This book, while obviously skewed to one side, was an entertaining read and felt like a "behind the curtain" view of the American presidency. It also made me not want to run for any type of political office.
It did restore some of my hope in the reasons for some people to run for office and govern in general.
Anyone interested in American politics or what the daily life of someone in the highest throes of power is like.
How my life / behavior / thoughts / ideas have changed as a result of reading the book.
we will learn to live together, cooperate with one another, and recognize the dignity of others, or we will perish. And so the world watches America—the only great power in history made up of people from every corner of the planet, comprising every race and faith and cultural practice—to see if our experiment in democracy can work. To see if we can do what no other nation has ever done. To see if we can actually live up to the meaning of our creed.
how you could build power not by putting others down but by lifting them up.
But the idea of America, the promise of America: this I clung to with a stubbornness that surprised even me. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”—that was my America. The America Tocqueville wrote about, the countryside of Whitman and Thoreau, with no person my inferior or my better; the America of pioneers heading west in search of a better life or immigrants landing on Ellis Island, propelled by a yearning for freedom.
But if my own impact on Chicago was small, the city changed the arc of my life. For starters, it got me out of my own head. I had to listen to, and not just theorize about, what mattered to people. I had to ask strangers to join me and one another on real-life projects—fixing up a park, or removing asbestos from a housing project, or starting an after-school program. I experienced failure and learned to buck up so I could rally those who’d put their trust in me. I suffered rejections and insults often enough to stop fearing them. In other words, I grew up—and got my sense of humor back.
Enthusiasm makes up for a host of deficiencies, I tell my daughters—and at least that was true for me at Harvard.
I asked them to describe their world as it was and as they would like it to be. It was a simple exercise I’d done many times, a way for people to bridge the reality of their communities and their lives with the things they could conceivably change.
We didn’t just love each other and make each other laugh and share the same basic values—there was symmetry there, the way we complemented each other. We could have each other’s back, guard each other’s blind spots. We could be a team.
The truth is, I’ve never been a big believer in destiny. I worry that it encourages resignation in the down-and-out and complacency among the powerful. I suspect that God’s plan, whatever it is, works on a scale too large to admit our mortal tribulations; that in a single lifetime, accidents and happenstance determine more than we care to admit; and that the best we can do is to try to align ourselves with what we feel is right and construct some meaning out of our confusion, and with grace and nerve play at each moment the hand that we’re dealt.
The power to inspire is rare. Moments like this are rare. You think you may not be ready, that you’ll do it at a more convenient time. But you don’t choose the time. The time chooses you. Either you seize what may turn out to be the only chance you have, or you decide you’re willing to live with the knowledge that the chance has passed you by.”
I thought back to a conversation I’d had with her when I was in high school, around the time that her chronic back problems began making it difficult for her to walk for long stretches. “The thing about getting old, Bar,” Toot had told me, “is that you’re the same person inside.” I remember her eyes studying me through her thick bifocals, as if to make sure I was paying attention. “You’re trapped in this doggone contraption that starts falling apart. But it’s still you. You understand?” I did now.
“When things are bad,” Axe said, walking next to me as we left the December meeting, “no one cares that ‘things could have been worse.’ ” “You’re right,” I agreed. “We’ve got to level-set people’s expectations,” he said. “But if we scare them or the markets too much, that will just add to the panic and do more economic damage.” “Right again,” I said.
If your next-door neighbor’s house is on fire, you don’t want the fire department dispatcher asking whether it was caused by lightning or by someone smoking in bed before agreeing to send a fire truck; you just want the fire put out before it reaches your house. Mass foreclosures were the equivalent of a five-alarm fire that was destroying everyone’s home values and taking the economy down with it. And from our perspective, at least, we were the fire department.
As the U.S. growth rate started to slow in the 1970s—as incomes then stagnated and good jobs declined for those without a college degree, as parents started worrying about their kids doing at least as well as they had done—the scope of people’s concerns narrowed. We became more sensitive to the possibility that someone else was getting something we weren’t and more receptive to the notion that the government couldn’t be trusted to be fair.
A deep and suffocating cynicism took hold. Indeed, it became axiomatic among political consultants of both parties that restoring trust in the government or in any of our major institutions was a lost cause, and that the battle between Democrats and Republicans each election cycle now came down to whether America’s squeezed middle class was more likely to identify the wealthy and powerful or the poor and minorities as the reason they weren’t doing better.
My emphasis on process was born of necessity. What I was quickly discovering about the presidency was that no problem that landed on my desk, foreign or domestic, had a clean, 100 percent solution. If it had, someone else down the chain of command would have solved it already. Instead, I was constantly dealing with probabilities: a 70 percent chance, say, that a decision to do nothing would end in disaster; a 55 percent chance that this approach versus that one might solve the problem (with a 0 percent chance that it would work out exactly as intended); a 30 percent chance that whatever we chose wouldn’t work at all, along with a 15 percent chance that it would make the problem worse. In such circumstances, chasing after the perfect solution led to paralysis. On the other hand, going with your gut too often meant letting preconceived notions or the path of least political resistance guide a decision—with cherry-picked facts used to justify it. But with a sound process—one in which I was able to empty out my ego and really listen, following the facts and logic as best I could and considering them alongside my goals and my principles—I realized I could make tough decisions and still sleep easy at night, knowing at a minimum that no one in my position, given the same information, could have made the decision any better. A good process also meant I could allow each member of the team to feel ownership over the decision—which meant better execution and less relitigation of White House decisions through leaks to The New York Times or The Washington Post.
I was reminded of how lucky I was to be an American, to take none of those blessings for granted. I saw firsthand the power our example exerted on the hearts and minds of people around the world. But with that came a corollary lesson: an awareness of what we risked when our actions failed to live up to our image and our ideals, the anger and resentment this could breed, the damage that was done.
to a degree unmatched by any superpower in history, America chose to bind itself to a set of international laws, rules, and norms.
Over time, that willingness to act on behalf of a common good—even if imperfectly—strengthened rather than diminished our influence, contributing to the system’s overall durability, and if America was not always universally loved, we were at least respected and not merely feared.
When asked during the campaign what qualities I’d look for in a Supreme Court nominee, I had talked not only about legal qualifications but also about empathy. Conservative commentators had scoffed at my answer, citing it as evidence that I planned to load up the Court with woolly-headed, social-engineering liberals who cared nothing about the “objective” application of the law. But as far as I was concerned, they had it upside down: It was precisely the ability of a judge to understand the context of his or her decisions, to know what life was like for a pregnant teen as well as for a Catholic priest, a self-made tycoon as well as an assembly-line worker, the minority as well as the majority, that was the wellspring of objectivity.
It was my first indicator of how the issue of Black folks and the police was more polarizing than just about any other subject in American life. It seemed to tap into some of the deepest undercurrents of our nation’s psyche, touching on the rawest of nerves, perhaps because it reminded all of us, Black and white alike, that the basis of our nation’s social order had never been simply about consent; that it was also about centuries of state-sponsored violence by whites against Black and brown people, and that who controlled legally sanctioned violence, how it was wielded and against whom, still mattered in the recesses of our tribal minds much more than we cared to admit.
THE PRESIDENCY CHANGES your time horizons. Rarely do your efforts bear fruit right away; the scale of most problems coming across your desk is too big for that, the factors at play too varied. You learn to measure progress in smaller steps—each of which may take months to accomplish, none of which merit much public notice—and to reconcile yourself to the knowledge that your ultimate goal, if ever achieved, may take a year or two or even a full term to realize.
I reminded myself that it was part and parcel of the presidency for nothing to ever work exactly as planned. Even successful initiatives—well executed and with the purest of intentions—usually harbored some hidden flaw or unanticipated consequence. Getting things done meant subjecting yourself to criticism, and the alternative—playing it safe, avoiding controversy, following the polls—was not only a recipe for mediocrity but a betrayal of the hopes of those citizens who’d put you in office.
Keeping up morale, on the other hand, wasn’t something I could delegate. I tried to be generous in my praise, measured in my criticism. In meetings, I made a point of eliciting everyone’s views, including those of more junior staffers. Small stuff mattered—making sure it was me who brought out the cake for somebody’s birthday, for example, or taking the time to call someone’s parents for an anniversary. Sometimes, when I had a few unscheduled minutes, I’d just wander through the West Wing’s narrow halls, poking my head into offices to ask people about their families, what they were working on, and whether there was anything they thought we could be doing better.
But as I’d discovered about myself during the campaign, obstacles and struggles rarely shook me to the core. Instead, depression was more likely to creep up on me when I felt useless, without purpose—when I was wasting my time or squandering opportunities.
I started having a recurring dream. In it, I find myself on the streets of some unnamed city, a neighborhood with trees, storefronts, light traffic. The day is pleasant and warm, with a soft breeze, and people are out shopping or walking their dogs or coming home from work. In one version I’m riding a bike, but most often I’m on foot, and I’m strolling along, without any thoughts in particular, when suddenly I realize that no one recognizes me. My security detail is gone. There’s nowhere I have to be. My choices have no consequence. I wander into a corner store and buy a bottle of water or iced tea, making small talk with the person behind the counter. I settle down on a nearby bench, pop open the cap on my drink, take a sip, and just watch the world passing by. I feel like I’ve won the lottery.
Like me, he had come to believe that this was all any of us could expect from democracy, especially in big, multiethnic, multireligious societies like India and the United States. Not revolutionary leaps or major cultural overhauls; not a fix for every social pathology or lasting answers for those in search of purpose and meaning in their lives. Just the observance of rules that allowed us to sort out or at least tolerate our differences, and government policies that raised living standards and improved education enough to temper humanity’s baser impulses.
When someone asks me to describe what it feels like to be the president of the United States, I often think about that stretch of time spent sitting helplessly at the state dinner in Chile, contemplating the knife’s edge between perceived success and potential catastrophe—in this case, the drift of a soldier’s parachute over a faraway desert in the middle of the night. It wasn’t simply that each decision I made was essentially a high-stakes wager; it was the fact that unlike in poker, where a player expects and can afford to lose a few big hands even on the way to a winning night, a single mishap could cost a life, and overwhelm—both in the political press and in my own heart—whatever broader objective I might have achieved.
Everything I did or had done involved working the odds, quietly and often late at night in the room where I now sat. I knew that I could not have come up with a better process to evaluate those odds or surrounded myself with a better mix of people to help me weigh them. I realized that through all the mistakes I’d made and the jams I’d had to extract us from, I had in many ways been training for exactly this moment. And while I couldn’t guarantee the outcome of my decision, I was fully prepared and fully confident in making it.