Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s Speechwriter, Talks Politics

LEAP is always eager to hear from World Affairs Council speakers, and that is especially true when Ben Rhodes presents to the Council. Rhodes, a former speechwriter and advisor to President Obama, discussed his latest book, After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made, with the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos as the moderator.

Following eight years of working long hours for the Obama administration, Rhodes found himself with a lot of time on his hands, a need for decompression, and wrestling with the Presidency of Donald Trump. So, he decided to write a book and, as he says, announce himself as a writer to the world.

What struck Rhodes, as he reflected and traveled and reflected some more, is how parts of the world were “turning to nationalism and authoritarianism,” particularly Hungary, Russia, China, and the United States. Key to this period, according to Rhodes, was the great recession of 2008, which is “when the narrative of liberalism and democracy collapsed.” With this narrative, Osnos readily and frequently agreed.

Rhodes is, at times, a bit morose, identifying this period as “the fall” to which the title alludes. This fall emboldened China and Russia, freeing them to mock capitalism and democracy, and emboldening nationalistic elements in Europe (particularly Hungary). He characterizes presidents from GHW Bush to Obama as “collectively wrong” and “hubristic,” while also criticizing the NBA, the media, and “the entire mass entertainment industry.” (see here for other views he’s expressed about the media).

Rhodes responded best during the Q&A period, during which Ronan O’Malley stepped in.

Rhodes argues that the China-Russia relationship is “shallow,” united by their “interest in the discrediting of democracy.”

When asked about the “personalization” of politics and regimes, Rhodes suggests that the rise of social media contributes to this movement, while also noting that the election of Biden was a countermovement to this trend.

Rhodes struggled to find silver linings. “There is one megatrend in the world,” he lamented, “and it’s not good.” But he argues, not entirely convincingly, that the “mass mobilization” in the world is happening and good; that people “are much more aware” (polls indicate otherwise); and there are civil rights in certain world regions than there were 30 years ago. It’s not a lot to hang on to, but it’s what we can look to, he says, “after the fall.”