The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power

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The definitive analysis of the events, ideas, personalities, and conflicts that have defined Obama’s foreign policy—with a new afterword for his second term

When Barack Obama first took office, he brought with him a new group of foreign policy advisers intent on carving out a new global role for America in the wake of the Bush administration’s war in Iraq. Now the acclaimed author of Rise of the Vulcans offers a definitive, even-handed account of the messier realities they’ve ...

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The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power

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The definitive analysis of the events, ideas, personalities, and conflicts that have defined Obama’s foreign policy—with a new afterword for his second term

When Barack Obama first took office, he brought with him a new group of foreign policy advisers intent on carving out a new global role for America in the wake of the Bush administration’s war in Iraq. Now the acclaimed author of Rise of the Vulcans offers a definitive, even-handed account of the messier realities they’ve faced in implementing their policies and the challenges they will face going into the second term.
In The Obamians, prizewinning author and journalist James Mann tells the compelling story of the administration’s struggle to enact a coherent and effective set of policies in a time of global turmoil. At the heart of this struggle are the generational conflicts between the Democratic establishment—including Robert Gates, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden—and Obama and his inner circle of largely unknown, remarkably youthful advisers, who came of age after the Cold War had ended.
Written by a proven master at elucidating political underpinnings even to the politicians themselves, The Obamians is a pivotal reckoning of this historic president and his inner circle, and of how their policies may or may not continue to shape America and the world. This edition includes a new afterword by the author on how the Obamians’ foreign policy affected the 2012 election and what that means for the future.

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
Mann is a good reporter. He writes clearly and accessibly, often with insight and sound judgment. There are gaps in the…book's coverage (Israel, Europe, trade), but the subjects he does treat (national security, Afghanistan and Pakistan, China, the Arab Spring) are handled accurately and without ideological bias. And here, as before, Mann's strength is his close attention to the political and professional backgrounds of key administration officials, many of whom he interviewed.
—Gideon Rose
The New York Times
Drawing upon some 125 interviews, including those with many officials in the Obama administration, Mr. Mann writes with shrewdness and insight about the evolution of the president's thinking, tensions among his staff…and contrasts and continuities between his conduct of foreign policy and that of the previous two presidents…All in all…The Obamians provides the reader with a succinct and serious-minded overview of Mr. Obama's foreign policy so far—foreign policy that Mr. Mann argues provides a far better picture of the president and his ideas than his domestic policies because Congress does not have the sort of oversight of foreign policy that it does on, say, taxes, budgets or health care.
—Michiko Kakutani
The New York Times Book Review
[The Obamians] could not have a better chronicler than Mann, a longtime journalist at The Los Angeles Times who has written a similar book called Rise of the Vulcans about the conservatives and neoconservatives who surrounded President George W. Bush. Like the best reporters, Mann lets his subjects speak for themselves, then checks their fancies against the facts. He has given us a very good first cut at history.
—Leslie H. Gelb
Publishers Weekly
Journalist Mann, coauthor of Rise of the Vulcans, offers an insider’s account of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy team and argues that this coterie of trusted advisors “thought of themselves as a new generation in American foreign policy history.” Mann suggests that this administration tried to break with Vietnam-era and Clinton administration foreign policy legacies while inheriting two wars and facing a world suspicious of American motivations and skeptical of its influence. The mix of realism and idealism has been largely successful, Mann argues, because Obama’s technocratic side freed him from ideological constraints and allowed him to rely heavily on Robert Gates (Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush), Bush-era policy mandarin Brent Scowcroft, and, in a dramatic and adroit move, political rival Hillary Clinton. To Mann, an Obama-led America has tried to tell the world what it stands for, as well as what it’s against. His foreign policy has had some notable successes, from the airtight secrecy before launching the raid that killed Osama bin Laden to intervening in Libya without making a lasting American commitment. According to Mann, Obama’s goal of “rebalancing” American foreign policy has largely succeeded, creating a relatively positive footing for “an era when American primacy is no longer taken for granted.” Agent: Rafe Sagalyn, The Sagalyn Agency. (June)
Library Journal
Former journalist Mann (author in residence, Johns Hopkins Sch. of Advanced International Studies; Rise of the Vulcans) turns in a balanced and clearheaded examination of the Obama administration's foreign policy. His term "Obamians" refers to the assemblage of progressive yet pragmatic advisers President Obama brought into his campaign and administration. Eager to redefine the role of American power abroad in the wake of George W. Bush's dramatic and (to them) misguided policies, this group has sought ways to resolve conflicts and stop human rights abuses around the world without the excessive interventionism of the previous administration. Mann provides readers with an insider's view of the evolution of thought and policy among this group by interviewing many of the policymakers involved. VERDICT Writing about a topic as abstruse as foreign policy, Mann avoids getting bogged down in wonky detail and crafts an absorbing narrative as much about the personalities as the policy itself. This book is for serious and thoughtful readers of any political persuasion looking for in-depth information on Obama's foreign policy thus far. [See Prepub Alert, 12/5/11.]—Brett Rohlwing, Milwaukee P.L.
Kirkus Reviews
An early rough-draft history of the Obama administration's stance on foreign policy. This book effectively represents a companion volume to Mann's well-regarded Rise of the Vulcans (2004), which explored the ascendancy of neoconservatives in President George W. Bush's administration. Taking a similar approach here, Mann (The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the End of the Cold War, 2010, etc.) proves to be a deft, discerning reporter; he also seems committed to writing what amount to temporally useful but perhaps not enduring insta-histories of the foreign-policy–making apparatus of recent presidents. The author initially presents Obama's foreign-policy approach as redefining America's relationship with the world from that of his predecessor, in large part by returning to a multilateral approach to global matters. However, Mann makes abundantly clear that Obama's actual behavior in foreign affairs has relied as much on continuity as disjunction from the Bush administration, and that in many ways, his real divergence is from the foreign policy of Democratic presidents before him, most notably the Clinton administration. Many readers may wonder if it is too early to tell. If Obama fails to win a second term, it becomes much more difficult to argue that he fundamentally transformed American relations with the rest of the world. It is far too early to gauge the full impact of Obama's foreign policy while it plays out, much less attempt to place that policy within a grander framework of even contemporary history. Future historians will surely rely heavily on Mann's work, but the book may have come a bit early. A readable text that covers important ground but lacks the larger perspective the material warrants.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143124269
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/2/2013
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 1,544,121
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

James Mann, a former Washington reporter, columnist, and foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, is author in residence at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He is the author of many books on global affairs and U.S. foreign policy, including the New York Times bestseller Rise of the Vulcans.

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Read an Excerpt

The ultimate Obamian, of course, was Obama himself. Aides such as McDonough and Rhodes reflected the president’s own views. Obama was as new to foreign policy as they were, and as little influenced by previous Democratic administrations.

Over the years, far too much has been made of how Obama’s race and upbringing supposedly affected his thinking about the world. Political opponents, diplomats and journalists have sometimes speculated about the impact on Obama of his father’s roots in Kenya or of his childhood years in Indonesia. Some have theorized that Obama had somehow been imbued with an “anticolonial” perspective and was hostile, or at least unsympathetic, to British and European traditions.

There is little if any evidence to support this theory, and it represents an extremely selective interpretation of Obama’s youth. His postprimary education included a private college-prep school in Hawaii, private colleges in Los Angeles (Occidental College) and New York City (Columbia), and law school at Harvard. Obama’s secondary and higher education, in other words, was not radically different from that of, say, John F. Kennedy (prep school and Harvard), Franklin Roosevelt (prep school, Harvard and Columbia Law School), Richard Nixon (Whittier College and Duke Law School), Gerald Ford (University of Michigan and Yale Law School), George H. W. Bush (prep school and Yale), Bill Clinton (Georgetown and Yale Law School) or George W. Bush (prep school, Yale and Harvard Business School). If Obama’s worldview was influenced by his upbringing—and even this is an open question—then surely those long years of elite American schooling must have counted for far more than the father he barely knew or his four years in elementary school overseas.

Instead, Obama’s views of the world and of America’s role in it were shaped to a far greater extent by his age and by the times in which he came to national prominence. Obama was the first president since Vietnam whose personal life and career were utterly unaffected by that war. Every president since Gerald Ford had tried, in one fashion or another, to declare an end to the Vietnam War or to put to rest its continuing impact. Ford had ended the American presence in Vietnam. Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush had both proclaimed the end of the “Vietnam syndrome,” their term for the fear of military intervention and casualties. Bill Clinton had normalized diplomatic relations with Vietnam.

The war had nevertheless retained its potency in American political life. When Clinton ran for the presidency in 1992, he had to explain why he hadn’t served in the military during Vietnam. When George W. Bush ran in 2000, his campaign was obliged to justify an assignment in the Texas Air National Guard that kept him out of Vietnam. In the 2004 presidential campaign, after the Democrats nominated a Vietnam veteran, the Republicans managed to raise questions about John Kerry’s service on a “swift boat” in that war.

In the election of 2008, however, Obama, who was only thirteen years old when the last American troops came home from Vietnam, defeated a Republican candidate who was a Vietnam War hero and former prisoner of war. Vietnam had finally vanished from American presidential politics.

Obama was also the first American president in the modern era who neither served in the military nor was subject to the draft. In this respect, he was a fair representative of most other Americans under the age of fifty-five. Knowing nothing else, Obama could take as a given the existence of the volunteer professional army; military service was a career, not an obligation. The military could be seen as simply a constituency in American society— another big, powerful group with which Obama could try to reach compromise, bridge differences or find a centrist position. “He’s not suspicious of the military, and he’s not scared of the military,” said Denis McDonough. “It’s a vitally important institution that’s part of this country and part of this government.”

Finally, Obama was the first president to come to the White House after George W. Bush’s intervention in Iraq. The mere fact that he followed Bush provided Obama with considerable opportunity for improving America’s relations with the rest of the world. In this respect, Obama had considerable success. He sought to avoid the rancorous relations Bush had with the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and other countries. During his second term, Bush had himself tried to smooth over the frictions caused by the Iraq War, but he was so unpopular that these belated efforts didn’t have much impact; no elected president or prime minister in Western Europe could be seen as too close to Bush. After Obama’s election, European leaders once again wanted to have their pictures taken alongside an American president.

The 2008 financial crisis affected Obama’s foreign policy and America’s international standing at least as much as the Iraq War. The impact of the financial crisis went far beyond the mere lack of money. The United States had far greater difficulty holding itself up to the world as an economic model. In the countries that were harmed by the financial crisis, some of the blame was assigned to the United States—legitimately so. In those few countries where the financial crisis did not hit so hard, such as China and Germany, there was a newly acquired sense of superiority to the American economic system.

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Table of Contents

Introduction xi

Prologue 1

1 "A Look I Recognized" 13

2 "I'm Running Out of Demons" 31

3 Democrats in Exile 45

4 The Trout Fishers 56

5 The Obamians 66

6 "Join Us" 76

7 "To Track Down, Capture or Kill" 86

8 CIA and the "Aw, Shit!" Campaign 100

9 Afghanistan: Flip of the COIN 117

10 "It's Not Like This Ghost in His Head" 129

11 The Speeches: "Evil Does Exist" 142

12 The Scowcroft Democrats 156

13 No Roosevelt, No Churchill, No Brandy 171

14 "Iran, Iran, Iran and Iran" 191

15 The Outsiders 211

16 "Richard Being Richard" 229

17 Hillary Clinton's "Miracle" Speech 241

18 "Now Means Yesterday" 255

19 "We Are All Democrats Now" 270

20 Libya: To Fly 281

21 New Moon over Pakistan 302

Epilogue: Unfinished Business 322

Conclusion 335

Acknowledgments 347

Notes 351

Index 375

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