Lewis’ ‘Obama’s Way’

Here’s my favorite paragraph from the shockingly good Obama portrait by Michael Lewis in the upcoming Vanity Fair, Obama’s way. It’s March 2011, and Obama is meeting with his top advisors to decide what, if anything, to do about Qaddafi, who is advancing toward Benghazi with the stated intention of going house to house to cleanse the rebel city in what will surely be a bloodbath. In the meeting, the advisors focus on two choices: do nothing, or impose a no-fly zone. But Obama doesn’t like either option. The generals from the Pentagon admit that the no-fly zone would not stop Qaddafi; it would basically be a butt-covering move. Unusually, Obama opens up the meeting, soliciting opinions from the people who normally don’t speak, the staffers and speechwriters and whatnot who don’t have a seat at the table.

Public opinion at the fringes of the room, as it turned out, was different. Several people sitting there had been deeply affected by the genocide in Rwanda. (“The ghosts of 800,000 Tutsis were in that room,” as one puts it.) Several of these people had been with Obama since before he was president—people who, had it not been for him, would have been unlikely ever to have found themselves in such a meeting. They aren’t political people so much as Obama people. One was Samantha Power, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her book A Problem from Hell, about the moral and political costs the U.S. has paid for largely ignoring modern genocides. Another was Ben Rhodes, who had been a struggling novelist when he went to work as a speechwriter back in 2007 on the first Obama campaign. Whatever Obama decided, Rhodes would have to write the speech explaining the decision, and he said in the meeting that he preferred to explain why the United States had prevented a massacre over why it hadn’t. An N.S.C. staffer named Denis McDonough came out for intervention, as did Antony Blinken, who had been on Bill Clinton’s National Security Council during the Rwandan genocide, but now, awkwardly, worked for Joe Biden. “I have to disagree with my boss on this one,” said Blinken. As a group, the junior staff made the case for saving the Ben­gha­zis. But how?

The whole thing is very compelling. Like an Aaron Sorkin version of the Obama presidency, with hyper-articulate and self-aware people making pithy observations about their roles as they stride purposefully through the corridors of the West Wing.

Does that mean it’s necessarily fictional schmaltz, like a Sorkin teleplay? I don’t know. Maybe?

Metaphors and stories convey meaning in an otherwise random, chaotic world. They’re how we think. To a significant degree, they’re what thinking is. That’s how our evolutionary investment in our ridiculously big, expensive brains pays off. Reading this story paid off for me. If you hate Obama, you might think you see the scaffolding. The story’s fake! It’s tugging on your heartstrings because it’s designed to tug on your heartstrings. Jesus; wake up, sheeple!

Not me. I choose to believe it’s true. At least to the limit of what this writer, with this access and this deadline and this editor, was able to pull off.

Update: David Atkins and digby at Hullabaloo disagree with each other about the piece. According to Atkins, it’s a very personal, nuanced view of an imperfect but thoughtful man in the crucible of some very difficult decisions. digby, on the other hand, thinks it’s bullshit.

2 Responses to “Lewis’ ‘Obama’s Way’”

  1. enkidu Says:

    Really good Vanity Fair piece. Perhaps too meta, but I read the criticisms first then looped back after a day or two to read the VF piece. Sure it is a reasonably glowing bit of hagiography, but the writer is making his case, his story. If Dinesh DeSouza wants to pretend Obama is some sort of ragin anti-colonialist (really? lol) that is his problem, his story (laughably unbelievable though it may be).

    A couple items jumped out at me. He removed the awful commemorative plates and replaced them with patent applications and models (special zing for mentioning the telegraph as the forefather of Al Gore’s Amazing Information Superhighway). The other was casually tossing off the Heisenberg uncertainty principal in the context of getting input on decision making.

    One smart cat.

  2. __j__ Says:

    @jcb, I also tend to believe this story is mostly truth, or at least, truthyness. But unlike for you, the chills that I get from the story are of horror. There is a tinpot dictator, involved in a civil war with some mujahideen, in some country with almost no impact on our national interests (from any hardnosed assessment of the situation). Our president, who wants to look like a good guy, and believes it is our job to police the world, even if we have to borrow a trillion a year to do so (let the grandkids pay it off… not like I’ll still be in office), has called a meeting of his top military advisors to find out if he can Do Something Abroad.

    (Pay no attention to the fact that a repub supermajority in the house and a repub filibuster in the senate has kept the president from Doing Something Domestically for many years… plus he is up for re-election in one year… those inconvenient truths must not factor into his thinking at all, surely.)

    They tell him that he can do nothing. Or that he can create a no-fly-zone, which will do nothing. So, he asks for advice for his administrative assistants, policy wonks, and ghost writers, all democratic party stalwarts, with a finer sense of those political pressures that must not be mentioned. What do they think is the best way to Do Something Abroad? These Obama-people, the junior staffers, from the fringes of the room, have a plan: we pre-emptively militarily intervene. Just like Bush2nd in Iraq! Ooops, let us not frame it that way… instead, we will get together a coalition of allies first, and *then* we will go and intervene, just like Bush1st in Iraq, except that instead of saving a foreign country that is our ally from being invaded by a foreign country that is our enemy, we will be saving some of our mujahideen enemies from a foreign country that is our enemy which they live in, sorta. But as long as we get permission from the UN, no problem, right?

    From my perspective, this is nothing *but* problems. What about going to Congress for a declaration of war, as mandated by the Constitution, which Obama damn well knows? Sure, that was something Bush2nd would not do… but isn’t the whole reason Obama was elected, and his entire 2008 campaign (plus in many ways most of his 2012 campaign!) was based on Not Gonna Be Another Bushie…! Arrgh. This story is how Obamacare was passed, too, no doubt. The policy advisors and congressional leadership was called in, with the message that Obamacare as envisioned could not be passed… but some of the junior staffers said, hey, we can ram it through anyways, just like you promised not to!

    @enkidu, whether you want to agree with ALL the details that Dinesh & Newt infer about Obama, methinks it is fair to say he is an anti-colonialist. That just means that he doesn’t want France installing a puppet-king in Algeria, for the benefit of the citizens of France, as the expense of the citizens of Algeria. Hardly anything wrong with that viewpoint, at least on the face of it, right? After all, we used to be colonies, ourselves, back in 1776.

    That worldview explains his positions on the Arab Spring in egypt et al (verbally pushing the guy in charge to get out), but especially in Libya, militarily supporting the rebels against Qaddafi … not necessarily because it was in *our* best national interest to do so, as the killing of the Libyan ambassador recently should illuminate, but because Obama wants the people of the region to be in charge… even when it might be more “convenient” for our foreign policy to have a ‘stable’ dictator there. An anti-colonialist worldview also explains why he is against drilling in the gulf of mexico by our corporations, but willing to subsidize energy-exploration by the Brazilians (the nativist underdog — as opposed to the big imperialist corporations).

    Most people that dislike the Dinesh theory think it has something to do with race, because most of the colonial battles in the 1800s were between europeans and africans. But Obama isn’t in favor of the underdog because of their race, he’s against the oppressor because of their power (which goes equally for the military power of an imperialist nation-state and/or economic power of a multinational corporate entity). He’s just fine with *being* a power, as long as he only uses that power to get rid of oppressors like Qaddafi and BP. Make sense?

    His domestic economic policy is similar: he wants to get rid of Buffett by increasing taxes on the rich, rather than leave Buffett alone, and simply *decrease* the taxes on his secretary (aka executive administrative assistant… weird how Obama purposely uses the old sexist terminology… methinks as a way to pre-condition the thinking process of voters?)

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.