There are so many times in this book when you stop and wonder if Wolffe even understands that he is getting played like a fiddle. Asking Obama how he and his family have adjusted to their new lives under Secret Service protection, he elicits an anecdote about how the candidate invited his bodyguards to Thanksgiving dinner. “[N]obody had ever told them to come in and eat,” Obama tells the author. “Nobody treats them with respect.” Really? No politician, before the era of Barack Obama, had ever invited his Secret Service detail to a meal? “Nobody,” save the Renegade, “treats them with respect?” What sort of journalist passes along such a self-serving anecdote without skeptical comment, never mind corroboration?
After Obama fails to clinch the nomination on Super Tuesday, Wolffe asks him if he would leave politics to teach constitutional law if he lost the presidential race. The response is a model of disingenuousness:
“Yeah. I don’t have to do this,” he said as if running for president were just a seasonal job. “Of course, I really want to beat them now. They’ve annoyed me. But I could do something else. I’m not sure [Hillary Clinton] could.”
Having assessed these remarks—so typical of Obama’s contrived manifestation of effortlessness in all that he does—Wolffe writes of the candidate’s “obvious ambivalence” about losing to Clinton, describing him as “nonchalant about defeat.” Of course. A politician who rose from state senator to President of the United States in just four years is “ambivalent” and “nonchalant” about his career.
Defending himself, Wolffe told Politico that “there’s a whole chapter of the book called ‘Failure.’ This isn’t an authorized book [where] they controlled what I wrote or sought to control it.” But the chapter to which Wolffe refers is a reportorial account of how Obama lost the New Hampshire primary—a pivotal moment, which anyone writing a 334-page book about the campaign could hardly avoid describing. And if all this access came with no strings attached—and there’s no reason to doubt that—then Wolffe’s fawning is all the more pathetic. On page nine he has this to say about the atmosphere on Obama’s campaign plane: “There is an unbearable lightness of being.” Yes, he actually wrote that. No, it has nothing to do with aeronautics.
To be sure, Wolffe did get a few good tidbits. For instance, he breaks the news that Obama held a secret meeting during the campaign with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright in Chicago (though he offers precious few details on what transpired). In a later chapter on the transition, he reports that Rahm Emanuel was “unsettled by [Valerie Jarrett’s] personal relationship with the Obamas and wanted her outside the White House” (again, an intriguing factoid that calls out for deeper reporting). And, no doubt unintentionally, he occasionally captures Obama’s enormous self-regard in a way that only an oblivious fan could possibly manage.
As for Obama’s negative attributes—well, Wolffe doesn’t have much time for those. Discussing the candidate’s cynical decision to opt out of the public financing system, the most he can muster is that Obama’s “argument was not based on fairness; it was based on effectiveness.” In other words, he buys wholesale into the campaign’s excuse that they needed to prepare for the inevitable onslaught of Republican dirty tricks. Wolffe spends an entire paragraph defending the ostentatious Greek-temple display of columns that the Democrats constructed for Obama’s anointment in Denver. And Obama’s utter lack of foreign policy experience? “In some ways the candidate possessed a thin Washington resume in foreign affairs,” he concedes. In some ways?