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The World As It Is: Inside the Obama White House

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This is a book about two people making the most important decisions in the world. One is Barack Obama. The other is Ben Rhodes.

The World As It Is tells the full story of what it means to work alongside a radical leader; of how idealism can confront reality and survive; of how the White House really functions; and of what it is to have a partnership, and ultimately a friendship, with a historic president.

A young writer and Washington outsider, Ben Rhodes was plucked from obscurity aged 29. Chosen for his original perspective and gift with language, his role was to help shape the nation’s hopes and sense of itself. For nearly ten years, Rhodes was at the centre of the Obama Administration – first as a speechwriter, then a policymaker, and finally a multi-purpose aide and close collaborator.

Rhodes puts us in the room at the most tense and poignant moments in recent history: starting every morning with Obama in the Daily Briefing; waiting out the bin Laden raid in the Situation Room; reaching a nuclear agreement with Iran; leading secret negotiations with the Cuban government; confronting the resurgence of nationalism that led to the election of Donald Trump.

This is the most vivid portrayal yet of Obama’s presidency. It is an essential record of the last decade. But it also shows us what it means to hold the pen, and to write the words that change our world.

480 pages, Hardcover

First published June 5, 2018

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About the author

Ben Rhodes

3 books393 followers
From 2009 to 2017, Ben Rhodes served as deputy national security advisor to President Barack Obama, overseeing the administration’s national security communications, speechwriting, public diplomacy, and global engagement programming. Prior to joining the Obama administration, from 2007 to 2008 Rhodes was a senior speechwriter and foreign policy advisor to the Obama campaign. Before joining then–Senator Obama’s campaign, he worked for former congressman Lee Hamilton from 2002 to 2007. He was the co-author, with Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, of Without Precedent: The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission. A native New Yorker, Rhodes has a BA from Rice University and an MFA from New York University.

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Profile Image for Jeffrey Keeten.
Author 3 books248k followers
December 26, 2019
”Most people told me it would pass, but that wasn’t true. My involvement with one of the things I was proudest of, the Iran deal, was now permanently tainted. A label would forever be attached to me: ‘Ben Rhodes, who boasted of creating an echo chamber to sell the Iran deal…’ The right-wing critics now had fresh meat for the balance of the Obama years and beyond. All the dots in their drawing of me had been connected--fiction writer, leaker, liar, Benghazi, Iran deal. People tell you those things pass, but they don’t. You live your life knowing that the story out there about who you are is different from the person you think you are, and want to be.”

 photo Ben Rhodes_zps0hwvrvbh.jpg

The Obama administration was the first US administration to deal extensively with the fake news, the Russian troll factories, the social media misinformation, etc. Every administration has had to deal with outright lies being written about their intentions, but Abraham Lincoln, Warren G. Harding, FDR, or any of the other presidents didn’t have to deal with instantaneous posting through social media that reached thousands, if not millions, within seconds. They also didn’t have to deal with a foreign government, like Russia, who would rather lie than tell the truth about just about anything.

A government has a responsibility to deal with facts, which slows down their response to a crisis. While their political enemies/hacks can write all kinds of speculative posts on rumor…, the White House cannot. By the time the administration can respond, there have been slews of articles and opinions posted hours, if not days, before the official statement can be released. You lose the war on an issue before you even have a chance to unsheath your sword.

The truth is buried under an avalanche of misinformation.

Ben Rhodes was close to Obama. In fact, Obama created a position just for him called The United States Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications. Rhodes and Obama had, what some people said was, a mind meld, and Obama wanted him in the room for more meetings so he could solicit his opinion. Rhodes wasn’t a yes man, far from it, but he knew how to frame things in a way that Obama would listen.

I’ve been reading in many different books about the onslaught of troll stories against especially left leaning politicians, not just in the US, but all over the world. The Russians have branched out to attempt to influence elections in Europe, especially. Ben had his character completely assassinated by misinformation, but he was in fine company.

I can remember when I became privy to a rumor floating about the company I worked for, regarding myself, that was completely and utterly untrue. I spent months putting down flair ups resulting from this web of lies. It was mild compared to what happens to politicians in this new world of interpretative free speech, which in many cases equals free lies. People tend to believe the absolute worst about people so lies spread more quickly and efficiently than the much more boring truth.

Taking a stroll back through the Obama years was like taking a pleasant walk through a garden redolent with the fresh air of blooming flowers. I was needing a break from the toxic air we have all been breathing since 2016. I appreciated Rhodes’s insider insights into President Obama and the moments of wit and humor he shared with his boss. There was a point where Rhodes lost his razor while on the road so he showed up to a meeting unshaved, and Obama gave him a dressing down because the administration always had to appear unflappable. After thinking about it further Rhodes realized that his bristling beard was about the scrutiny and judgment that hovered over Obama and his administration. Mountains were being made out of molehills. ”He was nestled between two presidents far less qualified than he was, yet he---the only black person to hold the office--had been held to a higher bar, and he’d cleared it.”

In the prologue, Rhodes shared this scene with Obama as they mused on the election of Donald Trump. ”’I don’t know,’ he said. ‘Sometimes I wonder whether I was ten or twenty years too early.’” That statement hit me like a Schwarzenegger fist to the stomach. We failed him in some way that a generation in the future would not have. We were not ready to fully support a truly progressive president. I can remember when I heard he was running for president. I thought to myself, no, no, no, this is too soon. We need him a cycle or two down the road. I was wrong...or maybe I was right.

I don’t think the 2016 election was a repudiation of Obama as much as it was a growing apprehension about an uncertain future for most Americans. ”Trump was impossible without 9/11. The jingoism in the media; the assertion of a new, militaristic American nationalism; the creeping fear of the Other, and the way that it could be manipulated by an ideologue; the wars that sapped America’s strength, and unsteadied our place in the world; the recognition that there would be no victory, as promised by Bush, no parade or period on the end of a paragraph of history.” Do you hear the speech writer in the cadence of those last words?

Disaffected, rural, white voters voted in droves. Many for the first time. Trump’s rhetoric resonated with them. Some were racist, and some were sexist, and some were both, but there was a deeper dissatisfaction with most that went beyond the color of Obama’s skin and the gender of Senator Clinton. The Democrats will have to figure it out, or we will suffer through four more years of chaos with a president who may believe he has a bigger mandate than he does now. *shudder*

 photo Obama Bourdain_zpsawstxvpp.jpg

I love the fact that Ben Rhodes and I share a fascination with Anthony Bourdain. Certainly, Ben was instrumental in arranging that famous meal between Obama and Bourdain in Hanoi. If you haven’t seen Bourdain’s travel shows, do give them a try. The episodes are intelligent, cultured, and so revealing about the true nature of people, wherever they may live. Oh, and he shows you some great food too.

Rhodes takes the reader step by step through the Obama years, focusing on major events, but sprinkling in plenty of those behind the scenes moments when we see Obama off camera. I like this response to some criticism during the first campaign: ”Obama wouldn’t get black votes because he wasn’t black enough (‘I’m black enough when I try to get a cab,’ he told us).”

If you want to see what inspired leadership looks like, watch the YouTube video of Obama singing Amazing Grace during the eulogy for the pastor killed in the Charleston church shooting. It was such a powerful moment, and I’m not even religious! The staff didn’t know for sure if he would actually do it. (Michelle was against it.) The whole White House was glued to TVs to see if he would or not. Obama had decided that he would gauge the room before venturing into song. The mood was obviously right, and it has become one of the signature moments of his presidency. He was so important to so many people. His speech in Berlin for which 200,000 Germans showed up. His Cairo speech which inspired so many people during the Arab Spring because they saw the most powerful person in the world had a skin pigment close to their own.

I have many of my Republican friends who tell me that Obama didn’t do anything, but as we watch Trump dismantle almost every piece of legislation that Obama passed, I think we can safely say he did a lot. Thank you, Senator John McCain, for being once again a true patriot for America with that famous thumbs down to save the Affordable Care Act. I also like to remind these bellicose friends that Obama was the one to get Osama Bin Laden, something their President W. failed to do over the course of almost 8 years of trying. For some reason residing in deep seated hatred, most Republicans can’t give him credit for anything positive.

Rhodes, the failed fiction writer (it is a good club to join, Ben.), knows how to turn a phrase, and the fact that he was in the room for almost every major policy decision makes his contribution to the history of President Obama essential reading.

If you wish to see more of my most recent book and movie reviews, visit http://www.jeffreykeeten.com
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Profile Image for Malia.
Author 6 books550 followers
June 24, 2018
“Progress doesn’t move in a straight line.”
― Ben Rhodes, The World as It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House

Fellow fans of Pod Save America will recognize Ben Rhodes from his many visits to the podcast, others will know his name as that of Obama's Deputy Security Advisor and confidante. This book is sold as Rhodes memoir, but it is really more the story of the way his life wrapped around the eight years he worked in the White House. This book is very well written and though long, engaging from start to finish. It is strange, because before Trump won the election, I basically never read non-fiction and since then, I have been reaching for books in the genre ever more often. I really enjoyed this book even as I felt melancholy that it was working towards what I saw as a sad ending, Obama leaving office. Though Rhodes is undeniably very fond of Obama and has great respect for him, he does not shy away from mentioning times the president was annoyed or frustrated and the fact that Rhodes personal life suffered from the all-consuming role he played in the White House. This book gives great insight into situations no ordinary person will likely ever witness, and I was left impressed, feeling greatly more informed than before, and very sad that Barack Obama, a thoughtful leader, prone to contemplation, and who valued diplomacy, has been replaced by his complete opposite. An absolutely worthwhile read!

Find more reviews and bookish fun at http://www.princessandpen.com
Profile Image for Mehrsa.
2,234 reviews3,657 followers
June 12, 2018
Man this book was frustrating--on a few levels: 1. Because I so badly miss the obama administration's unassailable good faith and their desire to actually not do stupid shit. 2. Because they did do so much stupid shit because they misunderstood the "other side." Either Assad in Syria, the Republicans, Trump, Bibi, etc. Obama was way too chill to fight. 3. The entire focus seemed to be on foreign policy and that's too bad because there was so much to be fixed on the domestic front. 4. How naive they were about Trump and Putin. 5. How much racism Obama had to deal with. 6. The public narrative of Obama's racial identity doesn't quite match what I heard in here. Obama seemed to constantly "get it" and I think most people assume that he was naive about race. He wasn't. He just felt muzzled (see #2).

Anyway, until the Obama memoirs, I think this is as close an insider account as we're gonna get. It's a good read.
Profile Image for Matt.
3,728 reviews12.8k followers
January 11, 2020
Having a keen interest in most things political, I was drawn to this workplace memoir by Ben Rhodes, one of the senior staffers in the Obama White House. Working in the policy and speechwriting areas, Rhodes offers some insight into the work done over the eight years President Obama served as Commander in Chief, as well as offering some bookend comments about the Administrations on either side of those two terms in office. Rhodes had long be a political junkie and used some of his early skills at writing major political documents surrounding the War in Iraq. However, he sought a spark and passion to propel him forwards, latching onto the up and coming Barrack Obama. Working to create a persona that many have come to know well, Rhodes offered up strong speaking points and policy announcements while being “in the room” for key decisions and events. Rhodes discusses at length some of the key decisions in tackling the two wars in which America found itself at the start of 2009, while also discussing the shift as the dominoes began to far in the Arab world in the years that followed. While Obama may not always have agreed wholeheartedly with the approach, Rhodes appeared able to push things in a forward direction as countries like Egypt and Libya began to fall away from autocratic rule. Rhodes mentions the meticulous work that Obama took to hone his speeches, trying not only to lecture the listener, but also shape policy and international sentiment. Carefully parsed words and quotes permitted strong sentiments to shine through, without the need for a iron fist. Even into the second administration, when Obama began looking for some legacy events, Rhodes made sure to guide his boss in the direction of always leaving an impact and not working strictly to appease the masses. The rise of Syrian issues and the ongoing struggle to keep Israel and the Palestinians from shedding blood, Obama sought to find new ways to quell the fighting, with Rhodes right there with him to offer strongly worded statements and policy directives. Forging key policy to bring America in line to an open dialogue with Cuba and into a nuclear agreement with the Iranians, Rhodes depicts the difficulties that had to be overcome and the silence essential to ensure nothing went sideways. The latter potion of the book explores that ’swan song’ time in a two-term president’s life, when it is time to tie things off for the next office holder, although no one seemed ready to admit it would be the glitzy and politically clueless Donald J. Trump, whose racist views and smear tactics were sure to dismantle much of the work that had been accomplished—not far off from the truth in 2020– as quickly as the inauguration could be completed. In a book that seeks to shed some light and praise on a many he greatly respected, Ben Rhodes shows what it was like to work for a great political figure who sought to use his intelligence rather than the shattered glass ceiling that came in November 2008. A well-documented piece for the politically curious. Recommended to those who enjoy political biographies that take the reader behind the curtain to explore the inner workings.

I will be the first to admit that I have much distain for the current US Administration and the way they are handling things. However, after a number of smear books about the foibles in that circus, I wanted something a little more substantive and turned to Ben Rhodes to teach me more about the political landscape, when America was still great. While some would say that Obama did not do enough, Rhodes effectively argues that much was accomplished and the moves were paced and thoroughly discussed before being acted upon. The world looks to America to be a leader, or at least a strong player in international relations. Rhodes shows how he helped move Obama and the country in the direction of positive outcomes, while many parts of the world teetered on the brink. To see many of the initiatives done to forge peace and lasting stability, I was happy to discover the extent of bi- or multi-lateral negotiations to find solutions. It is disheartening to see years of work dismantled in short order by a man who likely takes orders from a Moscow dacha, but that is what Rhodes may be hinting at, with the focus of his book, building up the greatnesses and letting that linger on the air, as news reports highlight quick negations with each new cycle of information. This cannot and surely does not lessen the work Obama and Rhodes—as well as a handful of others—did to build a great America. The reader must understand that this is not a glimpse into much of the domestic work done during the Administration, though there are some general hints at its progress and the hurdles Congress placed at times as well. A heartfelt piece with long and thorough chapters will help the reader see into the thoughts of Obama and those closest to him, throughout the ups and downs of pulling America from the brink and ensuring its greatness. With an election under a year away, perhaps the American electorate can think on some of the international advancements made by the past administration and seek to stop the dismantling, led by a foreign government’s insistence, that has left America a farce by segments of the world population. We shall see what comes of all the in-fighting as I grab for some popcorn and watch the circus unfold!

Kudos, Mr. Rhodes, for showing how impactful Obama could be over those eight years in office and how you were able to help shape some of the great decisions made during that time.

Love/hate the review? An ever-growing collection of others appears at:

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/...
Profile Image for Monica Kim | Musings of Monica .
508 reviews534 followers
November 12, 2018
Ben Rhodes’ “The World As It Is: Inside the Obama White House” was a long read, took me bit longer to finish than I’d liked; but an excellent read, engaging from start to finish. Rhodes is a fantastic writer (his gift of writing & training in fiction writing didn’t go unnoticed). I think this will be as closest view of President Obama we’ll get (at least until he publishes his own memoir) — a well-written, in-depth, insightful, honest, vivid portrayal of Obama’s presidency and his administration, from one of President Obama’s closest, most trusted & important aids, who had worked closely with him for 10+ years. It’s also well balanced with author’s personal life & thoughts. It’s clear Rhodes has lot of admiration, love, and respect for President Obama, the administration, and our country, but he writes in a fair, honest, well-balanced perspective, which I really appreciated it. So although this book is Rhodes’ memoir, it’s more like memoir of President Obama & Administration years, and Rhodes’s life, roles, and perspectives wrapped around those years.
You guys know, I’m usually skeptical of memoirs because I find it bit hard to believe & unrealistic that people can recount their past with so much clarity and in such details. But I’m giving Rhodes a pass because it’s a memoir consisting of events that are relatively recent, most of the events we are aware of, and I’m sure he took meticulously notes during his tenure, which could’ve been easily retrieved. Seriously, I have so much respect for the people of Obama Administration (and anyone who works in politics ETHICALLY w/INTEGRITY & PURPOSE), this isn’t an easy job, and definitely not for everyone. There seems to be very specific personality traits of people working in politics. You’re basically putting your own life on hold as you work closely with the president. These people work ridiculously hard, around the clock, traveling nonstop, and Rhodes had done it for 10+ years. President Obama couldn’t have done it by himself, and it’s clear he was extremely choosy of the people in his inner circle & surrounded himself with bright, hard-working, and passionate people who believed & shared his vision for our country. And it seems like every relationships President Obama cultivated in White House turns in to a life-long friendships, and it’s a testament to who he is, and what he truly cares about.
In this book, Rhodes chronicles behind-the-scenes & thought processes of some of the key moments of Obama’s presidency. From early campaign days, then as a speechwriter, deputy national security adviser, and a multipurpose aide, Rhodes had been been & saw almost everything that happened at the center of the Obama administration — waiting out the bin Laden raid in the Situation Room, responding to the Arab Spring, reaching a nuclear agreement with Iran, leading secret negotiations with the Cuban government to normalize relations, and confronting the resurgence of nationalism that culminated in the election of Donald Trump. Rhodes shows what it was like to be there — from the early days of the Obama campaign to the final hours of the presidency, and everything in between. I feel like I’ve gotten to know President Obama & Administration on a deeper level and seen sides of them I wouldn’t have otherwise seen if it weren’t for this book. Rhodes details out the thought-process & work that carefully goes into making each & every decisions affecting the Administration, country, and the world, it is a stark & scary contrast to the current administration. I have so much respect for Obama’s Administration, and I’m sincerely sorry that we let them down with our current Administration. But if the mid-term is any indication, we can win back in 2020, but we have work to do! Thank you Rhodes for this generous, thoughtful, and sincere book of the Obama’s presidency and Administration, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Definitely one of my top books of 2018! 🤓✌️📖
Profile Image for Mal Warwick.
Author 29 books403 followers
July 4, 2018
I rarely read political memoirs, because so often they're one-sidedly partisan and self-serving. They tend to lack any sense of balance. For example, though I didn't read Hillary Clinton's book about the 2016 election, I saw enough reviews to know that its primary purpose was to deflect blame for her defeat entirely onto other people, when in fact she herself contributed to the loss in several ways. Similarly, I have little hope for most of the dozens of tell-all books that former Obama aides are now turning out. But, judging from the reviews, Ben Rhodes' new memoir seemed different. It is.

In The World As It Is, one of Barack Obama's key White House aides tells the story of his experience in the 2008 election campaign, followed by eight years involved in the Administration's foreign policy work. In Washington, Rhodes "had two formal jobs—one as the deputy director of White House speechwriting, and one as the senior director for speechwriting for the National Security Council." He was responsible for writing some of Obama's most memorable public statements. And, from his position in the National Security Council, Rhodes gained a front-row seat at several of the President's most important foreign policy initiatives, such as the killing of Osama bin Laden and the Iran nuclear arms agreement. In one crucial area his work was pivotal: he took the lead in negotiating the opening to Cuba. Eventually, he became "the one American official who could somehow be on the dais at Fidel Castro's funeral."

If you got your perspective on the news during Obama's two terms from Fox, Breitbart, or right-wing talk radio, you'll instantly recognize Ben Rhodes' name. He became one of their favorite whipping-boys. As Deputy Director of the National Security Council for Communications, he was a familiar figure in the media. Republicans in Congress demonized him. Again and again, they held him responsible for a long list of invented sins connected to the trumped-up Benghazi investigations, the agreement with Iran, and the Cuban initiative. Given the chance, no doubt they'll dismiss The World As It Is out of hand.

Rhodes reflects on the experience of being the target of conspiracy-mongers and politicians with no regard for the truth: "It was like you inhabited two parallel lives—one that made you who you were, and the other that was consuming that person, and transforming you into someone else." That's about as close as Rhodes ever gets to hyperbole.

Rhodes is a skilled writer. The book is simply structured along chronological lines. His prose flows smoothly, and he provides just enough local color and personal detail to keep his account engaging. He is occasionally critical of others in the Administration but never nasty; almost everywhere, his obvious respect for the men and women he worked with comes through clearly. Obviously, too, he is an agile thinker. The conversations he reports between him and the President suggest not just close rapport but an intellectual partnership that few people could manage. You only have to read Obama's own books to understand how brilliant he is. Apparently, Rhodes was able to keep up with the man. Their exchanges, and Rhodes' reflections on the 2016 election and the closing days of the Obama Administration in the final chapter, are particularly insightful and moving.

From an historical perspective, what stands out in this book is Rhodes' perspective on the events he witnessed: the ill-fated Arab Spring; the bombing of Libya; the negotiation of the Paris climate change agreement; the Bin Laden killing; the protracted process that preceded the Iran agreement; the debate over taking military action in Syria; the opening to Cuba; and the slowly dawning understanding of just how extensively the Russians had intervened in the 2016 election. This is a man who had a front-row seat on some of the most consequential events of our time. His account of the controversy over Obama's decision not to bomb Syria is especially telling: "Syria looked more and more like a moral morass—a place where our inaction was a tragedy, and our intervention would only compound the tragedy." This, of course, was very similar to Obama's own perspective.

Rhodes' book has been widely reviewed, and at this writing it has been on the national bestseller lists for several weeks. The best review I've read is Peter Schjeldahl's in The New Yorker (June 18, 2018). Schjeldahl focuses on the author's evolution "from liberal idealism to a chastened appreciation of how American power can be more wisely harnessed to limited ends." In other words, Rhodes, who began work for Obama at the age of twenty-nine, absorbed Obama's worldview in the ten years he spent working closely with the man. Is that surprising?
Profile Image for Jean.
1,710 reviews742 followers
August 4, 2018
The memoirs of Obama staffers are starting to come out now. I enjoy reading these political insider memoirs. I am aware they are biased to their own beliefs. I attempt to stay neutral and read these memoirs from both sides of the political divide. By doing this I hope to obtain a better understanding of the events.

This one is by Ben Rhodes who was Obama’s speechwriter and national security staffer. The book provides a look inside the Obama years. He states he is telling the story “of the journey from idealism to realism”. I enjoyed that Rhodes provides lots of interesting anecdotes as well as mixing his personal story into the current events. This allowed me to view the events through his eyes and emotions. The book is extremely well written and is easy to read. The book is also well researched. Rhodes has a master’s degree in creative writing and is a gifted writer. Rhodes paints himself in a positive manner, but does point out some of his bad habits and mistakes. The book provides inside information about how race played a role during Obama’s presidency. I was somewhat surprised and ashamed at the poor manners, attitude and obstructionism of the republicans toward Obama throughout his years in office. Is it just my impression or was the republican opposition to Obama personal or racial rather than ideological? This is not the typical political memoir. For those readers interested in this area, the book will not disappoint.

I read this as an audiobook downloaded from Audible. The book is almost sixteen hours long. Mark Deakins does an excellent job narrating the book. Deakins is an actor and audiobook narrator. He has won multiple Earphone Awards as well as voted Best Voice by Audiofile Magazine.

Profile Image for Truman32.
344 reviews100 followers
August 27, 2018
“We live in a cynical world, a cynical world,” Gerald “Jerry” Maguire laments, his eyes welling with the pain of isolation. Sure, he had a very big night – a very very big night. Rod Tidwell had an exceptional game. He scored the winning touchdown leading the Arizona Cardinals into the playoffs, but that pales in comparison to this soul crushing cynicism that only the love of a good woman like Dorothy Boyd and her big-headed son Ray can assuage.

Cynicism could be the primary antagonist of Ben Rhodes’s memoir, The World as It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House. Ben Rhodes was President Obama’s speechwriter, a foreign policy advisor, and confidant/frolleague. Rhodes (as well as many of the other players in this administration … probably including the President himself) starts out wide-eyed, intelligent, idealistic and hard working. He wants to change the world for the better. And note: what he wants to change is not crazy stuff. He wants poor people to have healthcare, he wants Syrian kids not to be gassed or bombed. He wants unexploded ordnance in Laos to be removed before it kills more civilians. There is a light of hope. And then every day this light is walloped by the cynics: the party-over-country GOP. Radical branches of the media. Putin. Netanyahu. Like a mugging in a dark Bronx alley, all optimism and hopeful ambitions are bludgeoned and skewered away until what is left is a flinching battered mass of missed opportunities. And when I say mugging, this is like the Notre Dame football team pummeling a group of seven year old waifs and ragamuffins from Sister Mary Francis’s orphanage.

Rhodes had gone to school for creative writing before politics, something that is apparent in his writing. The story moves fast. The frustration that many on the outside had in the inability of this administration to achieve their lofty goals is felt too by Rhodes and the other Obama staffers who were constantly undermined and stymied at almost every turn.

The World as It Is isn’t a cheerful story, but it is an enlightening and thoughtful perspective of the politics of President Barrack Obama’s term.
Profile Image for Jen.
837 reviews2 followers
June 20, 2018
Rhodes was primarily a communications professional in the Obama White House, so it's not surprising at all that he's a great writer. He made some really complicated foreign policy situations very accessible and as a career bureaucrat myself, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that the White House runs kind of like any other agency that I've ever worked for, only on a much larger scale, must faster, with much higher stakes.

Two things that really stood out for me reading Rhodes' memoir. The first was his descriptions of and interactions with Obama the human - not the President - but a stressed out Chief executive who runs a massive organization and isn't always super well served by the people who work for him. I've always assumed that Obama was a quality human that genuinely cared about the work he was doing and the people around him and Rhodes certainly paints that picture. What he also illuminates is that Obama is just a person, working an impossible job. He's funny, and he gets stressed and he cares about his co-workers and does normal things like the rest of us. I liked that Rhodes was able to strip away some of the celebrity of the president, and of Obama in particular.

The second thing that I really took away as a positive was the very real personal toll that White House jobs take on the people that work them. Rhodes made conscious choices a number of times to stay in the White House and finish out Obama's term of office, and it's clear that it was a fraught decision every time, and that he made the choice because he believed that they were doing good in the world, and that the choice wasn't without serious downsides. The last chapter was incredibly poignant and I almost felt close to tears as Rhodes described the end of the administration and the massive change in his own life due to the end of the era.

For anyone that is interested in a very well written, personal account of the highest levels of US foreign policy during the past decade, this is a must read.
Profile Image for Susan.
799 reviews39 followers
June 21, 2018
As I was finishing Ben Rhodes memoir of his years with President Obama's first campaign and eight years in the White House, tears came to my eyes for what we have lost. Rhodes was hired by the campaign for his foreign policy experience since he had worked for former Democratic Representative Lee Hamilton at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a DC think tank. He takes us through the arc of his service from the very first time he helped with debate prep during the campaign to the departure of the Obamas from the White House after the inauguration.

Rhodes is an excellent writer telling the story in such a compelling manner that I was awake until after 3 in the morning reading even though I already knew the end of the story. What I found fascinating was his recounting of meetings with the President and staffers detailing how they decided to deal with the latest crisis that had sprung up somewhere in the world. Rhodes was the go-to speech writer for foreign issues throughout both terms and he explains how he and President Obama worked together to craft the Cairo speech, the campaign speech in Berlin and others that were so uplifting and impressive. He also gives the reader insight into what it is like to work daily in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the White House, but I think he conveys it even better than Mastromonaco did in her memoir of her Obama years.

Since I'm a die-hard Democrat, I'm probably prejudiced, but this is a well written look at how politics in Washington D.C. works today. I highly recommend it.
Profile Image for Kate Elizabeth.
581 reviews4 followers
July 15, 2018
This memoir is thoughtful and detailed and beautifully written, so my "meh" reaction to it is hard to explain. Part of it may be political fatigue - living in DC in 2018 will do this to you - and part of it may be that I don't adore foreign policy and this is the story of the Obama presidency told by a former senior foreign policy advisor, Ben Rhodes.

Rhodes is a polarizing figure, in that he was a key player in the Iran nuclear deal and in reestablishing relations with Cuba, both actions that divided the political community (though really, what doesn't divide the political community?). The right likes to attack him for ascending to such a prominent position with few qualifications, which Rhodes explores in detail in the book; I appreciated that background and context, as I also appreciated knowing that where you start from doesn't dictate where you'll end up. A fitting lesson, I suppose, from someone who worked in the Obama administration for eight years, as that's maybe one of the biggest takeaways from Obama's presidency itself.

Maybe I just didn't love this book because it's ultimately all so exhausting. The conspiracy theories. The disinformation campaigns that most people still refuse to acknowledge are real. The meddling in our elections, the war on facts, the term "fake news," the inability for most of us who disagree on some things to have civil conversations about much of anything. Rhodes, faced with this reality every day in his eight years in the White House, wrestled with it constantly, in a way much more real and immediate than anything I deal with. I both appreciate his candor and thoughtfulness and am happy to be done with his story.
Profile Image for Jack.
275 reviews7 followers
July 3, 2018
This book suffered from high expectations. I've seen Ben Rhodes' name pop up in various news articles through the years but he remained an undifferentiated staffer in my mind until I watched The Final Year. After this movie I read up on his background, and became enamored with the idea of the highly-competent Obama aide with a writerly background and a close connection with the president. My expectations were too inflated, I hoped for a political memoir that would be more novelesque in its eloquence and insight than political memoir in its habit of being mechanical, agenda-driven, and list-of-achievement-ty. Alas after a decade of politiking, Rhodes memoir shows that he is now more a creature of politics than a creature of creative writing.

The book is filled with unfulfilled expectations. Rhodes in interviews promised a complex and unvarnished view at his boss, what followed would not qualify as a critical view of Obama. Rhode's only critique was of occasional temper-flares, on policy and governance he usually concluded that in areas when he disagreed with Obama, he was usually wrong and Obama right.

Rhodes also under-delivered on a promise to offer an inside look life as a young twenty- / thirty-something White House aide. I hoped the book would write about the pressures, effect on personal life, highs, lows, the stuff invisible to the public, and generally the texture of such a lifestyle. I thought I might have a look at the lives of the real-life young West Wing cast, but Rhodes never opened up. There were some anodyne anecdotes on having to cut vacations short for international emergencies, I felt like he never let us in.

One interesting thread was when at certain points Rhodes started to examine how radically changed he was from the 29-year old to the post-Obama self, and how there was a sense of deep disconnect between the two persons. But he never dived deep into how exactly the experience changed him. I think the obvious subtext was that in a lot of ways his idealism was forged into a certain practical and maybe jaded realism through experience, and this change was painful for him. Missed opportunity to unpack this more.

On the bright side, this was for me a useful recounting of international political events of those years. I didn't really follow events like the Arab Spring, opening of Burma, opening of Cuba, and the humanitarian crises in Libya and Syria very closely at the time. They only existed as fuzzy generalities in my mind, so it was illuminating to learn about the facts of the events especially through the lens of a principal influencer on the policy. Also his perspective helped illuminate ties between related events, like how the Arab Spring precipitated instability in Libya and Egypt, and how the the unfolding of Libya influenced decision-making on Syria.

But honestly, in my estimation Obama's primary achievements were domestic not international, so from a policy perspective, it would have been more interested to read the memoir of the domestic policy equivalent of Ben Rhodes.
Profile Image for Mike.
718 reviews56 followers
November 18, 2020
A historical memoir from an inside true believer of the Obama White House years. Starting with the initial connection with Obama in 2007 and covering world events such as the war in Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, Arab Spring, the Middle East, Osama Bin Laden, Ghaddafi, and visit with world leaders, until the finale in 2016. With his speech writing and international politics background comes an enthusiastic recollection of these various international issues and the Obama Presidency. Clearly written and insightful analysis of the first African-American President and his class and intellect on the world stage. A striking contrast with the current president’s disregard for international alliances and allies. An ode to rational ethical governance and deserved four and a half stars rating.
Profile Image for Aaron Million.
495 reviews495 followers
May 31, 2020
Ben Rhodes can really write. This should come as no surprise since he holds a Masters degree in fiction writing and was one of Barack Obama's principal speechwriters for all eight years of his presidency, as well as being Deputy National Security Advisor. Rhodes knows how to tell a story, one of the Obama presidency as seen through his eyes. His writing is crisp, does not get bogged down in intricate foreign policy details, and most importantly, remains human. So many political memoirs read like stilted, carefully curated pieces designed to puff up the author's accomplishments. I did not get that sense with Rhodes, who has no problem pointing out the numerous times when he misjudged a situation.

His story as he wants to tell it really begins on 9/11, when he like so many other people, were galvanized into action in a response to the terrorist attacks. Instead of pursuing a writing career, he decided to get into government service, specifically on the foreign policy side. He details how he first met Obama, and hen signed onto the beginnings of his presidential campaign in 2007, when hardly anyone considered him a formidable opponent, least of all Hillary Clinton. Rhodes quickly found a niche as a speechwriter for Obama, and was carried along the momentum that led him to the White House.

Obama seemed to grow to trust him a lot, even offering him some leeway in certain initiatives or projects that he would like to take on. Rhodes chose, as one of those projects, a restoration of relations with Cuba. He details the process, the many meetings, secret trips to Canada, lots of haggling with Alejandro Castro, and the ultimate success of his efforts. It was beyond time that the United State look at normalizing relations with Cuba. Rhodes and Obama both knew that, and wanted to make it happen; the U.S. could not stay stuck in the Cold War forever, despite what many on the right wanted.

Rhodes packs the book full of stories about trips all over the world, what it was like for him to work at the White House, and the almost impossibility of having any family time or vacation. His wife must be an extremely patient lady! And while he does not dwell on this, he also brings up the constant attacks and smears from congressional Republicans, particularly concerning Benghazi and the Iran nuclear deal. On page 282, he writes about his struggles with trying to continue doing his very important job while being relentlessly and personally attacked: "I felt I was living in an alternate reality that was in some way insane, unable to recognize hypocrisy or to separate facts from politics. The world around me seemed to have come unmoored. The truth had become irrelevant." That last line, I think, could also in part sum up the presidency of Donald Trump. Rhodes writes about that too - Trump's surprise win over Clinton in 2016 and the sense of doom that immediately came over him (and millions of others). Tellingly, he relates the anecdote of Obama campaigning with Clinton that summer in North Carolina. After a speech, they stopped at a BBQ restaurant (Obama liked to stop at local restaurants wherever we went, and meet people). Clinton left immediately after taking photos with the restaurant staff, whereas Obama stayed to eat and walk around to talk to all of the patrons inside.

There were some things I would have liked Rhodes to have written about more, such as his thought process concerning continuing to work for Obama after his presidency was over. Earlier, after Obama's reelection in 2012, he had questioned whether he wanted to stay for the second term, but quickly decided that yes he did as he had many more things that he wanted to accomplish. But then at the end of 2014, after the Democrats lost the mid-term election, he questioned himself even more about remaining to finish out Obama's term. Even though he decided to stick it out, I would have liked to have known just why he decided to stay with Obama after January 2017. Did Obama ask him to? Did his other alternatives not seem as appealing? What was it?

The title of this book, which came out in 2018, seems so quaint now, with the COVID-19 pandemic decimating the economy, mass protests breaking out across the country in the wake of another case of white police officers' actions resulting in the death of a black man, and Trump's unlimited supply of rage, racism, bigotry, and lies. Rhodes' story ends in January 2017, when Obama left office. That seems like a lifetime ago.

Grade: A
Profile Image for Lynn.
865 reviews125 followers
November 3, 2019
3.5 stars rounded up.

This is a fascinating memoir written by a member of President Obama’s key staff. Ben Rhodes started out as a senior speech writer on Obama’s 2008 campaign and eventually became deputy national security advisor, overseeing the administration’s national security communications, speechwriting, public diplomacy and global engagement programming. He offers an insider’s view of what happened in those areas during the Obama administration. I did not realize when I started this book how heavily it would encompass foreign policy. It does get into the decision making processes that the administration, especially President Obama, went through to deal with the various crises around the world. I especially appreciated how there was no good solution to the Syrian catastrophe that was unfolding.

Rhodes does get into the pressure of writing speeches for President Obama, and how some of the more memorable ones came about. Unfortunately, he seldom elaborates on how the speeches were received. It would have been nice for him to step back from his own involvement and present a more balanced view of the history that they were making.

There are some interesting juxtapositions between President Obama’s world view and that of his successor. One based his decisions on facts, the other yelled “fake news” whenever someone said something he didn’t like.
“Time and again, he talked about all the Americans getting killed in Libya and the assertion would’ve unchallenged. I’d call reporters to demand a fact check - no Americans were getting killed in Libya, and Americans watching at home shouldn’t be misled to believe that they were. In response, they’d deflect any responsibility to fact check everything Trump said-after all, who would take him seriously?” Who indeed?

At one point, President Obama is frustrated of the response to his foreign policies.
“What’s the Obama doctrine?” he asked aloud. The silence was charged, as we’d always avoided that label. He answered his own question: Don’t do stupid shit.”

When they were all working hard on the Paris Agreement to combat climate change:
“Think about it,” Obama said to us on the flight over. “The Republican Party is the only major party in the world that doesn’t even acknowledge that climate change is happening.”

I read this book as an antidote to what is currently happening to our country; a harkening back to when a president understood the rule of law, set policies that benefitted all Americans, not just his base, and promotes American values all around the world. Someone who understood “the world as it is” and strove for “the world that ought to be.”

The book is very well written and at times was very compelling. At times it gets way too bogged down in foreign policy minutiae. It very well portrays Ben Rhodes’ perspective on his time working for Barack Obama. You get to see a human side to the man so many of us admire, and how the pressures of the presidency weighed on him.

I am looking forward to reading President Obama’s memoir of his time in office. This book served as a good appetizer. If you are a foreign policy wonk, you will really enjoy this book. If you just want to read about a better time in our history, and don’t mind all the foreign policy minutiae, then this also may be the book for you.

Profile Image for Radiantflux.
427 reviews409 followers
April 13, 2019
52nd book for 2019.

This book is at best a useful refresher for the foreign policy environment surrounding the Obama Whitehouse over eight years, but that's about it. It's too superficial and too enamored by Obama to offer critical insights to decisions made over his eight years presidency. Obama himself remains throughout a cypher.

The writing itself is pretty boring—surprising from someone who acted as one of the main speechwriters for Obama—but does get better in the latter half of the book when Rhodes talks at greater depth about his role in both the normalization of relations between the USA and Cuba, and the Iran Nuclear Deal.

There is also not much point in writing about your role in events if you don't give up much about yourself. When Rhodes does take a personal perspective, it's mostly to complain about not seeing his wife (or more accurately that his wife complains about not seeing him). We also learn that he smokes and likes to drink hard liquor. There are other hints scattered through out the book, but it's clear that Rhodes does not want to talk about his feelings and so the narrative of his time in the Whitehouse is largely a distraction—and to be honest—boring.

It's also remarkable that although Rhodes clearly adores Obama, the portrait he gives of him is a relatively cold and distant one.

Profile Image for Mike.
887 reviews25 followers
June 22, 2018
I really enjoyed this memoir by Ben Rhodes who was a speechwriter a national security advisor to President Obama for eight years. This book is basically a history of the foreign policy and international relations of the Obama administration. There is very little time spent looking at domestic issues outside of how international issues impact the administration politically.

Rhodes writes very well (he has an MFA so that makes sense) and does a great job of mixing his personal story with the story of Obama. I find it annoying that in many memoirs, there is far too much name-dropping but I did not see that in this book.

My political lean left so I was very sympathetic to the struggles and frustrations discussed in the book. With that said, I didn't find that Rhodes went out of his way to attack the other side, and I think that anyone who enjoys politics and recent history could find enjoyment in this book and not think it was overly negative.
Profile Image for David.
451 reviews48 followers
July 16, 2021
"The thing is," he said. "I was a fully formed person before I went into politics."

That's a very telling statement that Obama makes in Rhodes' extremely eloquent tell-all of the eight years in the White House that consumed his life. In his book, time and time again, Rhodes illustrates the breathless activity that defined Obama as a fully formed person.

We see the POTUS as a man of action whose sharp concerns are divided evenly between the domestic and the global. They are simultaneously offset against an abnormally formed, [R]-ruled Congress harboring the single-minded concern of The Black Hole of Its Pockets.

Keeping his own role largely in the cheering section, Rhodes presents Obama as a pragmatist locally:
"If the people are engaged, eventually the political system responds," Obama said. "Despite the money, despite the lobbyists, it still responds."
as well as universally:
Obama occasionally pointed out that the post-Cold War movement was always going to be transitory. The rest of the world will accede to American leadership, but not dominance.

To say the very least, being reminded of this even-keeled mindset is refreshing. 

In his capacity as deputy national security adviser, Rhodes also analyzes the perfect storm of Putin/Trump:
To understand what ended up happening in the 2016 presidential election, you have to understand this: When protests toppled the Ukrainian government, Putin interpreted that as the United States coming into Russia, akin to an act of war. ... Eventually, the Russians would come into America, as they believed we'd come into the Ukraine.

Trump was impossible without 9/11. The jingoism in the media; the assertion of a new, militaristic American nationalism; the creeping fear of the Other, and the way that it could be manipulated by an ideologue; the wars that sapped America's strength, and unsteadied our place in the world; the recognition that there would be no victory, as promised by Bush, no parade or period on the end of a paragraph in history.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Perhaps because I was hesitant to go back. Going back (by way of reading this book) would entail admitting that, while Obama was in office, I was somewhat asleep at the wheel. I wasn't as politically aware then; I was just grateful that Obama wasn't Bush - much in the way that I'm now immensely grateful that Biden isn't the nightmare of Trump.

While Obama was POTUS - I naively figured - things were fine (as opposed to fragile). But, just as Obama said about post-Cold War movement, everything is transitory. Our hope lies not in pacifying ourselves that everything is fine, but in staying engaged. 

That's what I mainly took away from this terrific memoir: to stay awake at the wheel of (or, rather, for) democracy. We don't have a fully formed democracy here in America; we are forever headed in its direction. 

If I haven't said enough about the broad content of this endlessly compelling memoir, that's because Rhodes speaks so beautifully for himself. This is quite a document: thoughtful, incisive, compassionate (even while testifying to times of frustration and self-doubt). It's scrupulously observed and remarkably well-written. I don't know how many books have been or will be written about the Obama administration. But this one is key. In a sense, it may be the only one you'll need. 
Profile Image for Christopher.
734 reviews40 followers
August 27, 2018
This was an amazing read! Simply put, this is one of the best memoirs to come out of the Obama White House thus far and, perhaps, one of the best political memoirs I have ever read. Though I paced myself throughout this entire book, there were many points where I simply did not want to put this book down as Mr. Rhodes puts you into the room on some of the biggest moments in the Obama administration. The opening to Cuba, the Iran Nuclear Deal, the Arab Spring, Mr. Rhodes was both an observer of and participant in all of this. What's more, Mr. Rhodes, who holds an MFA in writing, is a master storyteller. Each page makes you feel like you are taking part in the events yourself. Perhaps the best part of this book is how he tracks his own progression as a young staffer on the 2008 Obama campaign to the experienced, somewhat discouraged, but still idealistic foreign policy advisor Pres. Obama relied upon for eight years. Also, his tracking of the degeneration of the Republican Party from conservative political party to conspiracy theory peddling hucksters, which would aid and abet Donald Trump's rise to the presidency, is infuriating and heartbreaking. His description of his own personal horror at the electoral victory of Trump in 2016 brought back my own feelings of shock and discouragement from that terrible night. If you are looking for something to whet your appetite before Pres. Obama's own presidential memoir, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
Profile Image for Patricia.
628 reviews20 followers
August 22, 2018
I learned a lot about foreign policy by reading this insider's memoir of the author's years in the Obama White House. I also appreciated his behind-the-scenes look at his life as a high level staffer. In the end, I most appreciated this book for the hope it gave me that there are many good people who are trying to make the world a better place. Highly recommended.
147 reviews26 followers
January 5, 2020
I really enjoyed this book for many reasons. Among them was that reading about Obama and his thinking was sooo soothing even if things didn’t always work out for him. At least he tried to do his best for the United States.
Profile Image for Chris Casey.
56 reviews1 follower
July 9, 2018
A tremendously enjoyable and insightful read, which is also, too soon, sadly nostalgic for 'The America As It Was', led by a smart, thoughtful, articulate, and empathetic human being in President Obama. Thank you @brhodes for your service to him, and to all of us, and for the great job you did here sharing that experience.
Profile Image for Daniel Simmons.
815 reviews40 followers
July 15, 2018
This clear-eyed, beautifully written political bildungsroman left me feeling nostalgic for the foreign policy years of the Obama presidency, and for that administration’s continual striving toward remaking the world as it is into the world as it ought to be.
Profile Image for Anna Juline.
397 reviews
August 27, 2018
This book helped put things in perspective for me - I highly recommend it to anyone who is continually heartbroken by Trump’s presidency.
Profile Image for Stephen.
520 reviews152 followers
November 16, 2018
Excellent and very personal account of what it was like inside the Obama White House - as good as you’ll get until Obama himself publishes his memoirs.

Must be absolutely soul destroying for them after all that work and stress which has visibly aged both the author and Obama, to see the Trump administration reversing much of what they had done on Iran, healthcare, climate change, etc
Profile Image for Zahreen.
392 reviews
December 2, 2018
Despite knowing the events in the memoir fairly well, I thought Rhodes still provided valuable insight into recent history and a picture into what a better, more thoughtful U.S. foreign policy could look like. There were mistakes made, but at least there were guiding principles that one could understand, instead of the dumpster fire we have now.
Profile Image for Rick Wilson.
648 reviews228 followers
March 2, 2020
Fascinating look into the Obama White House. I’m not a big fan of what appears to me to be a cult of personality surrounding the White House, but I think I understand the magnetism Obama had a lot better now. At times frustratingly naive, at times really illustrative of what kind of person Obama was. He seems like he was the model of what a statesman should be. Dignified and mature. Rising above the petty squabbles of the tea party and the media. A grand leader of historic proportions. The type of person anyone would be honored to call their boss. I’m not sure how much of that is truth, and how much of it is what people need to believe about their president while working in the office. I think there’s a fair amount of Stockholm Syndrome going on here at times. Ben was obviously very close to the administration and spent what sounds like all his waking hours for 8 years defending and presenting the best version of Obama to the world. That will do things to a person.

I’m far removed from DC politics, and as such this book felt a bit alien at times. Ben seemed to want to defend his position and relationship with the whole Benghazi “thing.” I never paid it much attention when it was ongoing, so it seemed a bit disproportionate in the second half of the book. But I can see how the investigations were impactful to select people in the administration, and in a perverse way, successful.

There’s also been this weird thread I’ve noticed in the political memoirs I’ve read, people feel the need to share how they “knew the REAL person.” Usually demonstrated through anecdotes of confidence or times that someone let the mask slip. Maybe it’s an attempt to show a multi-faceted person gone slightly awry. Maybe that’s what you get when you take character flaws and sugar coat them. I’m pretty sure this is some sort of Beltway signaling, letting people know you’re in the “in” crowd. But it seems very strange and was slightly annoying to me.

Overall, highly recommend reading this if you want to see how part of the political world spins. If you have any interest into what it’s like to work in the highest level of the White House. If you miss the dignified presence of an adult in the Oval Office.

It will be interesting to see how this holds up over time.
Profile Image for Mary Ann.
416 reviews37 followers
July 17, 2020
I'll admit this was something I sort of slogged through at times. In part, I was distracted by two of my passions, FIFA World Cup and Wimbledon, as well as a disturbing week of DJT's European and Russian visits. In addition, although the book is quite well-written, not a great deal of it is new ground. That's okay. Since people seldom write letters or keep journals these days, contemporary accounts by individuals are not only interesting but may be valuable resources to future historians and offer personal perceptions and perspectives that might otherwise go unrecorded. The book has its moments: the negotiations for the opening to Cuba, especially the involvement of the Vatican; the efforts of the Obama administration to destroy and disable the many thousands of UXOs (unexploded ordnance) dropped by U.S. bomber pilots on Laos during the Vietnam war which still pose a dangerous hazard; the interest and involvement of Obama and Hillary's State Department in supporting Burma's democratic reformists; the meticulous and thoughtful work that went into crafting the Iran nuclear treaty and the TPP. Sadly, in my opinion, these initiatives are either dead or moribund for the present. I'm glad I read it.
Profile Image for Alejandro Bhattacharjee.
13 reviews3 followers
January 18, 2019
I throughly enjoyed Ben Rhodes journey from on the campaign trail to flying for the last time on Air Force One with the Obama family. It's astonishing to look back in time when the America we knew was full of hope and optimism for the future. The author did a great job giving the reader a sense of the decision-making process during some of the most critical moments of Obama's Presidency. The election of Trump clearly was shock to the world and the delayed reaction to Russian interference was appalling in hindsight. Overall this book left me with a greater understanding of the battles fought by the greatest President in my lifetime.
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