BOOK REVIEW: The World As It Is
I’ve read many books about Barack Obama. Some have originated from his critics, others from his closest confidants, and still others written by the man himself. The World As It Is by Ben Rhodes is the only book that captures the perspective of a whole generation of people who grew up with Obama’s brand of politics as their defining North Star.
The truth is that Barack Obama got me hooked on politics. The same is true for thousands of young people across the world. That’s why The World As It Is is important. It follows Ben Rhodes, a foreign policy wonk who was younger than I am now when he got to work on the Obama presidential campaign and a man who routinely found himself at odds with the rest of the foreign policy establishment.
Moreover, the book documents the complicated relationship with and the inordinate weight placed upon Barack Obama himself, a once in a generation talent. You get an inside look at how lonely and powerless the job of the president can sometimes be. It shows time and time again how Barack Obama had to temper his idealism when taking stock of what could actually be accomplished. We ultimately learn through all of this that Barack Obama is human, a man who struggled immensely against an often vitriolic establishment. But we also see moments of his ingenuity, his incredible intelligence and humor. He was a man who was never brash and believed fervently in restraint over recklessness, diplomacy over war.
The World As It Is reminds us that presidents aren’t as aloof as you think. The book is revealing in its documentation of the arguments and counter points of restraint as opposed to action. It points a accusatory finger at the media for consistently getting it wrong, uplifting false narratives, and even woefully ignoring facts, and it makes you realize that enacting change is hard work, like using an oar to turn a cruise ship.
It’s telling to compare the idealism of the first years with the sanded-down pragmatism of the final years of Obama’s presidency. That struggle is mirrored not just within Obama but also within Rhodes himself, who finds himself regularity at odds with the behemoth or in his words, the blob that is America’s foreign policy establishment. This is a space where bucking the norm and questioning tradition is regularly frowned upon while operating within the confines of tradition and American power is normalized and revered. The high-minded idealism of making lasting change in the Middle East and elsewhere is replaced by powerlessness and a shaken faith in America’s capacity to learn lessons from its mistakes and actively change course because of it.
The point Rhodes wants to drive home is that America is complicated and often messy. The American project can be fickle and polarizing but no matter what, you are grateful for the victories when you can get them (e.g., Cuba, Iran, upholding of the ACA), and you always keep hope alive that there will be many victories along the way.
Hope and grace were virtues that President Obama returned to often in the speeches documented in this book. I fully believe the eloquent speeches he gave worked not just as encouragement for the American people but also as a buoy for himself. We see in this book how he struggled sometimes to find hope and grace within the soul sucking bureaucracy of government. He doubted and he lost hope. That’s why he always spoke about it that’s why he always believed in the American people. That grace that will lift you up and that hope that will carry you onward, finding those virtues and holding on to them will keep you sane in government and in life.
And finally, as all these books end with the inevitable election of Donald Trump, Rhodes offers the solution, a suggestion based on where he finds his hope and grace. The answer is in his kids. Our young people are the future. It’s what gives the old guard hope.
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