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?

Reading the 2020 Tea Leaves

A look at what prospective Democratic presidential candidates are up to:

California Voting: Record Turnout in State’s Midterm Primary Election

Much has been written about the general trend of Democrats overperforming in primary, general and special elections since Donald Trump became President of the United States. Though the Democratic candidate hasn’t always won, generally speaking he or she has exceeded past expectations. California – a state in which registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by an almost 2:1 ratio – is the most recent state to show evidence of increased voter turnout.

According to numbers released from the Secretary of State, 7,141,987 Californians voted in the state’s primary election on June 5. This figure is a record for a midterm election year, and is only exceeded by the vote totals in the 2008 and 2016 presidential primary elections, in which California played a key role in deciding the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee. This figure is considerably larger than the 5,654,993 people who voted in the 2010 primary, and the 4,461,346 who voted in 2014.

California is expected to play a key role in Democratic hopes to win control of the House of Representatives in November. Democrats need to win 24 seats to flip the House.  Seven of them are Republican-held districts in California that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. There were concerns that the state’s jungle primary system might leave Democrats off the ballot in these competitive districts, until the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee intervened.

Four of the most competitive districts were located in Orange County and San Diego County. Numbers from the 2018 primary election look favorable compared to historical data from the 2014 midterm elections. The number of registered Democrats in Orange County and San Diego County increased by nearly 47,000 and 78,000 voters since 2014. Compare those figures to the number of registered voters in Orange County and San Diego County during that same period increased by nearly 57,000 and 136,000 voters.  In other words, Democrats appear to be responsible for expanding a significant part of the electorate in those two counties in 2018.

It’s too early to draw any definitive conclusions, but the turnout numbers from the primary election are a good sign for California Democrats heading into November.

 

Where Democrats Stand On the Brett Kavanaugh Nomination

Here is a running list of where Democrats stand on Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court in the aftermath of last night’s announcement.

* Up for re-election in 2016

+ Considering 2020 presidential run

# Member of Senate Judiciary Committee

 

SENATE

Tammy Baldwin (Wisc.) – UNDECIDED*

Michael Bennett (Colo.) – UNDECIDED

Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) – AGAINST#

Cory Booker (N.J.) – AGAINST+#

Sherrod Brown (Ohio) – UNDECIDED*

Maria Cantwell (Wash.) – UNDECIDED*

Ben Cardin (Md.) – UNDECIDED*

Tom Carper (Del.) – AGAINST*

Bob Casey (Penn.) – AGAINST*

Chris Coons (Del.) – UNDECIDED#

Catherine Cortez Masto (Nev.) – UNDECIDED

Joe Donnelly (Ind.) – UNDECIDED*

Tammy Duckworth (Ill.) – UNDECIDED

Dick Durbin (Ill.) – UNDECIDED#

Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) – UNDECIDED*

Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) – AGAINST+

Kamala Harris (Calif.) – AGAINST+#

Maggie Hassan (N.H.) – UNDECIDED

Martin Heinrich (N.M.) – AGAINST

Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) – UNDECIDED*

Mazie Hirono (Hawaii) – UNDECIDED#

Doug Jones (Ala.) – UNDECIDED

Tim Kaine (Va.) – UNDECIDED*

Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) – UNDECIDED*#

Patrick Leahy (Vt.) – UNDECIDED#

Joe Manchin (W.Va.) – UNDECIDED*

Ed Markey (Mass.) – AGAINST

Claire McCaskill (Mo.) – UNDECIDED*

Bob Menendez (N.J.) – AGAINST*

Jeff Merkley (Ore.) – AGAINST+

Chris Murphy (Conn. ) – AGAINST*

Patty Murray (Wash.) – AGAINST

Bill Nelson (Fla.) – UNDECIDED*

Gary Peters (Mich.) – UNDECIDED

Jack Reed (R.I.) – AGAINST

Brian Schatz (Hawaii) – UNDECIDED

Charles Schumer (N.Y.) – AGAINST

Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.) – UNDECIDED

Tina Smith (Minn.) – UNDECIDED*

Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) – UNDECIDED

Jon Tester (Mont.) – UNDECIDED

Tom Udall (N.M.) – AGAINST

Chris Van Hollen (Md.) – UNDECIDED

Mark Warner (Va.) – UNDECIDED

Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) – AGAINST+

Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) – UNDECIDED*#

Ron Wyden (Ore.) – AGAINST

Angus King (I – Maine) – UNDECIDED*

Bernie Sanders (I – Vt.) – AGAINST+

It should be noted that the four red state Senate Democrats (Joe Donnelly, Heidi Heitkamp, Doug Jones, and Joe Manchin) who were invited to attend last night’s announcement declined the invitation, as did the Judiciary Committee’s ranking Democrat Dianne Feinstein.

DEMOCRATIC SENATE CANDIDATES

Phil Bredesen (Tenn.) – UNDECIDED*

Jacky Rosen (Nev.) – UNDECIDED*

Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) – UNDECIDED*

Jenny Wilson (Utah) – UNDECIDED*

OTHERS

Steve Bullock – UNDECIDED+

Andrew Cuomo – UNDECIDED+

Jay Inslee – UNDECIDED+

Terry McAuliffe – AGAINST+

 

Reading the 2020 Tea Leaves

A look at what prospective Democratic presidential candidates are up to:

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden will travel to Ohio at the end of June for fundraising events in Cincinatti for Richard Cordray, the Democratic candidate in the Ohio governor’s race; and another event in Cleveland for Democratic senator Sherrod Brown.
  • Biden also endorsed Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams in her campaign to become the first Democratic governor of Georgia in 15 years, and the first African American woman to ever be elected governor. Abrams has also been endorsed by other 2020 contenders Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris.
  • Biden also endorsed Jena Griswold, the Democratic nominee running for Colorado Secretary of State.
  • Governor Jay Inslee traveled to Iowa in his capacity as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, where he joined the Iowa Democratic ticket Fred Hubbell and Rita Hart at a campaign event. He recorded an interview with Iowa Public Television in which he praised Hubbell as “the perfect candidate.” He will also be the featured speaker at the Iowa Democratic Party Hall of Fame Celebration in Des Moines on Saturday night.  He will also be meeting with Democratic activists in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.
  • Senator Jeff Merkley did not rule out a possible presidential run during an interview with The New Yorker’s Susan Glasser: “I’m exploring the possibility.”
  • Senator Cory Booker was the headliner at the Blue Commonwealth Gala in Richmond, Virginia, an annual event organized by the Democratic Party of Virginia. In addition to Booker, all Virginia Democratic statewide elected officials and former governor Terry McAuliffe – another possible 2020 contender – spoke at the event.
  • Senator Kamala Harris sent out a fundraising email on behalf of Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, according to Kansas City Star reporter Lindsay Wise. Harris also praised McCaskill during her keynote address before the St. Louis County NAACP, which both senators attended. McCaskill is considered one of the most endangered Democratic senators of the current election cycle.

DNC Sets Dates for 2020 Convention

The Democratic National Committee has scheduled its next national convention for the week of July 13, 2020. According to a statement, the convention is scheduled to begin eleven days before the star of the Summer Olympics to allow the party’s presidential nominee “maximum exposure heading into the fall.” The earlier date also gives the nominee earlier access to general election funds, which are restricted until after the candidate has formally accepted the party’s nomination. Because Republicans control the White House, the Democrats will hold their convention first. According to the Washington Post, the 2020 convention will be the earliest since 1976.

According to CNN, the committee has narrowed down its choice of host city for the convention to eight possible contenders:

  • Atlanta, Georgia
  • Birmingham, Alabama
  • Denver, Colorado
  • Houston, Texas
  • Miami Beach, Florida
  • Milwaukee, Wisconsin
  • New York, New York
  • San Francisco, California

Each city has its pros and cons. With the exceptions of Birmingham and Milwaukee, all have hosted previous Democratic conventions.

  • Atlanta: It is one of the most Democratic cities in the south, in a state Democrats have wanted to flip for years that Hillary Clinton lost by five points. If gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams wins the governor’s race in the fall, she will be a rising star in the party and be able to make a strong case for Atlanta as the convention’s host city. She would probably be a contender to deliver the keynote address, which historically has been a springboard for future stars of the party. Having the convention here would also be a boon to the Democratic nominee running against incumbent Republican senator David Perdue. Picking Atlanta would also reaffirm Democratic commitment to trying to compete and win in the south, an area that geographically has trended Republican for years.
  • Birmingham: Incumbent senator Doug Jones, who won an upset victory in the Alabama Senate race last year and would be running for reelection, would at the very least be considered for a prime-time speaking slot, if not the keynote address. His reelection campaign and the state Democratic party would likely benefit a great deal from having the convention in Alabama. Like Atlanta, choosing Birmingham for the convention would be a reaffirmation of Democratic intentions to compete in the south. However, the state is still solidly Republican.
  • Denver: The Mile High City hosted Barack Obama’s first convention in 2008, and the state has voted Democratic in the last three presidential elections. Hosting the convention could be a boon to the Democratic challenger running against incumbent Republican senator Cory Gardner. Democrats have found success in the Mountain West in recent years, particularly Colorado and New Mexico. Democratic candidates in purplish states like Arizona or Montana could benefit from having the convention in Denver.
  • Houston: Democrats have dreamed of turning Texas blue for years, a state dominated by Republicans up and down the ticket since the mid-1990s. Hillary Clinton had the best performance of a Democratic presidential candidate in two decades, losing by nine points. Beto O’Rourke is seen as a long-shot candidate to beat incumbent Senator Ted Cruz this November, though the state’s growing minority population could help Democratic candidates running for the House of Representatives this year. Texas won’t be voting for a Democratic presidential candidate any time soon, but hosting the convention in Houston would be an affirmation of the party’s commitment to making that a reality.
  • Miami Beach: Hosting a convention in the perennial and all-important swing state of Florida is never a bad idea for either party. If all the Trump-Nixon comparisons weren’t enough already, here’s another one: the last time the Democrats held their convention in Miami Beach was in 1972 – a few weeks after the Watergate burglary.
  • Milwaukee: Wisconsin has had one of the most successful Republican state parties in the country in recent years, thanks arguably to Governor Scott Walker. Having the Democratic convention in Milwaukee would be a form of making amends, both to rebuild the state party and to not repeat Hillary Clinton’s disastrous failure to campaign in the Badger State in 2016.
  • New York: The Big Apple has all the existing infrastructure to host a convention, and has done so for both parties many times over the years. It would be geographically convenient for many of the party’s fundraisers, as well as Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer. The city also appeals to the party’s young, minority, and LGBT base. It would also let Democrats take the fight directly to Donald Trump in his hometown, although Trump lost the city and the state handily in 2016. Besides practicality, there is little advantage to doing it here.
  • San Francisco: Like New York, it has all the existing infrastructure and has hosted previous conventions.  It would be geographically convenient for many of the party’s fundraisers, as well as House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.  The city also appeals to the party’s young, minority, and LGBT base. The city and state are solidly Democratic. Again, like New York, San Francisco offers little more than practicality.

UPDATE: According to Politico Playbook, the DNC has narrowed the field down to four finalists: Denver, Houston, Miami Beach and Milwaukee.

UPDATE II: The Denver Post is reporting that the Denver bid has been withdrawn, citing incompatibility with the planned July 2020 dates for the convention.  Houston, Miami Beach and Milwaukee remain on the shortlist.

Kansas Democrat Faces Uphill Battle to Win Congressional Seat

The first congressional election of Donald Trump’s presidency is one week away. Although Republicans are strongly favored to retain the seat formerly held by Rep. Mike Pompeo, the race is seen as the Democrats’ first test of candidates, messages, strategies, and tactics in an effort to win a series of special elections over the course of the next three months, and to prepare for midterm elections in 2018. Kansas Democrats chose James Thompson, a civil rights attorney from Wichita, as their standard bearer to run against state treasurer Ron Estes. Can a Democrat win in a solidly Republican state representing a district that includes Koch Industries? The answer is yes, though it will be an uphill battle based on historical trends and more recent developments in the state. If elected, Thompson would be the first Democrat to hold the seat in more than two decades, and would be the only Democrat in the state’s congressional delegation.

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