WASHINGTON – Ben Rhodes, former deputy national security advisor for strategic communications under President Barack Obama, said Obama’s personal views on race differed from the public statements he made on the topic during his presidency.
“President Obama was not as unaware of the white perceptions of him as he made it out to be publicly. Is that fair?” Rhodes was asked during discussion this summer about his new book, The World as It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House.
“Yeah, I mean, you know, I describe in the book and I really didn’t mean it to be a pun but, basically, racism was like white noise to us in that it was ever-present. It was so omnipresent for all eight years that’s it’s not like we sat around talking about it but it would come out in these kinds of moments where we would be prepping him for like an interview or a press conference and saying ‘you may be asked if some of the opposition to you is motivated by race’ and he would be like, ‘yes, of course it is, next question,’ and he wasn’t going to say that publicly,” Rhodes replied.
Rhodes explained that Obama would instead say that “there were many different factors” motivating the opposition to his presidency.
“Another one: how do we reduce the tension around Black Lives Matter and policing and he would say, ‘Well, I’ll say, cops should stop shooting unarmed black folks, next question,’ you know,” Rhodes said.
Moderator Jeffrey Goldberg, editor in chief of The Atlantic, asked why Obama would not publicly speak about his true feelings on race. Rhodes mentioned Obama’s reaction to Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. getting arrested in his house in 2009 after a passerby reported he was breaking in.
Obama said Gates’ arrest “was stupid and the blowback was so insane and it was like people were so excited to be talking about race on cable television and it was multiple days of people going back and forth and Fox going into hysteria,” Rhodes said.
Rhodes also named the “birther” movement and Donald Trump’s effort to get Obama to release his long-form birth certificate in 2011.
“Cable television networks gave so much air time to the birther movement and I would argue it led to the election of Donald Trump,” he said.
Rhodes, who joined the Obama campaign in 2007 as a senior speechwriter, disclosed that he was the most surprised after Trump won the 2016 election, more so than Barack and Michelle Obama.
“It was white people who thought Barack Obama’s election was going to transform race in America – not largely African-American people, certainly not the Obamas. They never believed that because they lived the experience of being African-American in this country. And so he was far more acutely aware of racism in this country than I was and far more aware of the forces that might lead to Trumpism,” Rhodes said.
“I remember some anecdotes of hearing, where I was at events in Washington, kind of casual racism and it shocked me but it wouldn’t shock him at all, you know, that that would happen, so I think what I came to see when I became closer and closer to him is there is an understanding of the omnipresence of racism in American society that I as a white person didn’t fully appreciate until I worked for the first African-American president,” he added.
Rhodes compared Obama’s approach to his presidency to Jackie Robinson, in that, “I’m the first African-American to do this, I just have to do this job twice as good as like a white person would have to and I have to take all this stuff and just keep my head down.”
“I think late in his presidency he started to find new ways of talking about this; I think, if you look at his speech in Charleston, his visit to a prison, his ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ initiative, his efforts on criminal justice reform.”
In reaction to the footage of President Trump saluting a North Korean general at the June summit with Kim Jong-un, Rhodes described what he thinks would have occurred if Obama had done the same. Rhodes cited Obama bowing when he met with late Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud.
“That was for years treated as bowing to the Saudis and giving away America’s dignity. I think if he had saluted a North Korean general he would have been detained upon return to the United States and sent to Guantanamo. I probably would have been killed in a firing squad by the Freedom Caucus,” Rhodes said. “I do have to say that people ask me what is the most dystopian aspect of the Trump administration is – the outright hypocrisy of – it’s almost as if they are trying to find the things they used to criticize Obama for and praise Trump for the same things, that seems to happen every day.”
Goldberg asked Rhodes why he thinks some Republicans who criticized Obama for not being tough enough on dictators now support Trump’s outreach to Kim.
“I think you have to just chalk it up to tribalism,” he replied. “It would happen, by the way, when we were in office that they would be for something until we did it. The Republicans in Congress were for intervention in Libya until the moment Barack Obama did it and they were for intervention in Syria until he went to Congress for authorization.”
Reflecting on Obama’s two terms in office, Rhodes said he wishes the Obama White House had ended the war in Afghanistan, the longest war in U.S. history.
“We should have done more to try to bring about some closure to the wars. To me, we should not be in Afghanistan. I don’t know what we’re accomplishing in Afghanistan and I wish we had ended that war by the end of our administration because I don’t think we’re making it better,” Rhodes said. “Every time this argument would come up in the situation room it would be, ‘well, if we leave it will get worse.’ Well, we are staying and it’s getting worse and we’ve been there for 15 years now.”