Obama Aide’s Book Blurs Lines Between Memoir, Comedy and Political Analysis

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Yes We (Still) Can: Politics in the Age of Obama, Twitter, and Trump
Dan Pfeiffer
Twelve Books

This November will mark the ten-year anniversary of Barack Obama’s election.  Though he has only been out of office for almost nineteen months and is a relatively young ex-president at the age of 57, most Democrats would probably say that Donald Trump’s presidency feels like Obama has been gone much longer.  Without a clear leader in the Democratic Party and a general feeling of goodwill and nostalgia for his presidency, former Obama aides and cabinet members have been gradually writing and publishing books with their own take on the 44th president.  The latest to do so is his former communications director Dan Pfeiffer.

Pfeiffer stays away from the traditional political memoir format in his tome, as opposed to works released by other Obama administration alumni like David Axelrod, Timothy Geithner, Leon Panetta or Ben Rhodes. Rather, his book melds a combination of a memoir of his life in politics, a personal post-mortem of the 2016 election, and an effort to make the connections in the political progression that led the American electorate to veer wildly from electing Barack Obama to electing Donald Trump.  Obviously, he does so through the prism of a Democratic political operative and with the benefit of hindsight almost 18 months after the presidential election.

The underlying thread connecting both Obama and Trump is the shifting media landscape due in no small part to the evolution of the Internet, social media, and means of communication, which both men excelled at, though Democrats would argue that Trump uses them for more nefarious purposes – his tweets, pushing conspiracy theories, and creating an information bubble that is difficult for independent outside sources to penetrate. (Pfeiffer describes Twitter as “a performance-enhancing drug for politics,” and compares it to using meth because of its addictive nature.)

Anyone who has listened to Pfeiffer on an episode of the Pod Save America podcast which he helped launch with three fellow Obama alums knows he can be foul-mouthed in his humor and political commentary, particularly when engaged in commentary with one of his co-hosts.  While reading the text, it’s easy to imagine hearing him saying these things during an episode of the show. Though he is an openly partisan Democrat, he is not a propagandist or an apologist in his writing or his commentary. He does critique mistakes and offers differences of opinion about Obama personally, the administration he served in, and the Democratic Party as a whole.

One of the more illuminating parts of the text is how Pfeiffer and the campaign coped with conspiracy theories about Obama as the years progressed. In the early days it was forwarded chain emails alleging he was a secret Muslim, later on it was the full-blown birtherism that Donald Trump used to launch his political career.  This culminates in Pfeiffer’s back story behind writing the jokes for the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner during which Obama infamously roasted Trump, an episode that some have speculated was a factor in his decision to run for president and his personal animus toward Obama.

One of the most amusing episodes in the book which Pfeiffer dedicates an entire chapter to is the time he split his pants in the Oval Office, and his frantic attempts to fix them before being called again to accompany the president to a press conference. There is also the scary account of him nearly having a stroke because of the toll the long hours and stress was taking on him physically, caused by a combination of a blood vessel in his brain and high blood pressure.

Readers who study presidential history and are looking for a bombshell revelation or profound insight about the Obama presidency will be disappointed, and are better served by more traditional Washington insider memoirs or books by historians and journalists.  However, some of the most intriguing parts of the text are the ones Pfeiffer hints at but does not elaborate on.  This specifically refers to his many experiences with candidate and president Barack Obama over the years, in which rather than giving up the goods himself, he defers to his former boss to let him tell his own story in his own words, presumably his upcoming presidential memoir. (Michelle Obama’s memoir is scheduled for a November release after the midterm elections.)

Even the stories he does tell about his personal memories of Obama shed some personal light on the former president: how Obama told him he was running for president, behind the scenes decision-making on the campaign and in the White House, relationship and marriage advice, Obama’s reaction to a long-winded question from Kanye West during an A-list fundraiser, and a rare example of Obama losing his temper when he walked into the White House communications office and delivered what Pfeiffer describes as “a twenty-minute, not entirely family-friendly rant about the opposition party.” This is the kind of story that probably would have leaked instantly in the Trump White House, but managed to remain secret until well after Obama left office.

Until Obama’s book is published, we are left to speculate about what other stories Pfeiffer might be alluding to. However, because of the timing, it is also worth noting the dramatically different reaction Pfeiffer’s book got compared to the critical and political reaction to memoirs by Trump administration alumni Sean Spicer and Omarosa Manigault-Newman.  (For historical context, the only memoir really critical of the 44th president written by a former Obama cabinet official so far was Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, but even he didn’t take the burning down the house approach to it that Manigault-Newman did. It’s inconceivable to imagine an aide in any other administration surreptitiously record private conversations inside the White House Situation Room or a phone call with the President of the United States and release at least some of those recordings.)

One thing worth noting: Pfeiffer buried a lot of his jokes in the footnotes at the bottom of the page throughout the text.  This gives the book a feel – intentionally or not – of Pfeiffer breaking the fourth wall like Zack Morris or Frank Underwood.

Is Pfeiffer’s tome Obama nostalgia? No, though most Democrats say they miss him every day. It’s a different take and a different style from the usual Washington insider memoir, arguably for the better. Pfeiffer had a unique vantage point to witness the Obama presidency, but he wisely tells the story in his own voice, rather than make it into a more scholarly text. Perhaps most importantly, what Pfeiffer does in his book is an honest attempt at answering the basic question that has bedeviled the country since Election Night 2016: how did we get here?

Scandals Ensnare New York and Virginia House Republicans

Two scandals involving different members of the House Republican caucus erupted in the span of 12 hours.

While most political observers were waiting for results to come in from Kansas, Michigan, Missouri and Ohio last night, Rep. Scott Taylor (R-Va.) announced that he was severing ties with a campaign consultant less than three months before Election Day. This decision came amid allegations that Taylor’s campaign staff had collected petitions with forged signatures to get former Democratic candidate Shaun Brown on the November general election ballot, with the intention of having Brown siphon votes in the general election from Taylor’s Democratic challenger Elaine Luria.  The Virginia Beach Commonwealth’s Attorney asked Circuit Judge Glenn Croshaw to appoint a special prosecutor. Roanoke Commonwealth’s Attorney Donald Caldwell was picked for the job.

Reaction from the Democratic Party of Virginia:

“Democrats and Republicans agree that the integrity of our election process is paramount. VA-02 voters deserve to know if Congressman Taylor’s paid staff violated the law and if all candidates received the required number of signatures to make the ballot this November. We look forward to seeing the results of Commonwealth’s Attorney Caldwell’s investigation into this matter.”

Reaction from the Luria campaign (Caveat: this statement is dated August 1, before Caldwell’s appointment was announced):

“Dirty and deceptive politics like this are exactly why Washington is broken and people are losing faith in their government. Clearly, Scott Taylor is terrified and willing to do anything to avoid going head to head with Commander Luria,” said Kathryn Sorenson, Elaine Luria’s Campaign Manager.

This morning, the Department of Justice announced an indictment against Rep. Charles Collins (R-N.Y.), his son, and his son’s fiancee’s father on allegations of insider trading.  (You can read the document here, or watch the press conference here) Speaker Paul Ryan announced he was stripping Collins of his membership on the House Energy and Commerce Committee until the allegations were resolved.  Collins has said he will fight the charges and continue his reelection campaign in November.

Both districts are usually reliably Republican, but both incumbents are now under a legal cloud that may or may not dissipate before the election. What political effect, if any, these legal developments will have on Taylor and Collins is not known. The Collins indictment virtually assures that ethics will become a major issue in this cycle, though most of the ethics scandals of the past two years have involved Trump cabinet officials like Scott Pruitt, Tom Price and Ryan Zinke, not to mention the President himself. Democrats used the “culture of corruption” message to devastating effect in flipping the House of Representatives in 2006, so it’s likely they will use an updated version of that playbook for the next three months.

Biden Foundation Launches LGBTQ Youth Acceptance Campaign

Vice President Joe Biden’s charitable foundation launched As You Are, an outreach and acceptance campaign on behalf of LGBTQ youth.

 

In a statement, the former vice president said, ““I’m so proud to announce the Biden Foundation has launched this campaign. We’ll use our resources to highlight the harms of family rejection—and lift up research, best practices, and personal stories to powerfully show the significant value of family acceptance.”

Bill Schuette Wins Michigan GOP Gubernatorial Primary

Attorney General Bill Schuette has won the Republican nomination in the Michigan governor’s race.  He will face off against former prosecutor and legislator Gretchen Whitmer.

Here is the statement from the Republican Governors’ Association:

“With an established record as a conservative reformer, Bill Schuette is uniquely qualified to lead Michigan forward,” said RGA Chairman Governor Bill Haslam. “As governor, Bill will work to expand opportunity, fight to keep taxes low, and continue Michigan’s economic comeback. The Republican Governors Association is proud to support Bill Schuette’s campaign to be the next governor of Michigan.”

Laura Kelly Wins Kansas Democratic Gubernatorial Primary

The AP has called the Kansas Democratic gubernatorial primary for state senator Laura Kelly.  Jeff Colyer and Kris Kobach are still locked in a 41-40 race for the Republican nomination as ballots are still being counted.

Here’s the statement from the Democratic Governors’ Association:

“Congratulations to Laura Kelly on her primary victory in Kansas,” said Inslee. “Kansas is ready for a change after 8 years of Sam Brownback’s disastrous economic experiment. Laura Kelly is the only candidate for governor who will end the Brownback tax plan and invest in Kansas schools, infrastructure and economic growth. The contrast in this race couldn’t be clearer: Senator Kelly helped build the bipartisan coalition to reverse the Brownback tax plan, while the Republican candidate would reinstate Brownback economics. Kansas is ready to move forward with Laura Kelly, not go back to the past of Sam Brownback.”

“Laura Kelly is the serious leader Kansas needs right now,” said Raimondo. “Sen. Kelly has seen firsthand how much damage Sam Brownback did to the state of Kansas, and she will make sure they never make the same reckless mistakes in the future. She will finally fund Kansas schools, rebuild the state’s infrastructure and get the state’s economy back on track after the Brownback years. 2018 is shaping up to be the year of the woman governor, and Laura Kelly is one of the great Democratic female candidates who will help make it happen.”

John James Wins Michigan GOP Senate Primary

The Associated Press calls the race for veteran and businessman John James.  He will face off against incumbent Democrat Debbie Stabenow, who is currently favored to win re-election in November.

Gretchen Whitmer Wins Democratic Nomination in Michigan Governor’s Race

The Associated Press and the New York Times have called Michigan’s Democratic gubernatorial primary for former lawmaker and prosecutor Gretchen Whitmer.

Here’s the statement from the Democratic Governors’ Association:

“Congratulations to Gretchen Whitmer on winning the Democratic nomination for governor in Michigan,” said Democratic Governors Association Chair Gov. Jay Inslee. “Michigan is one of the DGA’s top targets for pickup this cycle, and Gretchen is a terrific candidate. Gretchen Whitmer knows how to get things done to make a difference in people’s lives. She worked across the aisle to help expand Medicaid coverage to more than 680,000 Michiganders, and has concrete plans to fix Michigan’s roads and improve its education system. She’s the right person to bring change to Michigan this November.”

“Gretchen Whitmer will work every day to make sure Michiganders lives improve, and that’s why she’s going to be a great governor,” said Democratic Governors Association Vice Chair Gina Raimondo.“She’s relentless when it comes to finding a solution. Whether it’s fixing Michigan’s roads and bridges, fighting for universal preschool and debt-free community college, or cleaning up Michigan’s drinking water, Gretchen will get it done. Gretchen Whitmer is one of the great Democratic female candidates who will help make 2018 the year of the woman governor.