When we look back at the Obama administration today, it seems as if it took place in a different universe. In the era of Donald Trump, we take notice of habits and patterns in the Obama years that didn’t stand out much at the time. We took for granted, for example, Obama’s general preference for democratic governments over authoritarian ones and for allies over adversaries. We assumed he would go to international gatherings, behave respectfully, and try to find common ground where possible, rather than seeking to disrupt or provoke. This was, more or less, what other presidents had done. We can now see that what seemed like ordinary comity was, in fact, a reflection of a distinct time and place and even a worldview—a belief in multilateralism that our current president does not share.
It is not only the obvious contrasts between Obama and Trump that seem jolting but also the hypocritical double standards that have been applied to them. It is startling to recall Republican attacks on Obama’s foreign policy after one of his aides said the United States was “leading from behind” in the run-up to the 2011 Libyan war now that his Republican successor has openly rejected any leadership role at all—and indeed, at the recent G-7 summit, positioned his administration more in opposition to the world’s leading industrialized nations than at their vanguard. It is virtually impossible to read about the brouhaha on the right over Obama’s campaign promise that he would be willing to meet face-to-face with Iranian leaders and not think of the enthusiasm over Trump’s decision to meet with Kim Jong-un.
The memoirs of the officials who served in the Obama administration are just starting to come out. None of these former staffers is in a position to give readers a clearer, more detailed account of what it felt like to be in the Obama White House than Ben Rhodes. By title, he was first Obama’s speechwriter for foreign policy and then the deputy national security adviser for communications. Unofficially, he was more than that. Rhodes was the White House official who decided which countries Obama would visit and whom he would meet overseas. He took on special assignments and portfolios, including the secret negotiations that resulted in the establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba. Above all, Rhodes was the adviser (colleagues like Susan Rice claimed) who had a kind of “mind meld” with the president—putting Obama’s ideas into words and speeches, deciding on the administration’s line about events, sharing ideas with Obama, translating for the bureaucracy how Obama would think.
Rhodes was just thirty-one when Obama arrived in the White House. He had…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.