George Packer's New Yorker article, Witnessing the Obama Presidency, from Start to Finish, is a look at the Obama presidency through the eyes of Ben Rhodes, Obama's Deputy National Security Adviser. Rhodes has just written a book about it.
Ben Rhodes was the President’s speechwriter, foreign-policy adviser, and confidant. His book records the Administration’s struggle to shape its own narrative.
No doubt Packer considers the Obama presidency a success of historic proportions, and if there is any failure to be associated with it, it is a failure of the American people to fully appreciate and get behind Obama. But the impact of Packer's article is that it explains the failures of the Obama Presidency, unintentionally of course.
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.
Seems a misguided theory that the United State presidency would be a struggle over narrative. In retrospect it's a theory that fits the Obama presidency. Think of ObamaCare as not so much an effort to improve health care than as a statement, a narrative: "This is who we are." It went through congress and was signed into law on a strictly partisan vote with Republicans shut out of the negotiations. It was Democrats saying who they were and who the Republicans were not. When finally implemented — as much as it could be — health care costs went up instead of down as promised. Some people were helped, and others — most — were not. If you liked your health care plan, you could not keep your health insurance plan, as Obama had promised. And if you liked your doctor, you couldn't necessarily keep your doctor, as Obama had promised. Your doctor had to be part of your new health insurance network that replaced the one you couldn't keep because it didn't meet Obama's requirements — like men having to be covered for birth control pills.
The presidency as narrative is risky business when there is an ever changing narrative, especially when elements of it seemed to have a shorter and shorter shelf life. But there is no doubting the centrality of narrative to Obama's presidency.
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.
Unfortunately, it was only in rhetorical mode that Obama understood both sides of a divide, but that was the narrative. In reality, Obama had no interest in the any side of any divide other than his own. This is a point that Packer himself inadvertently reinforced when he described the rise of Ben Rhodes.
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’s advice mostly took the form of a continuous effort to understand and apply the President’s thinking.
Rhodes brought nothing to the table other than a world view in lockstep with Obama's and a talent for putting it in grandiose words. And that accounts for his meteoric rise in Washington politics. Ben Rhodes didn't bring a specialized knowledge of foreign policy. He was not the man to point out alternate perspectives to Obama, to shed new light on issues, or, heaven forbid, to challenge Obama's assumptions. Rhodes was a magnificently successful sycophant, a yes man. His selection as an adviser meant that U.S. foreign policy was guided almost solely by Obama, or more accurately by Obama's whim when reality stepped in to crush Obama's naivete. Syrian red line? Tell Vlad I'll have more flexibility after the election? It was a foreign policy that almost invariably reacted to world events rather than dictated them, always with an eye towards domestic political consumption rather than productive results on the international stage.
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.
A step or two behind and having to catch up. That was Obama's idea of an adviser. What advice could Rhodes possibly have given that Obama didn't already know about? As a sympathetic observer George Packer is fully on board with the Obama/Rhodes approach, and equally oblivious.
In “The Final Year,” a new documentary that focuses 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.”
Ponder the sentences I highlighted in bold print. You question, could you have been wrong? Of course not. The "natural conclusion" is that you're ahead of your time. Isn't that a relief. Ben Rhodes thought so.
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.”
"And now he was out of time." Thank God!