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?

The Barack Obama Post-White House Era: Out of Sight, Not Out of Mind

One of the best looks at Barack Obama’s post-presidency so far was published over the weekend courtesy of New York’s Gabriel Debenedetti.  The story touches on everything from Obama’s decision to largely stay out of the political fray, his lucrative post-presidential business opportunities, writing his presidential memoir, and his behind-the-scenes efforts to save Obamacare. The whole thing is well worth reading.

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.

Biden Foundation Launches

Twelve days after leaving office, former vice president Joe Biden announced the launch of the Biden Foundation. According to the foundation’s website, it will “build upon Vice President and Dr. Biden’s lifelong commitment to protect and advance the rights and opportunities of all people through educational programming and public policy analysis.”

The statement from Vice President and Dr. Jill Biden:

Wilmington, DE – My dad used to have an expression: “It’s a lucky person who gets up in the morning, puts both feet on the floor, knows what they’re about to do and thinks it still matters.” Jill and I have been very lucky these past decades.  We look forward to this new chapter where we will continue our work to ensure that everyone—no matter their income level, race, gender, age, or sexuality— is treated with dignity and gets a fair shot at achieving the American Dream. That’s why we are honored that a group of long-time friends and supporters have begun the work of founding the Biden Foundation to build on our lifelong commitment to issues that have always motivated us.

The foundation’s work will focus on foreign policy, cancer research, and ending violence against women, and other issues.

One interesting point on the Biden Foundation website: it will not accept donations from foreign citizens, organizations or countries. This is presumably a response to the fundraising practices of the Clinton Foundation which caused so much controversy during Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Obama Foundation Hires White House Political Director as CEO

The Obama Foundation announced the hiring of White House political director David Simas as Chief Executive Officer. According to the foundation’s press release, Simas will join the foundation’s leadership team and help work on the creation of the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago. According to Simas’s biography in the announcement:

A Taunton, Massachusetts native, David Simas received a bachelor’s degree in political science from Stonehill College and a doctor of law degree from Boston College Law School. In 2007, he was appointed Deputy Chief of Staff to Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. In 2009, Simas joined the Obama Administration as a Deputy Assistant to the President, working with senior advisors David Axelrod and David Plouffe. He then served as Director of Opinion Research for President Obama’s re-election. Simas most recently served as Assistant to the President and Director of the Office of Political Strategy and Outreach. He lives in Washington with his wife Shauna and two daughters, Payton and Rowan.

Comments from Simas himself, via Twitter:

Obama Says He Will Help Democrats Rebuild After Leaving Office

This comment came up during President Obama’s press conference on Friday. From the White House transcript:

What I’ve said is, is that I can maybe give some counsel and advice to the Democratic Party.  And I think that that the thing we have to spend the most time on — because it’s the thing we have the most control over — is how do we make sure that we are showing up in places where I think Democratic policies are needed, where they are helping, where they are making a difference, but where people feel as if they’re not being heard and where Democrats are characterized as coastal, liberal, latte-sipping, politically-correct, out-of-touch folks.  We have to be in those communities.  And I’ve seen that when we are in those communities, it makes a difference.

That’s how I became President.  I became a U.S. senator not just because I had a strong base in Chicago, but because I was driving around downstate Illinois and going to fish frys and sitting in VFW halls and talking to farmers.  And I didn’t win every one of their votes, but they got a sense of what I was talking about, what I cared about, that I was for working people, that I was for the middle class, that the reason I was interested in strengthening unions, and raising the minimum wage, and rebuilding our infrastructure, and making sure that parents had decent childcare and family leave was because my own family’s history wasn’t that different from theirs, even if I looked a little bit different.  Same thing in Iowa.

And so the question is, how do we rebuild that party as a whole so that there’s not a county in any state — I don’t care how red — that we don’t have a presence and we’re not making the argument.  Because I think we have the better argument.  But that requires a lot of work.  It’s been something that I’ve been able to do successfully in my own campaigns.  It is not something I’ve been able to transfer to candidates in midterms and sort of build a sustaining organization around.  That’s something that I would have liked to have done more of, but it’s kind of hard to do when you’re also dealing with a whole bunch of issues here in the White House.

And that doesn’t mean, though, that it can’t be done.  And I think there are going to be a lot of talented folks out there, a lot of progressives who share my values who are going to be leading the charge in the years to come.

In recent history, the norm has been for the outgoing president to stay quiet (or at the very least, keep a low profile) after leaving office. In addition to the lingering effects of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Bill Clinton left office under a cloud after a controversial series of presidential pardons at the end of his presidency. George W. Bush’s poll numbers were in the low 30s by the time he left office due to a combination of the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina, and the collapse of the housing market – all three of which happened during his second term. (Caveat: the Iraq war began in Bush’s first term, but the political and security situation on the ground started going south during his second term).

Obama is in a unique position in that he is in a much better situation than his predecessors. President Obama’s approval ratings are in the high 50s – he will leave office with Reagan-esque poll numbers. He is also popular and respected within the Democratic Party, somebody who can appeal to most of the factions vying for control and direction right now as he prepares to leave office four weeks from now. The fact that he was so successful in both his presidential runs means that he has created a model for others to follow – one that Hillary Clinton was not successful at replicating.

He will probably have some say in the form and shape the party take as the opposition for the next few years, though he will probably allow Democrats running for DNC chairman now and the primaries three years from now to let them sort things out for themselves.  He also has a vested interest in rebuilding the party, because Donald Trump and the congressional Republicans’ agenda will consist in large part on trying to undo or erase much of Obama’s legacy – Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, the Paris climate change agreement, etc. Republicans will complain that Obama should give Trump the same courtesy of silence that George W. Bush gave him, but that argument ignores the fact that Dick Cheney was one of his most blistering critics in the opposition.

Keep an eye out for Obama around sometime next spring, after he has presumably taken a long vacation and settled into life as a private citizen again.