Ben Rhodes and Barack Obama on Air Force One in 2012 © PA

Obama: "My being president appears to have literally driven some white people insane"

Ben Rhodes, the former president's foreign policy adviser, reveals Obama's private anger
June 18, 2018

There is a biographical detail about Ben Rhodes, the former foreign affairs adviser to Barack Obama, that his critics often mention: he has an MFA in fiction writing. This fact allows those critics—who range from Fox News types to Washington’s foreign policy establishment—to dismiss Rhodes, and by extension Obama, as a mere storyteller, someone more interested in spinning a yarn than dealing with the harsh realities of a dangerous world.

But as Rhodes’s memoir of his eight years at the White House shows, storytelling plays a vital role in government. Obama used his speeches as a way of formulating his thoughts, painting the bigger picture that placed his day-to-day decisions in context. (Storytelling, it turns out, is pretty useful for authors too—this is that rare beast, an engaging and wonderfully written book on foreign policy.)

For all the discussion about America being the sole remaining superpower, Rhodes portrays a White House more often than not reacting to events, rather than leading them. He reminds us that the president is just one part of the US government’s foreign policy apparatus. Time and again, Rhodes recalls how older—supposedly wiser—heads in the Pentagon and State Department tried to box Obama into a corner on Afghanistan (more troops), Egypt (support for Mubarak) and Iran (don’t do a deal).

One constant theme is Obama’s rising private anger at the way the right-wing media portray his presidency. “My being president appears to have literally driven some white people insane,” he says, following the latest police shooting of an unarmed black man. Suffice it to say, his public remarks were very different.

If Obama is the story’s star, Donald Trump is a looming off-stage presence. Trump’s communication style is a little different from Obama’s, but no less potent. Be thankful he doesn’t have his own Rhodes.

The World As it Is: Inside the Obama White House by Ben Rhodes (Bodley Head, £20)