If you want to understand why leftists look back on the Obama years with such a sense of frustration and disappointment, all you need to do is pick up one of the White House memoirs written by members of Obama’s staff. I’ve now poked through three of them, David Litt’s Thanks Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years, Dan Pfeiffer’s Yes We (Still) Can, and Ben Rhodes’ The World As It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House, plus a collection of first-person testimonies called Obama: An Oral History.* But the genre is expansive, and also includes Pat Cunnane’s West Winging It (with a front cover almost indistinguishable from Litt’s book), Alyssa Mastromonaco’s Who Thought This Was A Good Idea? (which at least asks the right question), and a second oral history volume called West Wingers: Stories from the Dream Chasers, Change Makers, and Hope Creators Inside the Obama White House.
I can’t say that once you have read one of these books, you have read them all. But if you read Litt, Pfeiffer, and Rhodes, you may get a sense that you have met the same man three times. Not only does each tell the same story, but they share common habits of mind, common interpretations of the same events, that reveal a lot about what “Obamaism” as a political mindset is. They have their differences: Litt’s book is breezy and jokey, Pfeiffer is obsessively focused on “fake news,” and Rhodes is slightly more cerebral and worldly (he was a foreign policy guy, after all). But each of them looks at politics through roughly the same lens, and reading their accounts can help to show why the left dislikes this kind of politics.
Let’s remember what the left critique of Obama’s administration is. Leftists argue, roughly, that while Obama came in with lofty promises of “hope” and “change,” the change was largely symbolic rather than substantive, and he failed to stand up for progressive values or fight for serious shifts in U.S. policy. He deported staggering numbers of immigrants, let Wall Street criminals off the hook, failed to take on (and now proudly boasts of his support for) the fossil fuel industry, sold over $100 billion in arms to the brutal Saudi government, killed American citizens with drones (and then made sickening jokes about it), killed lots more non-American citizens with drones (including Yemenis going to a wedding) and then misled the public about it, promised “the most transparent administration ever” and then was “worse than Nixon” in his paranoia about leakers, pushed a market-friendly healthcare plan based on conservative premises instead of aiming for single-payer, and showered Israel with both public support and military aid even as it systematically violated the human rights of Palestinians (Here, for example, is Haaretz: “Unlike [George W.] Bush, who gave Israel’s Iron Dome system a frosty response, Obama has led the way in funding and supporting the research, development and production of the Iron Dome”). Obama’s defenders responded to every single criticism by insisting that Obama had his hands tied by a Republican congress, but many of the things Obama did were freely chosen. In education policy, he hired charterization advocate Arne Duncan and pushed a horrible “dog-eat-dog” funding system called “Race To The Top.” Nobody forced him to hire Friedmanite economists like Larry Summers, or actual Republicans like Robert Gates, or to select middle-of-the-road judicial appointees like Elena Kagan and Merrick Garland. Who on Earth picks Rahm Emanuel, out of every person in the world, to be their chief of staff?
Centrism and compromise were central to Obama’s personal philosophy from the start. The speech that put him on the map in 2004 was famous for its declaration that there was no such thing as “blue” and “red” America, just the United States of America. A 2007 New Yorker profile said that “in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly, Obama is deeply conservative.” Obama spoke of being “postpartisan,” praised Ronald Reagan, gave culturally conservative lectures about how Black people supposedly needed to stop wearing gold chains and feeding their children fried chicken for breakfast. From his first days in office, there simply didn’t seem to be much of a “fighting” spirit in Obama. Whenever he said something daring and controversial (and correct), he would fail to stand by it. For example, when he publicly noted that the Cambridge police force acted “stupidly” in arresting Henry Louis Gates Jr. for trying to break into his own home, he followed up by inviting the police officer and Gates to sit down and talk things out over a beer. A disgusted Van Jones has characterized this as the “low point” of the Obama presidency, but the desire to be “all things to all people” had always been central to the Obama image. Matt Taibbi described him during his first campaign as:
…an ingeniously crafted human cipher… a sort of ideological Universalist… who spends a great deal of rhetorical energy showing that he recognizes the validity of all points of view, and conversely emphasizes that when he does take hard positions on issues, he often does so reluctantly… You can’t run against him on issues because you can’t even find him on the ideological spectrum.
Adolph Reed, Jr., who as early as 1996 had described the politics of “form over substance” being practiced by a certain “smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics,” warned in 2008 that “Obama’s empty claims to being a candidate of progressive change and to embodying a ‘movement’ that exists only as a brand will dissolve into disillusionment,” and his presidency would “continue the politics he’s practiced his entire career.” Reed saw the devotion Obama inspired as a kind of “faddish, utterly uninformed exuberance” and said that Obama’s “miraculous ability to inspire and engage the young replaced specific content in his patter of Hope and Change.” (When Obama did get specific, Reed said, he often “relies on nasty, victim-blaming stereotypes about black poor people to convey tough-minded honesty about race and poverty,” talking frequently about “alleged behavioral pathologies in poor black communities.”)
Obama supporters think all of this is deeply cynical and unfair. But those who want to argue that Obama was the proponent of a genuinely transformational progressive politics, his ambitions tragically stifled by the ideological hostility of reactionaries, have to contend with a few damning pieces of evidence: the books of Pfeiffer, Rhodes, and Litt.
Granted, these men are all devoted admirers of Obama who set out to defend his legacy. But in telling stories intended to make Obama and his staff look good, they end up affirming that the left’s cynicism was fully warranted. Litt, for instance, seems to have been a man with almost no actual political beliefs. Recently graduated from Yale when he joined the campaign, he was never much of an “activist.” Litt was drawn to Obama not because he felt that Obama would actually bring particular changes that he wanted to see happen, but because he developed an emotional obsession with Barack Obama as an individual person. Pfeiffer feels similarly—he fell in “platonic political love.” Litt’s book begins:
On January 3, 2008, I pledged my heart and soul to Barack Obama… My transformation was immediate and all-consuming. One moment I was a typical college senior, barely interested in politics. The next moment I would have done anything, literally anything, for a freshman senator from Illinois.
He describes the beginning of his brainless infatuation: “[Obama] spoke like presidents in movies. He looked younger than my dad. I didn’t have time for a second thought, or even a first one. I simply believed.”
Paul Krugman’s 2008 warning that “the Obama campaign seems dangerously close to becoming a cult of personality,” and Reed’s idea that Obama supporters radiated “faddish, utterly uninformed exuberance,” is confirmed by Litt’s account of his own political awakening. Throughout the book, Litt is humorously self-effacing, so it can be difficult to tell just how serious he is in his “kidding but not really” observations. But when he describes the religious fervor with which he unthinkingly embraced Obama’s candidacy, he seems to be at least partly serious:
We had no doubt that everyone would soon see the light… Our critics would later mock the depths of our devotion. Obamabots, they’d call us. And really, weren’t they right? Becoming obsessed with Barack Obama wasn’t a choice I made… My switch had been flipped… Obama wasn’t just fighting for change. He was change. He was the messenger and message all at once. It’s one thing to follow a prophet who speaks glowingly of a promised land. It’s another thing entirely to join him once he parts the sea… Given the circumstances, it seemed selfish not to spread the good news. Overnight, my friends found themselves living with an evangelist.
Christopher Hitchens once observed that while there is almost universal agreement that Barack Obama is a memorable public speaker, almost nobody can actually remember or quote any lines from an Obama speech. Indeed, Litt comes away from an Obama event and says “yet here’s the remarkable thing: I don’t remember a word.” He felt “a kind of patriotic ecstasy” but he doesn’t actually seem to have been inspired by the idea of actually doing anything with the power of government. Indeed, Pfeiffer’s memoir says that while conventional wisdom in politics is that you should talk about “issues and policy positions” for Obama “the campaign was the message.” Paraphrasing Jay-Z (“I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man”) the Obama staff concludes that Obama is not a “message man,” he’s the “message, man.” Pfeiffer says he had “desperately wanted” something in his life that felt “more like a cause than a campaign,” and in Obama he found it. But the “hope and change” they sought consisted of getting Obama elected. Obama “made our union more perfect simply by entering the White House,” Litt says. After that, it was all a bit “gauzy but vague” (Pfeiffer’s words). No wonder, then, that after being elected Obama disbanded his grassroots organizing apparatus—an act regarded by some as one of the worst political mistakes of his presidency. There was nothing to organize for. Scott Brown, whose 2010 election destroyed the Democrats’ Senate majority, has scoffed at the idea that the switch is what prevented Obama from getting his agenda through, pointing out that from 2009-2011:
They had two years to do whatever they wanted and they did hardly anything. They didn’t do minimum wage. They didn’t do climate change. They didn’t do immigration. They didn’t do health care. They just assumed they would always have this supermajority…
Litt’s memoir is remarkable for its lack of interest in actual policy. He mentions climate change in one or two sentences (p. 111), but seems to have spent most of his White House years preparing jokes for various black tie events like the Alfalfa Club Dinner and the Al Smith Dinner. (Litt’s rule for writing speeches for dinners of rich donors: “Jokes about money are acceptable… Jokes about power are not.”) Litt helped the president record videos for BuzzFeed (to get in touch with millennials), and Between Two Ferns (to plug the floundering healthcare.gov website), and to tape a birthday message for Betty White. But he was particularly in his element in preparing Obama’s annual comedy monologue for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner (WHCD). The WHCD, now thankfully gutted of its significance, was mocked outside Washington for the icky chumminess shown between political elites and the press corps. But Litt obsessed over it, and anecdotes about it take up page after page of his book. (An incident in which one of the president’s comedy PowerPoint slides failed to display correctly is told with dramatic flair over two full pages.)
This is the Washington of the Turkey Pardon and the Easter Egg Roll, where photo ops and symbolic gestures matter far more than such comparative trivialities as “what the actual policies of the administration are.” In fact, Litt even says that during the second term, he felt as if he was being given “the political equivalent of a vegan cookie” because the speeches he was writing focused on things that were “all nutrition, no taste” like “help[ing] more students pay off loans” and “insur[ing] more people.” He wanted to make jokes about Republicans, not try to talk to the American public about housing policy. In fact, Litt, Rhodes, and Pfeiffer all subscribe to a politics of gesture, where if you want to address some crisis you give a grand speech about it. One of Rhodes’ proudest moments is writing “the Middle East speech,” and describing a moment of political difficulty, Litt writes: “We needed something to break through. That something was a speech.” These three men are speechwriters, so we can forgive them for being preoccupied with descriptions of things rather than the things themselves. But this tendency to prioritize “getting the words right” over the actual experiences of human beings ran through the whole Obama presidency. Ordinary people were a kind of alien species—Litt says they referred to them as “real people (RPs)” and tried to litter speeches with “RP stories” to make them relatable. “In Washington you never stop hearing about the details of policy but you rarely see its effects.” This is only true if you rarely bother to examine the effects.
There may not have been much Change, but there were plenty of speeches about it. The economic situation of the average Black family may have been catastrophic under Obama, but he did give “the historic race speech.” The United States may have bombed an Afghan hospital, burning dozens of patients alive in their beds (their families each received $6,000 in compensation), but Obama gave a very powerful Nobel Peace Prize speech about how the pacifism of Martin Luther King needed to be balanced with a recognition that using force can be morally necessary.
I do not mean to imply that the speeches were good and the policies were not. Sometimes the speeches were not good either. “Message discipline,” for the Obama team, meant crafting slogans like “President Obama understands that the economy grows not from the top down but from the middle out and the bottom up.” What was important to the speechwriters? Well, ask Litt:
If my OkCupid profile had included the question: “What’s the most important thing about remarks for President Obama” I would have said this: Write long sentences. Most speakers can’t handle them…. But Barack Obama could control a run-on sentence the way a sports car makes turns at speed.
Run-on sentences. Got it. In fact, writing something clear enough to be disagreed with was so bold that Litt only dared try it in his final days in the White House. He says he wrote the line: “Any system that allows us to turn a blind eye to hopelessness and despair, that’s not a justice system, it is an injustice system,” and comments: “It was the kind of line I never would have written a year earlier. It was too aggressive, too sweeping, too at risk of being labeled a sound bite. But now, in my own fourth quarter, I didn’t care. Bucket. Why not?” If opposing injustice is so rhetorically risky that it feels transgressive during the “bucket” phase, how are you ever going to summon sufficient bravery to publicly condemn, say, predatory lending or killer cops?
My colleague Luke Savage has analyzed how pernicious the influence of The West Wing was on a generation of young Democratic politicos, and sure enough Litt says that “like nearly every Democrat under the age of thirty-five, I was raised, in part, by Aaron Sorkin.” (More accurately, of course, is “nearly every wealthy white male Democrat who worked in Washington.” The near total absence of women and people of color in top positions on The West Wing may give more viewing pleasure to a certain audience demographic over others.) Litt says in college he “watched West Wing DVDs on an endless loop,” and Pfeiffer too describes “watching The West Wing on a loop.”
Luke describes the kind of mentality this leads to: a belief that “doing politics” means that smart, virtuous people in charge make good decisions for the people, who themselves are rarely seen. Social movements don’t exist, even voters don’t exist. Instead, the political ideal is a PhD economist president (Jed Bartlet) consulting with a crack team of Ivy League underlings and challenging the ill-informed (but well-intended) Republicans with superior logic and wit. During the West Wing’s seven seasons, the Bartlet administration has very few substantive political accomplishments, though as Luke points out it “warmly embraces the military-industrial complex, cuts Social Security, and puts a hard-right justice on the Supreme Court in the interests of bipartisan ‘balance.’” It has always struck me as funny that Sorkin’s signature West Wing shot is the “walk and talk,” in which characters strut down hallways having intense conversations but do not actually appear to be going anywhere. What better metaphor could there be for a politics that consists of looking knowledgeable and committed without any sense of what you’re aiming at or how to get there? Litt says of Obama that “he spoke like presidents in movies.” Surely we can all see the problem here: Presidents in movies do not pass and implement single-payer healthcare. (They mostly bomb nameless Middle Eastern countries.)
Their West Wing-ism meant that the Obama staffers completely lacked an understanding of how political interests operate, and were blindsided when it turned out Republicans wanted to destroy them rather than collaborate to enact Reasonable Bipartisan Compromises. Jim Messina, Obama’s deputy chief of staff and reelection campaign manager, spoke to a key Republican staffer after the 2008 election and was shocked when she told him: “We’re not going to compromise with you on anything. We’re going to fight Obama on everything.” Messina replied “That’s not what we did for Bush.” Said the Republican: “We don’t care.” Rhodes and Pfeiffer, in particular, are shocked and appalled when Republicans turn out to be more interested in their own political standing than advancing the objective well-being of the country. Rhodes nearly has a breakdown when he is dragged through the conservative press over some Benghazi nonsense. He found himself in “an alternate reality that was insane,” and can’t believe Mitch McConnell turns out to be so “staggeringly partisan and unpatriotic” that he doesn’t care about Russian hacking.
The Obama Democrats, guided by the “let’s just all sit down in a room together and work out our differences” temperament of Obama himself, seemed desperate for Republican approval and shocked when the right proved unreasonable. In 2012, long after Messina had been told explicitly that Republicans were not going to be friendly under any circumstances, Obama invited congressional Republicans to the White House for a screening of Spielberg’s Lincoln, in order to show how political adversaries can cooperate for the common good. “Not one of them came,” Rhodes laments. Obama held out hope that a party willing to destroy the entire planet in order to preserve the privileges of the super-wealthy would come to his movie nights and work things out amicably.
The Obama administration bent over backwards to show that it was pragmatic and moderate and sensible, even inflicting cruel harm on families to show their toughness. Here is Tyler Moran, who was a deputy immigration policy director on Obama’s White House policy council:
There was a feeling that [the White House] needed to show the American public that you believed in enforcement, and that [we weren’t pushing for] open borders. But in hindsight I was like, what did we get for that? We deported more people than ever before. All these families separated, and Republicans didn’t give him one ounce of credit. There may as well have been open borders for five years.
We deported tons of people and separated families, and Republicans wouldn’t praise us!
This same bizarre naivete is evident in Obama’s dealings with Benjamin Netanyahu, as recounted by Ben Rhodes. Rhodes says it was obvious that “Netanyahu wasn’t going to negotiate seriously” about a just resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, and that Netanyahu “rejected any effort at peace.” Israeli settlements continued to be constructed in brazen violation of international law. Yet, Rhodes says, “despite Netanyahu’s intransigence, [Obama] would always side with Israel when push came to shove.” In 2011, the Obama administration vetoed a UN Security Council resolution declaring the settlements illegal, even though they plainly were and Obama himself had previously acknowledged as much.** Rhodes says the Palestinians were finding “little more than rhetorical support from us.” They barely received even that. Rhodes relates a stunning anecdote in which Obama meets with a group of Palestinian youth. One nervous boy summons the courage to tell the president that his people are being treated as Black Americans were once treated. Obama does not know what to say in reply. Incapable of directly criticizing Israel, he mutters something about how he believes in opportunity for all. But moved by the boy’s testimony, he decides later to act. What does he do? He adds a line to a speech he gives to Israelis, in which he tells them that Palestinian families love their children just as much as Israelis love theirs. Does he condemn the racist Israeli state? He does not. Does he actually do anything for the boy? Of course not.
Rhodes and Obama are frustrated, then, at criticism “for not being sufficiently pro-Israel, which ignored the fact that he wasn’t doing anything tangible for the Palestinians.” They gave Israel billions of dollars in military equipment, they refrained from tangibly aiding the people Israel oppresses, and Obama went before AIPAC in 2012 to say absolutely nothing in support of Palestinian rights and instead declare:
In the United States, our support for Israel is bipartisan, and that is how it should stay…. I have kept my commitments to the state of Israel. At every crucial juncture – at every fork in the road – we have been there for Israel. Every single time. … Despite a tough budget environment, our security assistance has increased every single year… We’re providing Israel with more advanced technology – the types of products and systems that only go to our closest friends and allies. And make no mistake: We will do what it takes to preserve Israel’s qualitative military edge – because Israel must always have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat… No American president has made such a clear statement about our support for Israel at the United Nations.
Obama swore to AIPAC that he will always fund Israeli missiles before the Detroit school system (if this isn’t “declaring allegiance to Israel”—which Ilhan Omar has been called anti-Semitic for talking about—then pray tell, what would be?) As with the Republicans, Rhodes cannot understand how Democrats can give in on everything and yet still be rejected. How do they not understand? They’re being played for suckers. Of course they’ll still call you anti-Semitic even if you would give the lives of your children to protect Israel’s right to an apartheid state. Of course they’re not going to stop building settlements just because you have declined to challenge them on anything. That’s how political power works: If the other party senses you’re weak and won’t do anything to pressure them, they’ll walk all over you! Throughout the Obama staffers’ books, you can hear them crying: But it’s not FAIR! We played nice and they took advantage of it! Gentlemen, that’s how this game works!
They keep getting pushed around, keep allowing Republicans to set the agenda. The Obama administration took a few bold steps on foreign policy, such as forging the Iran nuclear deal and thawing relations with Cuba. But even there, the same tendencies were in evidence: Rhodes says that during the Iran negotiations, “Israeli technical experts were in constant contact with our negotiating team so that we could prioritize their concerns.” Yet though they had prioritized Israel, when the Iran deal was up for approval the Obama administration was branded as a pack of anti-Semites intent on compromising Israel’s security! Rhodes ponders once more how people can be so unreasonable. Over time, he says, “instead of carrying out an affirmative agenda, I spent my days in a defensive crouch.”
Jesus: Get out of your crouch, man! Politics involves fighting, and there are going to be a lot of bullies on this playground. Yet the Obama administration cowered when they were accused of being soft on terror (see: Guantanamo) or anti-Israel or too pro-Black or too socialist. The cowering, and the efforts to disprove the charges, only encouraged the bullies to push harder: It showed that they were getting to Obama, which his staffers’ memoirs confirm. Litt recounts the time Obama unexpectedly returned a second time to speak before a wealthy-person dinner that honors Robert E. Lee’s birthday. Litt is a little surprised but reasons: “Was it really necessary to flatter these people, just because they were powerful and rich? In a word, yes.” (Speaking of flattering the rich and powerful, at one point Litt spends days trying to appease Harvey Weinstein, and absorbing Weinstein’s verbal abuse, over the preparation for some fundraiser. “Was putting all that effort into pleasing one powerful person really the right thing to do?” Litt wonders, concluding that it probably was.)
If Donald Trump’s election taught us anything, it’s that sometimes you’ve just got to say Fuck it, I’m going to say what I’m going to say and not worry about the reaction. Trump has a rule he says he has followed all his life: “When they hit you, hit them back twice as hard.” It’s rather unpleasant, but one wishes Obama had had a similar rule, or at least one that said: “ignore whatever nonsense people are saying about you and focus on doing what’s right.” Obama would worry when a column by David Brooks or Thomas Friedman said something critical. The correct approach is: Forget those people. They do not matter. Breitbart doesn’t matter. What matters is the people you represent, ordinary working people and their interests.
There was just such a persistent focus on things that are irrelevant to the pursuit of political advancement, or at least things that as a Democratic politician, you should be setting aside and not spending your precious time on. Pfeiffer is pleased that the administration sets up a fact-checking website to respond to Republican smears in real time, as if anybody will read it or care. He also recalls with satisfaction the time they shot a video in which Obama was depicted taking good care of his dog in the car, as a wry counterpoint to Mitt Romney’s “dog on the roof” scandal. Nobody remembers the Obama response video, of course, and Pfeiffer’s whole focus is off: He’s obsessed with the distortions of the media. He could stand to learn a thing or two from Bernie Sanders, whose approach to this is: The media are going to talk about things that don’t matter. Your job is to talk nonstop about the things that do.
The Obama staffers do, at various points, become a little disenchanted with their hero. Rhodes admits that it “felt like a punch in the gut” when Obama got into office and immediately started appointing terrible people to his cabinet (assigning warmonger Hillary Clinton to be Secretary of State, a position she used to… start a war). Litt’s spell of enchantment is broken over an event that should seem trivial to a normal person: the time Obama didn’t prepare enough for a debate with Mitt Romney and lost badly. Litt recalls:
This was an insult. I was angry. More than that, I was heartbroken. The myth of Obama was not that he was somehow more than human. It was that he was the best possible version of a human, and that by following him—by believing without thinking, by rarely asking questions and never admitting doubts—I could become the best possible version of a human too. Now I saw how stupid that was… Barack Obama was just a guy… [M]y days as an Obamabot were done.
It’s good, of course, that he wasn’t an “Obamabot” anymore. But it’s telling—and typically West Wing-ish—that “losing a debate” was what took the luster off Obama. (Not drone strikes.)
There is a frustrating lack of self-reflection in the books of Litt, Pfeiffer, and Rhodes. Or rather, the self-reflection that does occur is of the most frustrating possible kind. Rhodes pauses to wonder “What if we were wrong?” which is a good start. But the way in which he thinks they may have been wrong is in “pushing too far” when people just “want to fall back into their tribe.” As an attempt at self-criticism, maybe the dumb tribalistic Americans just weren’t ready for how good we were is a good match for that old job interview staple My main weakness is that I work too hard. David Plouffe, Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, noted that when Obama toured the country midway through his presidency, he found that “no one was happy with him” at the town halls. “It was a really poor reflection on our country,” Plouffe commented. On our country! There is a sense running through the memoirs that America was insufficiently grateful for what they received. (Litt talks of a speech in which Obama “remind[ed] a roomful of autoworkers about the time he saved their industry.” I am sure they appreciated the reminder.) 2016 made no sense to them: How could an America that was objectively doing well fail to recognize its own interests? It must have been the fake news. Pfeiffer grouses at endless length about social media, right wing pundits, disinformation, and our fact-free “anything goes media environment.” It is not that the Obama administration failed to present people with a clear political agenda and then mobilize around it. It’s that people were misled. Still, Litt concludes that even if Obama occasionally lost a debate, the answer to the question of whether they brought about Change We Can Believe in is: “Yes. We. Did.”
It’s worth noting something about Pfeiffer, Rhodes, and Litt. They are all white men who went to fancy private colleges. I have nothing inherently against this demographic (I am a member of it), but I think it matters that when Litt joined the speechwriting team in 2011, it was entirely white men under 40. That’s a little odd when you think about it: Obama could have had anybody in the world write his speeches, and he had 20-something dudes from Rice and NYU. It’s discomforting to me in part because these men have such a limited range of life experiences, and yet were tasked with crafting the message of the presidency. To me, this says something about who Obama was most comfortable with and whose perspectives he valued. Nothing stopped him from hiring a team of 70-year-old African American and Latina women. He could have taken speechwriters from the labor movement and the Black church. Instead, when you heard Obama’s soaring words, what you were really hearing was the voice of a 24-year-old Yale graduate whose next job would be at FunnyOrDie.
The left can learn a few important lessons from examining Pfeiffer, Rhodes, and Litt. First, these are not the sort of people you want in government. You need people who (1) have clear moral vision (2) have thick skins and (3) do not care about the goddamn White House Correspondents’ Dinner. You need people who understand that politics is about gaining power and then using it to make people’s lives better, not about giving uplifting but empty speeches and walking with purpose down Washington hallways. They also need to avoid accepting political reality as “fixed.” The people who defend Obama suggest that his hands were tied—power was arranged in such a way that he could not act. But the question is: How are you going to change that arrangement of power? If it’s true that “X bill will never pass this Congress,” then how are we going to get a different Congress? The Obama administration was reactive. They played the hand they were given, they had a very narrow sense of the boundaries of the “possible.” They did not understand that being uncompromisingly radical is actually more pragmatic.
It’s essential to stop fetishizing credentials. Obama wanted to “hire the best qualified people no matter their politics, and send a message of unity.” That led to him hiring actual Republicans. Unless you’re a Republican, don’t do this. “No matter their politics”? No, politics matter. Your politics are the sum of your vision of what ought to be done. If a president wants to get something done, they need a team of people who also want to get that thing done. That should be elementary, but there just wasn’t that much politics to the Obama movement. Everything was about a guy.
And I suppose that’s the final lesson here: Cults of personality are bad. Movements need to be about the people, not a person. The West Wing view of politics is that you just need to get the smartest, most competent, most qualified, most virtuous people into government. But that means nothing without a substantive vision for change and an understanding of how you mobilize an authentic popular movement to make it happen.
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*Quotations in this article from Obama officials other than Rhodes, Pfeiffer, and Litt all come from Obama: An Oral History.
**In 2016 the Obama administration finally got wise, and boldly declined to veto an identical resolution on settlements, permitting it to pass. It was a moral high point.