As an avid listener of Pod Save America, the Crooked Media podcast hosted by former Obama administration officials, I knew I would be reading Dan Pfeiffer’s book “Yes We (Still) Can!” as soon as I could get my hands on it. Dan was President Obama’s Communications Director, and he is one of my favorite hosts of “the Pod.” He’s witty, intelligent, quick with comebacks and visceral in his reactions to the political and cultural atrocities that have occurred in the U.S. since Obama’s tenure ended.
Much like I expected, Dan’s book comforted, amused and enraged me at the same time. He examines the Obama campaign and presidency through his insider’s perspective, highlighting the way the media landscape changed over a decade and created a world in which the election of Trump was possible. While not exactly a tell-all memoir, Dan shares some entertaining stories and does not shy away from describing some of his low points while working on the communications team.
I truly found the sections about Twitter fascinating. Dan writes that Twitter and most social media sites (even G-mail) were inaccessible from White House computers. Eventually in 2011 Dan himself obtained a Twitter handle, but denied the requests of other staffers to have official Twitter accounts for this reason: he was afraid that off-hand comments from every person associated with the administration would somehow disrupt official messaging.
The idea of messaging weaves throughout the book and its sections about media, fake news, and the 2016 election. As Dan writes about trying to meet a big print advertising deadline but not having a slogan yet before the 2008 election, he opines,”The lesson here is that you can’t fabricate a message. It can’t be inorganic or forced; it has to flow directly from the candidate… The sound bite comes from the story, not the other way around.”
Obviously as a senior advisor to a Democratic president, there is a very liberal bias to this book. Dan is pretty footnote-happy, and many of his sarcastic comments compare Obama to Trump. In assessing the differences between parties, he observed, “Republicans want to foster cynicism about politics and government, and to convince periodic voters that their vote doesn’t matter. For Democrats, then, the key is to inspire people to turn out to vote.” It’s fascinating and strangely appropriate that Republicans stoop to the level of cultivating distrust in government in general, and ALL politicians, as part of their fear-mongering strategy.
What made the Trump campaign so successful was storytelling. Not that Trump’s message about the decline of America (which was reflected in his morose and depressing inauguration speech) was accurate, but it was COMPELLING. Dan argues that the Democratic story did not hit home enough to drive people to the polls. The thought process went like this: “No way will Trump be elected, he’s a lunatic, Hillary’s a lock, I can stay home.” So stay home they did. Trump’s very clear, racist message motivated infrequent voters in a much stronger way.
Because so many of Trump’s claims are not based on facts, Dan examines how fake news sprang up from the seeds of the birther movement, which he refers to as the “post-truth” era. “When the lines between facts and opinions blur, it provides an opening for those who view facts as obstacles and not pillars to an argument.”
All in all I devoured “Yes We (Still) Can” with great enjoyment. I learned a great deal, became engrossed in the behind-the-scenes policymaking stories, and found it comforting to judge the current state of the nation vs. how it looked under an Obama presidency. The problem, however, was that he’s not our leader anymore. While Dan promises to show us how to move forward as liberal thinkers under a crazy Republican president, I did not find many of the action steps to be feasible. Sure I follow along with the news, I lobby my congress people and do actually write letters to officials… but where will we find another Obama-like figure to lead us out of this mess? Because I think that’s kind of what we need.
Either way, I recommend this book to anyone who may enjoy my favorite podcast, to anyone who is a liberal, to anyone who wants to read about how superstitions about chicken tenders may have influenced the first debate against Mitt Romney, and to those dorks who get really into media and politics like I do. Have hope, take a deep breath, and move forward.