Sunday, September 16, 2018

Books: An Oral History Of The Obama Presidency

OBAMA: An Oral History 2009-2017
By Brian Abrams
Little A; hardcover, $24.95; paperback, $14.95; eBook, $5.99

Barack Obama had one of the most consequential presidencies in American history, and Brian Abrams has created a candid oral history of a near-decade in Washington.

OBAMA: An Oral History 2009-2017 is the first ever comprehensive oral history of the politics and governing behind a landmark American presidency. Abrams obtained unprecedented access to Obamaworld, interviewing aides and advisers in the administration and on the campaigns as well as several elected members of Congress, both Democrat and Republican.

These stories illuminate the inner workings of an administration through more than one hundred exclusive interviews with senior staff members, including David Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel, David Plouffe, Valerie Jarrett, and Jon Favreau; cabinet members such as Leon Panetta, Jack Lew, and Arne Duncan; and key lawmakers such as Barney Frank, Chris Dodd, Joe Lieberman, Scott Brown, and Barbara Boxer.

Abrams enters a vast political universe and cohesively and chronologically pieces together a series of narratives that have amassed a legendary status.

The book opens with the story of a first-term state senator from Illinois who inspires a nation with promises of hope and change in his presidential campaign.

David Axelrod, the Chief Strategist for Obama for American in 2007 and 2008, then became a Senior Advisor to the President in the White House from 2009 to 2011 before returning to the campaign staff for the 2012 re-election campaign, had these things to say about Obama on the campaign trail:

"Obama was, by his own admission, not a very good candidate for the first months of the campaign, and, you know, at one point actually said, 'I'm not a good candidate now, but I will learn to be a good candidate. Just give me a little time here.' You know, the enthusiasm that was out there for him, and the resources that we were able to raise - grassroots contributions, propelling a lot of it - gave him the time...

"There was a swing through Iowa in the summer of 2007 where I really felt like he was hitting his stride...

"What distinguished him from the others became more central to his presentation. You know, campaigns are exercises in market differentiation, and the clearer and more distinct your message is, the better you're going to do...

"There were moments that seemed, to the conventional scorekeepers, [to be] setbacks, that actually helped propel him forward, both in his own mind and in the larger context. One was this YouTube-sponsored debate in South Carolina in which he got a question about whether he would sit down with hostile leaders - Castro, Ahmadinejad, and so on - and he said he would, to advance America's agenda. His opponents jumped on him for being naive, for coddling dictators and so on, and he felt very strongly about this."

These Axelrod quotes were amidst those from others on the campaign, creating the feel of a conversation from the players involved in what was going on at that time, which is employed throughout the book.

OBAMA goes on to examine the moments that define Obama's presidency: the election of America's first black commander-in-chief; building a new executive branch while, as aide Jim Messina put it, "watching the economy fall off the end of the table"; rescuing automakers and the nation from financial peril while spurring a budding renewables industry; the drama at the Copenhagen climate conference, which ultimately led to the 2015 Paris Agreement; the inner workings of historic legislation, ranging from the battle over Obama's health care plan to Dodd-Frank banking reform to the partisan budget wars that culminated in the 2011 debt ceiling crisis.

The Obama adminsitration foreign policy agenda is examined, including the handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the transformation of the Middle East with the Arab Spring, the killing of Osama bin Laden, drone strikes, dealing with the Syria crisis and the ISIS terrorist group, the Iran nuclear deal, and the State Department's years-long strategy behind the "Asia pivot."

President Obama dealt with a lot of pressing domestic issues, including the transfer of Guantanamo prisoners, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the fight for same-sex marriage, Occupy Wall Street, the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the shootings of Gabby Giffords and Trayvon Martin, NSA disclosures and Edward Snowden, the 2013 government shutdown, the Ferguson riots in 2014 and police-community relations, and how Obama dealt with the "birther" movement, of which current President Donald Trump was a leading voice questioning whether Obama was a real American. The oral history also covers the 2016 election between Trump and Hillary Clinton, who served as Secretary of State in Obama's first term.

A conversation with Brian Abrams on Obama: An Oral History (provided by Little A):

How did this book come about? I had been working with editor David Blum since 2014 on other oral histories for Amazon's Kindle Singles imprint - David Letterman's years at NBC, Gawker Media, and Die Hard. They were all unauthorized projects, meaning that I had approached each of those worlds as a stranger. Zero sources were cultivated before beginning each project, nor did I get the okay from anyone central to the story before proceeding. And so each time I had to build from the outside in - interviewing people related to the story's periphery until I created enough of a critical mass that some of the "main characters," if you will, eventually gave in and would speak to me. When Blum and I discussed the idea of doing something on the president, this was spring of 2016. And he had enough confidence in me from our past successes. But admittedly, I'm not sure either of us realized how vast Obamaworld was, and how much more difficult it would be to get the story.

What made this oral history more difficult than the others? Well, I'm probably remembering the other experiences more generously. I mean, each oral history was challenging in its own way, and there were times in each of them that I truly believed there was a chance that the story just wouldn't come together - that, somehow, one of the people I sought to interview would reach out to others and put the kibosh on anyone else talking to me. Or that not enough of the marquee names would agree to speak. But I would say that what made OBAMA far more challenging was simply the massive aount of story that there was to tell, not to mention the grueling rounds of fact-checking on several policy-driven discussions. In addition, when you look at lengthy narrative books about Obama, most of them secure dozens of sources on background. I'm trying to think of another instance like OBAMA, in which you have more than 100 sources go on record to discuss the behind-the-scenes at the White House, on the Hill, at Justice, and at State, et cetera.

How did you start? I began with a group of junior aides who were profiled in an Ashley Parker NYT Mag story in 2010 about the changing of DC culture. Getting away from the Bush years and seeing how younger staffers like Eric Lesser, Herbie Ziskind, Josh Lipsky, and a couple others were living in Washington on that $35,000 entry-level White House salary. It was pure happenstance that I ran across Ashley's story while I was going back and reading coverage from that era, and a lightbulb went off that these were the right group of people to try first. They seemed accessible, even though I was basing this off a story that was nearly six years old at the time.

So that story gave you your entry point, and what was the plan from there? Essentially, the plan was to build a critical mass, right? So that, seven months later, I could approach the mayor of Chicago's office and say, Hey, I've spoken to this list of fifty-nine people. Your name has been mentioned fourteen times. Does Rahm (Emanuel) have ten minutes? I ended up getting, I think, about seventeen minutes with him.
Also, I couldn't let the project be known by too many for fear of it getting squashed by cliques in Obamaworld. I didn't know what I was up against - whether this was an approachable crowd or not - so I had to approach each sphere sniper-like, if that makes sense. When I did the Gawker Media oral history back in 2015, Choire Sicha later admitted to me how, when I first approached him via email, he had forwarded my initial message to a bunch of others with a note along the lines of None of us are talking to him! I eventually won out, but oof. Lotta work.

Did you get to everything you wanted to cover in OBAMA? Yes and no. I'd break down the conversations I was able to get in the book - and those that I did not - into three categories. First, I'd say what you are reading, structure-wise, is mostly intentional. The pacing required the bulk of the conversations loaded up front. (I think nearly 40 percent of the book takes place before 2011.) So, by the time you get to 2013 and 2014, I do begin to scoot the reader along a little faster. As for the two other categories, there were simple conversations I couldn't get - national security/foreign policy folks, for example, may have been unwilling to discuss more sensitive topics with me - and then there were conversations I just couldn't get to. Meaning I was always aware I wanted this to run around 500 pages, because anything more would have felt like homework. Plus I was already months late on my manuscript deadline, and so I wanted to wrap this thing up in time. You know, make some book sales before the world blows up.

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