How the definitive Obama White House oral history came together
'Obama: An Oral History, 2009-2017' features more than 100 D.C. heavyweights offering firsthand accounts
Barack Obama’s toughest day in office was Dec. 14, 2012.
The president of the United States had just won re-election and was a week away from his annual Christmas vacation to Hawaii when Nick Shapiro — then-White House staffer — barged into the Oval Office during Obama’s top-secret daily briefing. Shapiro quickly informed his bosses, Homeland Security Advisor John Brennan and Obama himself, that “a small number of kids had been shot” in Connecticut.
“Only later did we learn the full extent. But it was a school. They were young, and this was actually out of the news for a really long time, and that’s not normal,” Shapiro recounts in the new book Obama: An Oral History, 2009-2017.
The White House’s initial response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting is but one of many narratives that author Brian Abrams (Die Hard: An Oral History) has compiled in his exhaustive new volume. Interweaving firsthand accounts of more than 100 D.C. heavyweights and Obama administration insiders, Abrams traces efforts to combat police brutality, end the Great Recession, and pass gun reform, as well as a decade of historic gridlock.
“Depending on who you are, you certainly could read into [the book] and want to feel proud about what needle had been moved for whatever progressive sort of advancements were made,” Abrams tells EW. “[Or] you could get angry about where we fell short.”
Rather than a biography of the country’s first African-American president, Obama: An Oral History reads as a reunion of countless West Wing staffers, legislators, and even rival campaign managers nearly 10 years after the start of a new political era. It’s the latest addition to an ever-expanding line of nonfiction on the most recently completed presidential administration.
Abrams stands counter to those behind the salacious tell-alls and wistful memoirs that continue to nab headlines. Indeed, he never worked for Obama or even stepped foot in the White House. Instead, the veteran journalist offers an independent, unauthorized — though not quite unbiased — depiction. He wishes to inform audiences unfamiliar with, say, House bill H.R. 3590 (a.k.a the Affordable Care Act), offering comprehensive, process-heavy background that’s compelling in its detail. “[It] wasn’t my intent to write a f—ing takedown, and wasn’t my intent to write and pose as an advocate,” Abrams says.
The inner circle of Valerie Jarrett, Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, and Jon Favreau serve as surrogate voices for the former commander-in-chief. Though he tried, Abrams did not interview the president — nor did he speak with former first lady Michelle Obama, former Vice President Joe Biden, or former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. At the time of the book’s writing, they were preoccupied either running the country or campaigning to do so.
But Abrams isn’t quite lamenting their absence. “I never actually wanted President Obama in the book because I like the ‘Frank Sinatra Has a Cold’ storytelling aspect,” Abrams says, referring to the famed profile by Esquire writer Gay Talese, which characterized Sinatra solely through interviews with the individuals in his orbit.
Abrams understands the surging popularity of political nonfiction, and he’s happy to provide audiences with content satisfying the nonstop D.C. gossip craze dominating cable news and social media. (He likewise purchased a copy of Michael Wolff’s controversial Trump White House best-seller Fire and Fury.) “We live in an age obviously where the content is snorted and is no longer smoked,” Abrams says.
In the oral history, legislators and even former White House aides are quick to call out the former president. Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez lambasts Obama — a longtime friend — for sidelining immigration reform. (Gutierrez claims that whenever Obama handed documents supporting immigration reform to chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, it meant the president thought, “This is bulls— to me.”) It wasn’t that Obama was avoiding immigration reform; a faltering economy and divisive healthcare bill left the border debate on the back burner until 2013. Senate Democrats passed an immigration reform bill June 27, 2013, pleasing Gutierrez and advocacy groups. Then, abruptly, the momentum stopped. The bill didn’t make it out of the House, pushing the ball on immigration farther away.
“I wasn’t worried if I was going to hurt someone’s feelings by asking about that,” Abrams says of failed legislation’s impact on immigration politics today. “I wasn’t aware that the months that this book would come out that we would have concentration camps for babies.”
Donald Trump and his presidency, a great deal of which has been dedicated to undoing Obama’s political accomplishments, are an ominous presence throughout the book. Aides slip in derisive side comments, and in some cases, directly compare the current president to his predecessor. One fascinating anecdote concerns White House Director of Operations David Cusack, who was the last holdover Obama staffer to work in the West Wing: As An Oral History tells it, he demanded that Trump aides who were moving in five minutes early on Inauguration Day vacate the space until exactly 11:59 a.m.
Abrams revved up the Trump acknowledgments in the last few chapters when discussing the 2016 presidential race and Trump’s subsequent inauguration; however, the oral history isn’t a response to the 45th president. Had Hillary Clinton won, Abrams says most of the narrative would remind intact. For the author, An Oral History marks an opportunity to make sense of the past decade, particularly as the Trump administration continues to so regressively respond to its major cultural and political shifts.
“Would an Obama oral history be as effective in year 2026 as now, assuming we’d all be alive?” Abrams asks slyly. “There’s a reason I was assigned an Obama book, and I wasn’t assigned a book about Calvin Coolidge.”