Less than two years have lapsed since Barack Obama passed the title of POTUS to Donald Trump. Since that time, enough stories have come out of Washington to fill two decades. Because of the bombardment of 24-hour news, it’s easy to forget the pre-Trump years were also rife with political theater. Brian Abrams’ oral biography, Obama: An Oral History 2009-2017, is an engrossing reconstruction of those complex days.
The ability to be so riveted by America’s recent past is a credit to Abrams’ deft interviewing skills and careful construction of the narrative. Abrams interviewed more than 100 subjects, including senior Obama White House advisors, bipartisan Congressmen, and speechwriters, digging into the breadth of events, challenges, and yes, mistakes, that comprised the Obama era: the Great Recession, Affordable Care Act, Guantanamo shutdown attempts, Syria, immigration reform, Edward Snowden leaks, the events in Ferguson, MO—the list teeters on overwhelming. “It’s not like the year 2011 was stress-free. It wasn’t. We were still at war in multiple countries, we were still droning innocents, we were still at debt-ceiling negotiations,” Abrams adds. "But there is a element of putting this book together that you allow yourself to forget about the present tense and focus on a time in history, to unplug from what’s going on now.”
Abrams admits, though, that during these interviews, he was surprised by which threads of this story became the most fascinating to unravel. “I didn’t expect that I would be so enamored by the budget wars. Doing taxes sounds so painful. Math sucks, I don’t want to do math,” he jokes. “Yet the stories and strategies behind the 2010 tax deal, the 2011 debt-ceiling, the fiscal cliff of 2012-2013, it was so fascinating to me. I say this as a normal person, not an economist.”
Almost a decade after many of these policies and debates occurred, the tension captured in debates surrounding immigration, health care, and the Recovery Act still feels very real on the page. One of the most captivating dynamics of the book is the way interviewees harken back to one another. Democrats remember things one way, Republicans another, and Abrams places the reader into these pieced-together conversations as if they were a real-time, round-table discussion.
Obtaining these insights, however, was anything but straightforward. “It’s a very partisan environment, so people are pretty dug-in still,” Abrams explains. “A very difficult part of writing the book is that you see all these Washington narratives that come out. People go on background for a reason, because they have careers. They have to work with one another. So it was definitely a challenge to not make the book fluffy. I wanted it to be real.”
Despite the ongoing debates, and our growing national divide, there is still a sense of accomplishment, and hope, that stems from the former Obama staffers that Abrams interviewed. Former Obama speechwriter Cody Keenan is quoted in the book as saying that Obama always told him, “the trajectory [of America] is undeniably upward, and that should give people hope.” When asked if he feels similarly after putting this book together, if we, as Americans, should indeed feel optimistic about our present and future, if we can find our way back to some middle ground, Abrams pauses, struggling to find the right words. His answer is not an idea, but an action. Simply, “Go vote.”
Alex Layman lives and writes in Colorado.