Samantha Power Regrets

Column: Team Obama still hasn't learned the lesson of 2016

Still from The Final Year
Still from The Final Year
January 19, 2018

"I've had a lot of bad ideas in my life," former U.N. ambassador Samantha Power tells Politico. "Though none as immortalized as that one."

Wow. It's a major concession. And what might "that one" be?

Not standing idly by in the White House while Iranians protested a fixed election in 2009, then advocating a nuclear agreement that bankrolled the theocratic regime's expansionism and militarism and corruption. Not serving as U.S. representative to an international body that took no effectual action to stop the Syrian civil war, in which more than 400,000 people have been killed, civilians gassed, and millions of refugees gone to Jordan, Turkey, and Europe. Not flacking for a president who, out of fear of reprisal, waited until a month after the 2016 election to punish Russia for interfering in American democracy, who spent years trying to coax Vladimir Putin onto the "off ramp" from the illegal annexation of Crimea, did nothing more than scold Russia after learning it had violated the INF treaty, reduced America's nuclear deterrent at the very moment our adversaries were building up their armaments, denied Ukrainians lethal defensive aid against Russia-backed separatists, and routinely put up obstacles to domestic extraction industries that undercut Russia's share of the energy market. She's not talking about any of that.

What Samantha Power regrets is allowing documentarians to record the election-night party she threw, in the words of Susan Glasser, "for all 37 female ambassadors to the U.N. as well as feminist icon Gloria Steinem and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to celebrate what they all expected to be Hillary Clinton's inevitable victory."


The cameras "immortalized" Power and company's colossal self-regard and misjudgment, thus making the film, "The Final Year," a fitting send-off for the Obama crew. But back to that party:  "As a host, I was kind of hoping it wouldn't be quite the blowout it was anticipated to be, because I wanted to make sure that people had a chance to interact with Gloria Steinem," Power tells Glasser. You can see where she's coming from. Imagine how awkward it would have been for Power if the election were called for Hillary before guests finished the tomato-soup shooters and the delegate from Timor-Leste told Steinem how cool it was to hear her sampled in the video for Jennifer Lopez's "Ain't Your Mama." How would Power's guests have spent the rest of the evening? Gossiping about Hillary's pick for secretary of state while dealing hands of "Cards Against Humanity" as "Fight Song" played on a loop? That would have been a letdown. "I wanted to milk the soft power dividend of this moment," Power goes on, in one of the weirdest and somewhat terrifying mixed metaphors I have ever encountered.

But of course the milk of soft power dividend was spoilt. Corrupt, inept, and entitled, Hillary did not win. Victory went to the orange ogre. The expected moment of triumph was suddenly and unexpectedly transfigured into a moment of surprise and agony and shame. And HBO was recording the whole thing. The embarrassment! "I think that scene moves viewers the most," Power says now, "because it triggers, I think, a kind of post-traumatic stress about their own election night experience, which mirrored mine."

Never does Power give any indication that the policies and character of the administration she served for eight years might have had some role in the outcome of the election. Weak economic growth, capricious and stultifying and often-unconstitutional regulation, a rejection of military deterrence in favor of negotiation and accommodation with undemocratic great powers and their proxies, the removal of troops from Iraq and the supercilious reference to ISIS as the "JV team," the constant tweaking and trolling of conservatives and Republicans to make them batty, and all enacted with an omnipresent and choking air of moral and intellectual superiority and pride—none of this factors in her analysis. So convinced is Power of the righteousness of her positions and stature and the inevitable course of History and Progress that Trump appears to her almost as an apparition, a figure from a different dimension, far removed from any universe in which she and her boss lived and acted. Another Obama mistake.

I don't mean to single out Power. This distended mentality of merit and awesome lack of self-awareness was an Obama administration specialty. The former president's amanuensis, Ben Rhodes, the first deputy national security adviser in American history to hold an MFA in creative writing from NYU and the architect of the echo chamber that propagandized for the Iran deal, is just as cocooned. So taken aback was he by the election results that words failed him. "In one long take," writes Washington Post film critic Alan Zilberman, "Rhodes goes out for some fresh air after the results are in, only to find himself rendered inarticulate by what he is feeling."

Here is a man famous for his arrogance and condescension not only toward ideological opponents but also toward the foreign policy establishment that, every so often, suggested the Obama administration might be making the world a more dangerous place. Yet the election of Donald Trump fries his brain. "I think—I kept trying—beginning to say something, and the film shows that basically I can't speak, because anything I was going to say was just going to be a kind of lame rationalization," Rhodes says to Politico. "And when, in reality, you know, sometimes things are just terrible." Power is herself shocked by Rhodes's shock. "For Ben Rhodes not to be able to speak, you know something really unusual has happened," she says.

And it was unusual. But the weirdness did not begin on election night. By 2016, Obama and his administration had become so enamored of themselves and of their mission, so ensconced in the protective Snuggie that their fan boys in the media provided them, that they could not countenance any rational opposition to their policies, nor accept responsibility for the weakened state of America and her democratic allies, nor conceive that Republicans and independents and even some former Democratic supporters might be turned off by their mix of Hollywood social justice posturing and Silicon Valley high-tech economics. Even now, over a year later, the Obama liberals prefer the simplicity and purity of Resistance to frank self-evaluation. If Samantha Power's main takeaway from 2016 is that she shouldn't have let HBO film Madeline Albright by the punchbowl as Donald Trump was made president, then the Democratic Party has more problems than I thought.