The World as It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House
Was there a way for candidate Barack Obama to address chaos in Iraq while also calling for pursuit of Osama bin Laden lodged in a corner of putative partner Pakistan? Later, should President Obama send more troops to Afghanistan? If so, how many—a modest 10,000, a compromise 30,000, or more? How could the decision be crafted so as to minimize carping by hard-liners and by moderates in Congress? Should the president avoid or initiate direct contacts with Iran’s leaders about its nuclear programs? Ben Rhodes, presidential speech writer and confidant, helped Obama respond to these and hundreds of other questions in U.S. national and international policy. Drafting a speech meant taking a stand on deep issues to which there were no simple answers.
Benjamin J. Rhodes advised Obama and drafted many if not most of his major speeches from 2007 to 2017—starting at age 29 for then Senator Obama and then eight years for America’s first black president. In the White House his title evolved into Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications.
Obama liked the way that Rhodes often proposed a common-sense approach to complicated policy dilemmas. Rhodes saw his job became one “to respond to what [Obama] said, to talk and fill in empty space—to test out the logic of his own ideas, or to offer a distraction—as he scrolled through his iPad or looked out the window, mind churning.”
Apart from any forthcoming book by Obama himself, this is probably the best story of his presidency as seen from inside the White House. Peter Baker and other correspondents have written excellent narratives of the Obama presidency based on what could be seen and gathered from the outside. They added to their narratives what they learned by interviews with White House staffers and cabinet secretaries. But their analyses inevitably differ from what Rhodes felt and experienced as he saw and virtually lived with the president from morning to night—so close that Obama jokingly chided Rhodes for forgetting to wear or pack his socks for Peru, the president’ final foreign trip.
The difficulty of using reason to decide on and then promote policies opposed by right-wingers is illustrated by Rhodes’ retelling of many cases, for example, the Iran nuclear deal. “Right-wing ideology,” is not broad enough to take in all the forces opposing the Iran accord.
They included Israel Prime Minister “Bibi” Netanyahu, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, American evangelical Christians for whom Israel could do no wrong, non-Jewish professional hawks such as John Bolton and Dick Cheney, reactionary media such as Breitbart, and American billionaires glad to spend lavishly to hurt anything backed by Democrats. As a group they had no shared ideology and, if “right-wing” meant “conservative,” they did not deserve that label.
The team marshalled by Rhodes managed to secure enough votes to prevent Congress from killing the deal. This modest but sufficient victory required the testimony of leading physicists, rabbis, retired U.S. and Israeli security officials, and polls showing that most American Jews supported the deal.
Victory also got a key boost from a phone call by Rhodes to Debbie Wasserman Schultz, head of the Democratic National Committee, who could hear Rhodes’ mother in the background, saying in Yiddish that she would go to Schultz’s district in Florida and give a piece of her mind to any of the meshugganahs who gave the congresswoman grief. But this was an ephemeral win. The anti-Iranian forces continued to fight and cheered when Obama’s successor withdrew from the deal.
Like former ambassador Michael McFaul (whose book From Cold War to Hot Peace was reviewed at NYJB), Rhodes joined Obama as an idealist for peace and departed, at age 39, a battered veteran of Washington and global politics. After Donald Trump’s election, Rhodes pondered Obama’s question: “What if we were wrong?”
The morning after Trump’s win, Rhodes felt he should have seen it coming. “Because 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. Change we can believe in. . . . Trump was a product of the same forces . . . aligning against us for ten years.” Trump saw facts as irrelevant. “A healthy majority of Republicans still did not believe that Obama was born in the United States. The Republicans had ridden this tiger, and we’d all ended up inside.” Having heard a full briefing from the intelligence agencies on the role played by Russia in the election, Rhodes observed that “our government was about to be led by the very people Putin had spent so much efforts trying to put there.”
Rhodes’ growing self-confidence and contempt for the established foreign policy establishment triggered some quite negative assessments. David Samuels published “The Aspiring Novelist Who Became Barack Obama’s Foreign-Policy Guru,” New York Times Magazine, May 5, 2016, applauded by Thomas E. Ricks the next day in Foreign Policy as “A stunning profile of Ben Rhodes, the asshole who is the president’s foreign policy guru”—an “overweening little schmuck.” Rhodes devotes two chapters addressing such comments. Each reader of the book will have his or her own take on these matters.
When Air Force One took private citizen Obama and his family to Florida in January 2017, Rhodes flew with them and then returned to Washington on the nearly empty plane, thinking about in-flight discussions they had conducted enroute to hot spot challenges around the globe. He was exhausted and drained by long hours and intense deliberations since joining Obama’s inner circle a decade earlier.
The author’s ten years with Obama led him to “see the world as it is, and to believe in the world as it ought to be.” His book has no footnotes or list of references, but there seem to be no factual errors. The book has a very detailed and user-friendly index.
In February 2018 Rhodes co-founded the political action committee National Security Action with Jake Sullivan, a former senior foreign policy advisor toSecretary of State Hillary Clinton and to Vice President Joe Biden. The organization aimed to promote a progressive vision for foreign policy and national security solutions. Rhodes told the Washington Post: “We decided, essentially, this is an emergency moment and that there was a need to pull together the national security community on the progressive side to counter Trump’s policies and put forward an alternative.”