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Bliss Was It in That Dawn to Be Alive

Pete Souza/White House
President Obama during taping for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, April 2013; photograph by Pete Souza from his book Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents, to be published by Little, Brown in October

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 come to Washington seven years earlier looking for work, his only credential a year of graduate school in New York University’s writing program. He landed a job writing speeches for former congressman Lee Hamilton, one of the Democratic Party’s leading foreign policy experts, who was then running a Washington think tank. When Hamilton was appointed in 2006 as the Democratic co-chair of the Iraq Study Group, set up by Congress to make recommendations about the war, Rhodes joined the staff under Hamilton and helped write the final report. The next logical step, in his mind, was to join the presidential campaign of a Democratic candidate opposed to the Iraq War. Rhodes signed on with Obama’s campaign in early 2007 and worked under him until Obama left the White House ten years later.

In a way, this was a typical Washington story. Many other presidents have had aides who signed on during the first days of the presidential campaign, moved into the White House, and stayed until the end of the administration. Lyndon Johnson had his Texans, Ronald Reagan his Californians, John Kennedy his “Irish mafia.” Rhodes was one of several aides who worked for Obama from the earliest days of his campaign until the end of the second term; others included Samantha Power, Denis McDonough, and Rice. Under Trump, aides either burn out (Hope Hicks) or go off to make money (Corey Lewandowski). As a boss, Obama brought far greater stability.

The result of Rhodes’s many years near the Oval Office is that he can punctuate The World As It Is with glimpses of the private Obama. Some of these are amusing anecdotes. In the earliest days of his campaign, when there were occasional criticisms that he wasn’t black enough, Obama quipped, “I’m black enough when I try to get a cab.” Others suggest a president who was an especially gifted politician at election time but disdained the day-to-day politics in which most presidents engage. Obama had the instincts of a lifelong pol. When Rhodes argued that a democratic opening in Burma could prove politically beneficial to him, Obama responded, “Ben, no one cares about Burma in Ohio.”

Near the end of the book, there is a painful story, unflattering to Hillary Clinton, that calls attention to this aspect of Obama’s political skill. In 2016 Obama joined Clinton at a campaign rally in North Carolina, and the two of them stopped afterward at a local barbecue joint. Clinton departed quickly, while Obama stayed for thirty minutes. “We went in, ordered some food, took pictures with the staff, and then she left,” Obama told Rhodes with surprise on the plane ride home.

I ended up shaking every hand in there. Most of the folks in these places have been watching Fox News and think I’m the Antichrist. But if you show up, shake their hand, and look them in the eye, it’s harder for them to turn you into a caricature.

Yet Obama had little aptitude for the Washington version of barbecue joints—congressional chitchat and party-building functions. He chafed at criticism that he was aloof, yet his very denials pointed to his sense of superiority over run-of-the-mill politicians. “I just have a different group of friends than people who’ve been running for office since they were twenty-two,” he said. “The thing is, I was a fully formed person before I went into politics.”

Obama’s ambivalence about politics carried over into questions of foreign policy. Because he often lacked a clear sense of where he wanted to go and how to get there, he at times found himself agonizing over a decision. Much of his first year was consumed by a debate over how many more troops to send to Afghanistan. Obama’s solution, after many months, was to give the military some of the additional forces it wanted and at the same time order that these troops come home after eighteen months, a short timeframe that undercut whatever usefulness this “surge” was supposed to have.

Four years later, when Syrian government forces used chemical weapons in their war against rebel forces, thus crossing a “red line” that Obama had drawn, the president laid the groundwork for a military response, then held up at the last minute, and finally decided he shouldn’t attack without congressional approval, which he failed to obtain. His administration then accepted, indeed boasted about, an agreement with Russia that was supposed to take the chemical weapons out of the country—a resolution that did not stop the Syrians from continuing to use chemical weapons and to gas civilians again and again. Obama thereby wound up allowing Syria to set a harmful precedent on the use of chemical weapons, a precedent that he had initially sought to avoid; and he still failed to come up with a broader policy toward Syria’s civil war. It was an object lesson in why presidents should refrain from setting “red lines” in the first place if they’re unwilling to enforce them.

What Rhodes’s book shows is that in too many cases, foreign policy decisions were turned into questions of identity and self-definition, thus making them a function of Obama’s personal history. Trying to explain a decision, Obama sometimes decided that a particular course of action is “who I am” or “who we are.” In the final hours of his decision on Syria, when he was looking for a reason not to launch a missile strike, an aide reminded him that during the earliest stages of his campaign, he had told The Boston Globe that he would not launch military action without congressional approval. Obama jumped on the memory. “That quote from me in 2007—I agree with that guy. That’s who I am,” he said.

One is left to wonder who Obama was when he decided against asking Congress for approval before he launched military action against Libya in 2011, or drone strikes and special operations attacks throughout his presidency. (In his book, Rhodes barely mentions Obama’s reliance on drones, though he used them far more than his predecessors had. Rhodes does say, in passing, that at the beginning of Obama’s second term, when he asked for some new responsibilities, he told the president, “I’m tired of just being the guy who defends drones.”)

In other respects, too, Obama’s definition of “who I am” or “who we are” varied with time and circumstance. He took office as a determined foreign policy realist, citing Brent Scowcroft as a model; when Iranian protesters took to the streets in 2009, he said little by way of support or encouragement. Two years later, he became a fervent and idealistic supporter of the Arab Spring, embracing the notion that it represented a historic wave that would transform the Middle East. Seeing the swelling crowds in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, he pushed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to step down, where a realist in the Scowcroft or Kissinger mold would have recommended continued support for a leader who had long supported the United States. Then within a year, as the Arab Spring turned increasingly messy, producing not smooth democratic change but various forms of upheaval in Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and even Jordan, Obama reversed course again. When Rhodes protested to him in 2012 that the administration was being too deferential to Egypt’s military leaders and not doing enough to promote democracy, Obama told him, “Our priority has to be stability and supporting the SCAF [Egypt’s military council]…. Even if we get criticized. I’m not interested in the crowd in Tahrir Square.”1

When Ukrainian protesters took to the streets in 2013–2014, and Russia responded by invading Ukraine and seizing Crimea, Obama likewise spurned recommendations that he give Ukraine some sort of military aid. “This was one of the few occasions I can recall in the Obama administration in which just about every senior official was for doing something that the president opposed,” Obama’s assistant secretary of defense Derek Chollet later wrote.2

If there was any underlying coherence to these policies, it lay in the fact that Obama in his second term became more cautious about the ability of the United States to change the course of events overseas, increasingly less keen to employ military force, and ever-less inclined to intervene in international disputes. One reason for his second-term caution, certainly, was that he and his team had been burned by the failure of the Arab Spring. When Ukrainian protesters massed in Kiev much the way Egyptians had in Cairo, Rhodes admitted that his hopes were considerably more limited. “This was not the place or time for a revolution to succeed,” he observes.

Another factor leading to the different tone in the second term was a change in personnel: during Obama’s first term, Clinton was secretary of state, and the secretaries of defense were Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, all of them older and more hawkish than Obama and his team in the White House. By the second term, they had departed, and the members of Obama’s inner circle, like Rice, McDonough, and Rhodes, had considerably more authority to enforce his will over the State and Defense Departments.3

Rhodes does not hide that, inside the Obama administration, he in particular and the Obama inner circle in general (including Power and Rice) viewed themselves as a new generation in foreign policy, separate and distinct from those who had served earlier. When Obama first appointed Clinton, Gates, and Lawrence Summers to top positions in his new administration, Rhodes understood the rationale, but in his book he admits, “Cumulatively, it felt like a punch in the gut. To those of us who worked on the campaign, it made us feel as if our searing criticisms of the establishment may have been just politics after all.”

But then, what did Obama’s younger generation believe? In his memoir, Rhodes positions himself to the left of Obama: more concerned about democracy and human rights, less willing to support authoritarian regimes. He acknowledges his occasional disappointment with his boss. “Often, I felt as though I cared more about the global progressive icon Barack Obama than Barack Obama did,” he writes.

Beyond these generalities, however, it was sometimes hard to tell. The one lodestar in their thinking was opposition to the war in Iraq. The war had been, after all, one of the main reasons that Obama had defeated Clinton in the first place. Throughout The World As It Is Rhodes returns to it not only as the disaster it was, but also as an all-purpose explanation for other disasters, including ones on Obama’s watch. Trying to explain the chaos in Syria, Rhodes first targets the war in Iraq:

It was far easier for me to see how the war in Syria was in part an unintended consequence of other American wars, no matter how well-meaning they might have been. The toppling of Saddam Hussein had strengthened Iran, provoked Putin, opened up a Pandora’s box of sectarian conflict that now raged in Iraq and Syria, and led to an insurgency that had given birth to ISIL.

Yet the lessons of Iraq did not stop Obama from intervening in Libya, when he was confronted with the reality that Muammar Qaddafi’s troops were on the verge of slaughtering opposition forces and civilians. Rhodes not only defended Obama’s decision but, in a revealing passage in his book, reports that he was then horrified to find himself mocked on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show (Stewart had specifically jibed at the way he had referred to the use of force as “kinetic military action”):

My own worldview had been shaped, in part, by reading books like [Samantha Powers’s “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide] and watching liberals go on shows like Stewart’s to promote movies like Hotel Rwanda…. In my mind, I was part of a group of people acting to implement a humanitarian principle. Now it felt as if I was being punished for it, and as if I had argued for Obama to do something that his own base recoiled against.

Libya encapsulated both the strengths and the failures of Obama’s foreign policy. In principle, he was right to act when he did, as Rhodes argues. Obama intervened to prevent an imminent slaughter of large numbers of civilians along the lines of Rwanda—and he would have been assailed with criticism if he had not acted and there had been mass killings. (Moreover, America’s two closest European allies, Britain and France, were pleading with Obama to intervene.) Yet abstract principles are not enough. Once Obama decided on military action, he had the further obligation to make sure Libya did not collapse into prolonged chaos. In this, he failed.

The HBO documentary The Final Year, an account of the last year of Obama’s presidency, includes the night of the election in 2016. Asked for his thoughts, Rhodes stammers. “I can’t…I can’t…I can’t put it into words,” he finally mumbles.

But one of the strengths of Rhodes’s book is that, in passing, he shows the gradual emergence of the right-wing, faux-populist movement that produced Trump. He notes, for instance, that when Sarah Palin became the Republicans’ vice-presidential candidate in the summer of 2008 she “broke a seal on a Pandora’s box.” Obama’s success, he reflected, “had only made a whole slice of the country that much angrier.”

Rhodes describes, too, the way Republicans in Congress obstructed Obama in every way, abandoning the path of at least occasional bipartisan cooperation that earlier Republican leaders, from Arthur Vandenberg to Gerald Ford to Robert Dole, had all pursued. “With the kinds of opposition parties [in Congress] that Johnson or Reagan had, Obama would have been reforming the tax code and rebuilding American infrastructure,” Rhodes mourns. When Obama sought congressional approval for a missile strike in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons, the ever-treacherous Mitch McConnell, then Senate minority leader, refused to give his support and then publicly criticized Obama for having failed to take military action. When Trump gained strength as a presidential candidate in the run-up to the 2016 election, Rhodes viewed him as “just a cruder expression of what we’d heard from Republicans for years.”

The Russians, too, began to behave differently. In 2013, amid the Ukraine crisis, Victoria Nuland, Obama’s assistant secretary of state for Europe, discussed strategy over the phone with the American ambassador in Kiev. “Fuck the EU!” Nuland said in passing at one point. Shortly afterward, this private call showed up on YouTube, creating predictable divisions between the United States and Europe. Rhodes recorded his reaction:

I was stunned. The Russians had almost certainly intercepted the phone call. That was hardly surprising…. What was new was the act of releasing the intercepted call and doing it so brazenly, on social media…. Doing so violated the unspoken understanding between major powers—we collect intelligence on one another, but we use it privately, for our own purposes.

That episode was a precursor to the release of a variety of materials, like the e-mails of John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign manager, in the next presidential election.

Pete Souza/White House
Michelle and Barack Obama watching a 3-D commercial during the Super Bowl in the White House family theater, February 2009; photograph by Pete Souza from his earlier book, Obama: An Intimate Portrait, published by Little, Brown last year

Despite all the obvious contrasts between Obama and Trump, there are some ways in which, decades from now, historians may come to think that the Trump administration was as much a continuation of the Obama years as a turnabout from them. Rhodes himself recognizes this uncomfortable continuity, starting with matters of campaigning: “When you distilled it, stripped out the racism and misogyny, we’d run against Hillary eight years ago with the same message Trump had used: She’s part of a corrupt establishment that can’t be trusted to bring change.” That similarity helps explain the considerable number of Americans who voted for Obama and then switched to Trump.

In foreign policy, Obama and Trump are the first two presidents to be elected in the aftermath of the Iraq War. Trump did not oppose the war at the outset, as Obama did, but in a Republican Party where neoconservatives had been in ascendance for the previous two decades, Trump subsequently reversed position, claimed he had been against the Iraq War, and aligned himself with the public’s fury over that fiasco.

After Iraq, both Obama and Trump sought to limit America’s involvements overseas, particularly military ones. Both of them rejected the set of ideas, put forward by presidents and secretaries of state since the end of World War II, that America was the “indispensable nation” and must lead the way in resolving international problems. “Obama occasionally pointed out that the post–Cold War moment was always going to be transitory,” Rhodes reported. Trump certainly agrees, though for different reasons: Obama believed the United States no longer had the means or the moral right to be the world’s hegemonic power; Trump claims it is too costly (a “bad deal”) to take that responsibility.

In the end, however, the comparisons break down. Trump has been undoing Obama’s international agreements—the Iran nuclear deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Climate Accord—with remarkable speed. Obama led the US into what might be called a multilateral retrenchment. When he altered American policy—as he did, for example, in first tightening and then easing sanctions against Iran—he usually did so in close cooperation with America’s friends and allies, moving cautiously and deliberately. Trump is now engaged in a unilateral retrenchment, flouting and provoking America’s oldest allies, tearing up past agreements, and making clear that he wants no part of the international order that America once not only led but helped to create.

  1. 1

    While mostly unfocused and disappointing, Ronan Farrow’s recent book, War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence (Norton, 2018), contains a good short account of the Obama administration’s unwillingness to confront Egypt’s brutal leader, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.  

  2. 2

    Derek Chollet, The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Role in the World (PublicAffairs, 2016), p. 175.  

  3. 3

    In his book Alter Egos: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the Twilight Struggle over American Power (Random House, 2016), Mark Landler describes well how Clinton, soon after leaving the State Department, made clear her foreign policy differences with Obama. She at first put herself in a position to be able to distinguish herself from Obama during the 2016 presidential election, but once the campaign started, she aligned herself closely with the president.