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?

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.”

Hillary Clinton Endorses Michigan Congressional Candidate

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton endorsed and recorded a robocall on behalf of Haley Stevens, who is running for the Democratic nomination in Michigan’s 11th congressional district.  Stevens, the former chief of staff for President Barack Obama’s Auto Task Force in the Treasury Department and a veteran of Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, is one of six Democrats vying for the party’s nomination in tomorrow’s primary. The winner will face off against the Republican nominee in November to succeed retiring Republican Rep. Dave Trott.

The transcript of the robocall:

            “Hello, this is Hillary Clinton and I’m calling to encourage you to cast your vote on Tuesday for a fresh, new Michigan leader, Haley Stevens. Haley served as the chief of staff to the Auto Rescue, she helped save 200,000 Michigan jobs, and she knows how to support Michigan’s advanced manufacturing economy, especially through training opportunities. I’ve seen Haley in action. We can count on her to protect the gains we’ve made with Obamacare. So please, vote for Haley Stevens, on Tuesday. Thank you, very much.”

This is Clinton’s first primary endorsement of a candidate in the runup to the midterms, who has generally kept a low profile since the 2016 election. Larry Sabato and the Cook Political Report both rank the race as a toss-up.

Biden Endorses Kyrsten Sinema

Former vice president Joe Biden has endorsed Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, the Democratic candidate running for Arizona’s U.S. Senate seat. In an email sent out from Sinema’s Senate campaign, Biden said:

“I am proud to support my friend Kyrsten Sinema in her campaign for Senate. Kyrsten understands the challenges and opportunities that Arizona families face every day and will make a great Senator.

I’ve seen first-hand how Kyrsten gets things done for Arizona. She was indispensable to our work to strengthen the landmark Violence Against Women Act and brought a unique perspective, having worked in communities and schools. Together with Kyrsten, we expanded protections against domestic abuse and sexual assault.

Kyrsten also cares deeply for the brave men and women who wear our nation’s uniform. From standing up for our active duty service members to her work to ensure all veterans get the care they deserve, Kyrsten is tenacious in delivering results.

Kyrsten is as hard-working and principled as they come. She has the rare ability to cut through the political games and work across the aisle to get things done. These qualities can be tough to find today, but are as important as ever to solve our nation’s toughest challenges. We need more people like Kyrsten in the U.S. Senate.”

Arizona’s primary election is scheduled for August 28. Both Larry Sabato and the Cook Political Report project the Arizona Senate race as a tossup.

Biden Endorses Four Secretary of State Candidates

Former Vice President Joe Biden endorsed four down ballot candidates running for Secretary of State in key states for the midterm and presidential election cycles. He made the announcement in an email sent out to supporters of American Possibilities, his political action committee. He cited protection of voting rights as his reason for the endorsements, writing that one of the best ways to accomplish this goal was “by electing strong Secretaries of State, the folks responsible for overseeing elections, all across the country.”

Biden has maintained his public profile by endorsing several state and congressional candidates across the country in the past several months, fueling speculation about whether he is considering another White House run. Biden told the Washington Post that he did not know what he was going to do.

The four candidates to receive Biden’s endorsement were attorney Jena Griswold in Colorado, former Wayne State University Law School dean Jocelyn Benson in Michigan, Assemblyman Nelson Araujo in Nevada, and State Rep. Kathleen Clyde in Ohio.  All four states have open races for governor because of term-limited incumbents. Only Colorado does not have a Senate race in the current cycle. All four are competitive swing states in presidential elections.

The significance of the secretaries of state who are elected in this cycle is that they will become the top elections officials in their respective states for the 2020 presidential cycle, which will make them responsible for managing primaries, protecting the integrity of the election systems and process, and certifying the results.

Griswold won her party’s nomination in the Colorado primary this evening.

Poll: Trump Leads Holder 37-21

President Donald Trump leads former attorney general Eric Holder 37-21 in a hypothetical matchup, with 41 percent of voters undecided, according to a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll.  Holder underperforms a generic Democrat who, in another poll, is ahead of President Trump 44-36, with 20 percent undecided.

Democrats are divided about the former attorney general as a prospective presidential candidate. Fifty-two percent of Democrats were undecided when asked about a Trump-Holder matchup, compared to 42 percent who said they would support Holder.

Holder said he was considering a presidential run during an interview with MSNBC last April. He also traveled to New Hampshire in May, during which he spoke and took questions at “Politics and Eggs” at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics – a traditional stop for presidential aspirants.  Holder has said he remains focused on his work with the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.

John Kerry Signs Deal For His Memoir

This was announced today in Publisher’s Weekly:

Former Secretary of State John Kerry will publish a memoir with Simon & Schuster. Jonathan Karp, president and publisher of the Simon & Schuster imprint, and Bob Bender, v-p and executive editor, who will edit the book, acquired world publishing rights in all formats from Robert B. Barnett of Williams & Connolly. No publication date has yet been set. The book will also be published by Simon & Schuster’s international companies in Australia, Canada, India, and the United Kingdom, and in audiobook by Simon & Schuster Audio.

Kerry was represented by Bob Barnett, the same Washington uber-lawyer who has negotiated book deals for the Obamas, George W. Bush, Karl Rove, Sarah Palin, and many other national political figures. In addition to his tenure as Obama’s Secretary of State, I assume the book will also cover his 2004 presidential run and his Senate career.