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?

All Work and No Play Makes David a Dull Boy

Hi everybody…

I’ve been working hard on my second book for the past several months. I’m currently holed up in Aspen cranking out the first draft.  I’m hoping to have it finished this month or by early July at the latest, hence the blogging inactivity over here despite the many political developments in Washington DC and throughout the country.  Regular political blogging/reporting will resume shortly, I promise!

Ron Estes Wins Kansas Special Election

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Democratic candidate James Thompson addressed reporters at his campaign’s election watch party shortly after losing the race. Thompson had the best performance of any Democrat in this district since 1996. (Photo credit: David de Sola)

WICHITA, Kan. – State treasurer Ron Estes was elected to the House of Representatives, despite a close race by his opponent, civil rights attorney and political novice James Thompson, who had the best performance of any Democratic candidate in this district in 21 years. In a district where Republicans enjoy a 2-1 party registration advantage that President Donald Trump and Rep. Mike Pompeo won by 27 and 31 points last fall, Thompson lost by just shy of seven points. This marks a 24-point shift in the Democrats’ favor in the same race from last November.

“What’s hard to get my head around is that the last time we elected a Democrat from this district was in 1992. The last time a Democrat candidate broke 40 percent of the vote was 1996, and the guy who ran five months ago got 31 percent more of the vote than the Democrat did. It’s huge momentum,” Kansas House minority leader Jim Ward (D-Wichita) said in an interview.

Though Thompson lost the race, the mood of the candidate and his supporters at the election watch party on Tuesday night was far from defeated. Thompson told reporters that Estes didn’t win the race, attributing the victory to the last-minute interventions of President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, House Speaker Paul Ryan, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and the National Republican Congressional Committee.  Thompson also called Estes “a weak candidate” and declared his candidacy for the same seat for the 2018 midterm elections, adding, “Mr. Estes won the battle, but he didn’t win the war.”

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FILE PHOTO: Kansas Treasurer Ron Estes speaking to supporters at a rally the day before the election. (Photo credit: David de Sola)

During his victory speech, Estes took a shot at the skeptics who thought he was going to lose the race. From the Wichita Eagle’s report:

“We heard a lot from the national media and from people outside the state that we weren’t going to be able to win this race. We showed tonight that we were,” Estes said. “We’re still a Republican seat. … We sent a message across the country that we’re still Republican. That message should echo.

“For far too long, Washington hasn’t worked for us. We need to make sure that changes,” Estes said. “Tonight is a symbol of that.”

He dismissed “angst against the president” and that the election “was a chance for the Democrats.”

“We really showed the pundits tonight, didn’t we?” he asked, to applause and cheers.

Thompson started the night with strong numbers out of Sedgwick County – the most populous of the district’s 17 counties, which includes Wichita – in part because of early voting.  Estes was able to make up an initial deficit of nearly 6,000 votes in Sedgwick County in more rural counties in the district as well as voters who turned out on Election Day.  Thompson wound up winning Sedgwick County by 1,874 votes, but lost every other county in the district.

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Voters at a Wichita area polling place on Election Day. (Photo credit: David de Sola)

Emily Percival, a registered nurse who works at a local hospital in Wichita, said she voted for Thompson because “I tend to care more about social issues than big business. Because of my profession, I frequently deal with the most vulnerable in our population,” and noted Kansas governor Sam Brownback’s recent veto of Medicaid expansion which passed with bipartisan majorities in both chambers of the state legislature.

Susan, a paraeducator and registered Republican, said she voted for Estes in part because of the national attention on the race. “The rest of the nation is looking at this election to see if we are supportive of Donald Trump’s initiatives,” she said, while also noting her pro-life position.  She added that she had some issues with the negativity of Estes’s campaign commercial attacking Thompson on abortion, but noted “There’s never a perfect candidate.”

Mike, a retiree and registered Democrat, said he voted for Thompson because, “I’m not satisfied with the state government, which is run by Republicans. We need a change of everything, from the president on down.”

Greg Gourley, a registered Republican who works in the aerospace industry, said he crossed party lines and voted for Thompson. “Estes would support Brownback. I don’t agree with the policies of the current administration.” He also noted that he had voted for some Democratic candidates in the past, adding, “I tend to vote the issues, not the party.”

Barbara, a retiree, said “[Estes] is the best man for the job. He’s against late-term abortions. He’s a Republican, and I’d like to replace [Mike Pompeo] with another Republican.”

Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman told the Wichita Eagle that turnout could potentially double the expected 20 percent, though final numbers were still not available.

Although Republicans managed to avoid what would have been a shocking upset in this race, now they must focus their attention on the special election in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District scheduled for next week.  President Trump won that district by one point in 2016, and the Cook Political Report recently ranked the race as a toss up.

“The Democratic Party needs to remember there are more than just a few states that are in play. We need to make sure that they step up and help out and not wait until the last minute,” Thompson told reporters. “The national party was concentrating on Georgia. It’s a close race, and they should take that. We’ve shown that it’s possible. People didn’t give us credit here, didn’t think it was possible, but they came in at the last minute and tried to help out and we appreciate it. We need to make sure that we have a true 50-state strategy in place to make all races competitive.”

Though Thompson lost the election, Political Wire publisher Taegan Goddard noted the significance of the result: “A 20-point swing towards Democrats in KS-4 during Trump’s first 100 days — a.k.a. his honeymoon — is a political earthquake.”

According to Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, “[A Thompson win] would be a national event, interpreted as huge Trump loss. [A Thompson loss] under 10 point [margin] would be significant,” he wrote in an e-mail, noting this might make both national parties focus more attention on congressional races in the Second and Third Congressional Districts for the 2018 midterms.

One Month Into Trump Presidency, the Democrats’ 2020 Field Is Beginning to Take Shape

I had been meaning to flag this good piece a few days ago from Politico’s Gabriel Debenedetti on the Democrats’ ever-growing list of possible candidates who want to run against Donald Trump in 2020, potentially as many as two dozen senators and governors who are more or less openly pondering their White House ambitions.

A lot of this interest comes from elected officials and operatives who had cleared the field for Hillary Clinton in 2007 and again in 2015 expecting her to win.  If she had been elected last November, that would have meant there wouldn’t be an open Democratic primary until 2024, assuming she had been elected to serve two terms. Her loss – combined with Donald Trump’s turbulent first month in office – means that many are sensing an opportunity that might not have been there even as recently as early January.

It should also be noted that some of these would-be candidates probably have little or no chance of getting the nomination. The question now is whether Democrats will follow the Republican model of running for president, in the sense that long-shot candidates don’t run with the expectation of actually winning, but rather to raise their profile and grow their email and donor lists to do something else: get a TV pundit or book deal, or set themselves up to run for another elected office in the future.  Then again, in the age of Trump, long shots from either party are now probably thinking they do have a chance of winning.

Washington Attorney General Scores Legal Victories Against Federal Government and Florist

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson scored two big legal victories today. The one that got the most attention is his lawsuit regarding President Trump’s travel ban, which has already been ruled in his favor on two separate occasions by four judges on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Department of Justice filed a 61-page document this morning with this crucial sentence:

Rather than continuing this litigation, the President intends in the near future to rescind the Order and replace it with a new, substantially revised Executive Order to eliminate what the panel erroneously thought were constitutional concerns.
President Trump confirmed this himself during his press conference today, telling reporters, “The new order is going to be very much tailored to what I consider to be a very bad decision.”
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson – who filed the initial lawsuit on behalf of the state, before being joined by his Minnesota counterpart Lori Swanson – said in a statement:
“Let’s be clear:  Today’s court filing by the federal government recognizes the obvious — the President’s current Executive Order violates the Constitution,” Ferguson said. “President Trump could have sought review of this flawed Order in the Supreme Court but declined to face yet another defeat.”
The question that remains now is what will the new executive order look like, and will there be further litigation surrounding that as well.
Ferguson’s other victory today was in the case of State of Washington v. Arlene’s Flowers. (Read the PDF here) At issue was a Richland florist who refused to sell flowers to a gay couple for their wedding because the owner didn’t believe in marriage equality. Ferguson’s office sued the florist arguing that by doing so, it was violating the state’s Consumer Protection Act and the Washington Law Against Discrimination.  The Washington Supreme Court ruled unanimously in the state’s favor. According to state law, businesses are not required to provide a particular service. However, if it does so for heterosexual couples, it must provide that service to same-sex couples.
In the bigger picture, this case provides a potential precedent for future litigation involving state or federal religious freedom bills that allow people to deny services if they conflict with their religious beliefs – for example, opposition to gay marriage.

DNC Race Home Stretch

The four regional forums are done, and in eight days, the 447 voting members of the Democratic National Committee will pick the party’s next chairman (or woman) and senior leaders.

The big drama in the past few days: Tom Perez sent out an email to DNC members saying he had locked up 180 votes – a claim which can’t be independently verified – out of the 224 votes necessary to win the chairmanship. This prompted Keith Ellison to send out his own email to DNC members accusing Ellison – without naming him – of misleading or misrepresenting his lead in the state of the race.  Young Turks reporter Nomiki Konst created a bit of a stir when she tweeted a series of photos showing Perez and Ellison having dinner together at a Dupont Circle restaurant after a candidates’ forum organized by the Woman’s National Democratic Club. Perez and Ellison subsequently tweeted that they were just friends, and in a statement pledged cooperation regardless of who won the chairmanship at the election later this month.

NBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald reported that Ellison had offered New Hampshire Democratic Party chairman Ray Buckley “a role leading DNC operations” in exchange for his endorsement in the race. Asked to comment on this report, a source close to Buckley responded, “The Chairman is still in the race and is keeping all options on the table right now. He wants to make sure whatever he does is in the party’s best interests.”

Beyond that, here is the list of all the endorsements that have been announced by the various candidates over the past several days:

Sally Boynton Brown:

Pete Buttigieg:

Keith Ellison:

Jaime Harrison:

Tom Perez: