These are the first-person memoirs of 18 Obama administration mid-level staffers. But don’t get your hopes up for dirt-dishing about what it was actually like to work for the 44th President, or for his notoriously abrasive and foul-mouthed first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel (lately mayor of Chicago), or for She Who Must Be Obeyed, a.k.a. “senior advisor” Valerie Jarrett, who not only had unlimited access to the President and First Lady but controlled and patrolled everyone else’s.
West Wingers: Stories From the Dream Chasers, Change Makers, and Hope Creators Inside the Obama White House is not that kind of book. You can open it at random, as I did, and you will read only that the President “earned” his role “by caring for others and listening to the voices of people who often aren’t heard”; that “the thing I loved about Obama was his crystal clarity, his infamous calm, his love and devotion to taking the long view”; and that Michelle Obama always exuded “calm and grace” and “allowed me to live in” the “realm of infinite possibility.”
No way especially will you hear a critical word about Ms. Jarrett in this book, where she is ubiquitous and (ostensibly, anyway) ubiquitously beloved. Among the bouquets for Jarrett scattered throughout was this from Brad Jenkins, describing one of her numerous bailiwicks, the Office of Public Engagement: She led a “scrappy team of community organizers.” She was “so moved by [the] courage and commitment” of the “Dreamers” (the illegal immigrants brought to America as children, for whom Obama controversially arranged deferred deportation in 2012 without seeking congressional approval), says Cecilia Muñoz, a La Raza veteran who became White House director of domestic policy. As a boss, Jarrett “worked hard to create a working environment that was sustainable for parents with children at home,” says Michael Strautmanis, who was her chief of staff.
Jarrett herself, from a blurb on the back cover of this book: It contains “deeply moving stories” that “show us how hope becomes real, sustainable change.”
The Empathy Squad
Whether or not these stories, each running to 20 pages or so, will strike the reader the way they strike Jarrett will depend on the former’s taste for narratives by people who define themselves almost entirely by their racial, ethnic, gender, or other characteristics and by the identity-based ideological causes they promoted during the Obama years. Nearly every one of the contributors offers a lengthy personal profile (Latino, Asian, female, Muslim, Native American, gay, deaf).
A few are intersectionally impressive, such as the editor of West Wingers, Gautam Raghavan, who served simultaneously as Obama’s liaison to the “LGBTQ community” and also as his liaison to the “Asian American and Pacific Islander community.” Indeed, at least five of the 18 contributors, including Raghavan himself, served in the Office of Public Engagement (it’s now called the Office of Public Liaison), whose mission was to connect the President empathetically with all those “communities” and make sure they were on board for political support of the Democratic Party.
The emphasis on identities and pet causes gives the book a monotonous tone, as each essayist steps forward to expostulate, first, on his or her background, and then on his or her success in bending the President’s ear in the desired direction.
For Raghavan the cause was same-sex marriage. So his piece is all about his own same-sex marriage, and the role he played in helping engineer the Obama “evolution” from opposition in 2008 to full-fledged endorsement in 2012, at which point he was, he says, moved to sob uncontrollably from his perch on the second floor of the West Wing. “The President of the United States . . . sees in my relationship with Andy evidence of the same love and commitment that he finds in his marriage,” writes Raghavan in breathless italics—although it is actually unclear whether the President made the switch because he was moved by his staffer and his life experiences or whether Obama simply licked his finger and held it up to the wind of attitudinal change.
Similarly, the contribution by Rumana Ahmed, another veteran of the Office of Public Engagement, is all about being a hijab-wearing Muslim and the victim of rampant post-September 11 Islamophobia. She describes “being cursed at, spat at, called a terrorist, and told, ‘Go back to where you came from.’” This sounds bad—until Ahmed informs us that in fact she was elected student-body president of her overwhelmingly non-Muslim high school in a liberal suburb in Maryland, graduated from George Washington University in 2011, then went directly into a fulltime job in the White House (Muslim outreach was her bailiwick) after a successful internship, and was eventually promoted to a communications arm of the National Security Council, where her capstone experience seems to have been persuading Obama to visit a mosque.
“Working toward and achieving a moment like this felt like breaking through years of relentless waves that had tried to drown us out,” writes Ahmed, in the metaphor-mixing prose style that is all too typical of this collection.
(Of course, with the passing of the presidential baton from Obama to Donald Trump, and the emergence of the rebarbative Representative Ilhan Omar [D-Minn.] as the new, headscarved face of American Islam, that “relentless wave” is more like “relentless wave interference.” We now have the spectacle of Representative Omar announcing that Americans have more to fear from white men than from jihadists; Trump tweeting that she and other left-leaning congresswomen ought to “go back” to their ancestral countries instead of criticizing the United States; Senator Rand Paul [R-Ky.] offering to pay Omar’s airfare to her native Somalia; and Omar responding by retweeting a wisecrack about Paul’s “toupee.”)
Contributor Julie Chávez Rodriguez makes hay of her standing as the granddaughter of United Farm Workers founder and Mexican American folk hero César Chávez. It’s “my grandfather” this and “my grandfather” that (he died when she was about 16). Chávez Rodriguez, too, ended up at the Office of Public Engagement, as a “liaison to the Latino community.”
Taking the Latino-identity cake, however, is Stephanie Valencia—yes, also of the Office of Public Engagement, although a few rungs up the ladder from Chávez Rodriguez. In Valencia’s essay, the words “Latino, “Latina,” and, occasionally, “Hispanic” appear on nearly every page, often in multiples. Her pet project was—you might have guessed it—getting a Latina (indeed, a “wise Latina”), appointed and confirmed to the Supreme Court, as Justice Sonia Sotomayor was in 2009. Valencia writes that she “want[s] to be like” Sotomayor, “someone who cracked glass ceilings for Latinas and told us it was okay for us to be who we are. I want to be someone who, like her, opens new doors of opportunity and excellence for other Latinas. And I want to be someone who can turn to a young Latina who isn’t sure she belongs, and, just like Sonia has for me, remind her that yes, she does.”
Even the Puff Pastries Are PC
Even contributor Bill Yosses, who, unusually for this volume, is not an Office of Public Engagement alum (he was the White House pastry chef for both Obama and his GOP predecessor, George W. Bush) feels obliged to drop what first appears to be a refreshingly nonpartisan take on presidential appreciation for his pies and lapse into talking up Mrs. Obama’s crusade for “healthy” eating and a “national awaking about the crucial nature of our food systems.” As I read through a sample Obama menu that Yosses helped create, with its list of oh-so-precious dishes and wine pairings—all prepared from “the latest experimental organic agricultural methods and ethically raised livestock”—I couldn’t help but wonder what the current President, “Two Scoops of Ice Cream” Trump, would have thought.
There are a few islands in this lake of corn syrup. Leah Katz-Hernandez, a young deaf woman who worked first on Mrs. Obama’s communications staff and later as a receptionist in the West Wing, writes movingly about her complicated reactions when her rather patronizing coworkers compared her to Joey Lucas, the fictional deaf political pollster played by Marlee Matlin on West Wing, the television series. Katz-Hernandez is also one of the rare contributors who displays a genuine flair for prose style—although I wish she hadn’t declared that one of her own favorite writers was the hack Obama idolater (and, of course, White House visitor) Ta-Nehisi Coates.
I also liked the above-mentioned Brad Jenkins—although I liked his father even better, described here as a Fox News-watching, government-distrusting Army-vet black Republican who laughed uproariously when his son told him over the phone that he’d gotten a job at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The younger Jenkins came to the White House—yes, the Office of Public Engagement again—in 2013 after working on the President’s successful reelection campaign the year before. Jenkins’s job title was “liaison to the creative community.” In practical terms, that meant the thankless task of enlisting entertainment celebrities to persuade underemployed millennials to sign up for Obamacare, then in its nascent stages, so their oversized premiums could subsidize the older and the sicker.
The coup that Jenkins reports achieving was talking Boss Jarrett into having President Obama appear on Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis, the parody celebrity-interview series on the youth-beloved website funnyordie.com. The March 2014 interview was a huge success, generating 30 million views in its first week and an impressive number of click-throughs to the Obamacare website. The only problem (which Jenkins skips over) was that actual millennial enrollment in Obamacare continued to lag substantially, until Trump and the GOP Congress in 2017-2018 killed incentives to join by effectively eliminating the penalties for noncompliance. Still, you have to give Jenkins credit for trying.
It’s nice to know that the 44th President, his First Lady, and even his senior advisor were so uncritically adored. But I can’t help raining a little cynicism on this adulation parade. The race for the Democratic nomination for the presidency is in shambles right now, with exhausted ancients such as Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders battling charmless upstarts such as Kamala Harris and Cory Booker. Let me here predict a convention intervention. While the 22nd Amendment might bar Barack Obama from a third term, it says nothing about his spouse. And should Michelle Obama become the 46th commander-in-chief in 2021, she will have a resumé book of 18 seasoned and, above all, devoted potential employees right at hand.