Ben Rhodes, who served Barack Obama as a foreign policy adviser and speechwriter from beginning to end, has written a book that reflects the president he served — intelligent, amiable, compelling and principled. And there is something more: The World as It Is is a classic coming-of-age story, about the journey from idealism to realism, told with candor and immediacy. It is not a heavy policy book. There are anecdotes galore, but they illuminate rather than scandalize. Even Donald Trump — a politician who seems the omega to Obama’s alpha — is treated with horrified amazement rather than vitriol ... Ben Rhodes is a charming and humble guide through an unprecedented presidency. He writes well, even though he has a master’s degree in creative writing, and he has a good eye ... his achievement is rare for a political memoir: He has written a humane and honorable book.
The result of Rhodes’s many years near the Oval Office is that he can punctuate The World As It Is with glimpses of the private Obama. Some of these are amusing anecdotes ... Others suggest a president who was an especially gifted politician at election time but disdained the day-to-day politics in which most presidents engage ... What Rhodes’s book shows is that in too many cases, foreign policy decisions were turned into questions of identity and self-definition, thus making them a function of Obama’s personal history ... One is left to wonder who Obama was when he decided against asking Congress for approval before he launched military action against Libya in 2011, or drone strikes and special operations attacks throughout his presidency ... In his memoir, Rhodes positions himself to the left of Obama: more concerned about democracy and human rights, less willing to support authoritarian regimes. He acknowledges his occasional disappointment with his boss ... one of the strengths of Rhodes’s book is that, in passing, he shows the gradual emergence of the right-wing, faux-populist movement that produced Trump ... there are some ways in which, decades from now, historians may come to think that the Trump administration was as much a continuation of the Obama years as a turnabout from them. Rhodes himself recognizes this uncomfortable continuity, starting with matters of campaigning: 'When you distilled it, stripped out the racism and misogyny, we’d run against Hillary eight years ago with the same message Trump had used: She’s part of a corrupt establishment that can’t be trusted to bring change.'
The young presidential aide...preens less than I expected in his inside-the-bubble memoir ... Rhodes also exhibits less self-knowledge than one might wish ... he replays Syria so often — yo-yoing between his desire 'to do something' and 'world as it is' futility — that it’s clear (if not to Rhodes) he still has a lot to work through about Obama’s responsibilities and his own ... The book also convinced me, despite Rhodes’s denials, that Obama overlearned the lesson of Iraq. The president’s fear of escalation and slippery slopes becomes the reason not to take responsibility for a post-Gaddafi Libya, or send lethal aid to Ukraine, or seriously consider options for Syria that might have weakened Assad or constrained the wholesale killing of his people ... I suppose it’s good to know that in private Obama was as worried as the rest of us. It just doesn’t make me feel any safer.