of Rhodes.

The hope of the early Arab Spring, for example, gave way to the endless horror of the Syrian civil war. Obama was under pressure to intervene militarily against Bashar Al-Assad, but refused to do so. He had built his career on opposition to George W. Bush’s attack on Iraq, and Syria looked like just another quagmire. “Don’t do stupid shit,” Obama often remarked — which Rhodes soon labelled the Obama Doctrine.

The limits of power

Structurally, the book is a series of lessons drawn in the course of Obama’s eight years in the presidency. Aware that every new government inherits a mass of now-irrelevant policies (like the 60-year economic blockade of Cuba), he tried to clear out some of the junk while advancing his own new policies (like the Affordable Care Act). Rhodes helped by writing speeches, co-ordinating with senior officials like Susan Rice and Samantha Power, and offering advice. Old policies might be junked, but always at a price. New policies might succeed, but still took heavy criticism.

The limits to Obama’s power, as Rhodes describes them, were the Republicans who fought Obama from the first and the media that gave the Republicans too much credence while also failing to understand the reasons for Obama’s successes and failures. The general lesson Rhodes draws is that Obama would be criticized whether he did or didn’t do stupid shit.

Even though his 2008 campaign had pioneered the imaginative use of social media, by 2016 Obama’s administration seemed content with feel-good tweets while the alt-right was weaponizing Twitter and Facebook. The online onslaught from the far right seems to have ambushed the Obama team.

Obama offered little pushback to such attacks, though Rhodes was both shocked and awed by them: “Whoever did my job in Russia was sitting on top of billion-dollar investments in television stations, marshalled an army of Internet trolls who populated social media, and was empowered to lie with impunity.”

But it wasn’t even possible to tell whether any particular attack was homegrown or Russian. When Rhodes raised the question with Obama, he got an oddly detached reply: “I know. They’ve found the soft spot in our democracy.” He even seemed fatalistic about Russian interference: “I talk about it every time I’m asked. What else are we going to do? We’ve warned folks.... If I speak out more, [Trump will] just say it’s rigged.”

The book is full of vivid anecdotes and first-rate political gossip. Rhodes evokes the atmosphere of an intense political campaign, and dramatizes the shift to governance. His Obama is enigmatic, almost oracular, despite his failings (such as his addiction to cigarettes, only slightly softened by nicotine chewing gum). Obama spent the day after Trump’s election consoling the White House staffers who understood their years of hard work would soon be thrown away.

Older but no wiser

Yet Obama (and Rhodes) seem not to have grasped the seriousness of Trump’s supporters. Even in the 2008 campaign, Obama got in trouble by observing that rural and small-town Pennsylvanians “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to persons who aren’t like them.” It was an almost anthropological comment, as if he were describing the attitudes of the Taliban rather than those of American voters in economic trouble.

Eight years later, after Trump’s election, Obama on his last international trip seemed no wiser: “What if we were wrong?” he asked Rhodes. “Maybe we pushed too far. Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe.”

For all his intelligence and political skill and decency, Rhodes’s Obama emerges as the last of the centre-right Democrats. Recent events suggest he still doesn’t realize it. At the end of June he went on a fundraising tour to California, where he told donors they’d done “enough moping” and needed to get back to work.

But admission to such fundraisers cost up to US$237,000 per couple, with general admission $10,000. Democratic donors are as much a tribe as Trump’s billionaire backers, and Obama is still serving the donors’ interests rather than ordinary voters’. Those voters already show signs of moving well to Obama’s left and funding their preferred candidates, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, through far smaller donations. They know the world as it is all too well, and they want something better.

If those ordinary voters achieve it, Ben Rhodes’s vivid account of his years with Barack Obama will be not a chronicle of progress that hit a zigzag, but an epitaph for a Democratic party that forgot how to be democratic.  [Tyee]

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