Tablet: The Obama Factor: A Q&A with historian David Garrow

David Samuels begins with an anecdote from David Garrow’s Obama biography Rising Star, the only book I’ve read about the former president:

At the time that Obama and Sheila visited the Spertus Institute, Chicago politics was being roiled by a Black mayoral aide named Steve Cokely who, in a series of lectures organized by Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, accused Jewish doctors in Chicago of infecting Black babies with AIDS as part of a genocidal plot against African Americans. The episode highlighted a deep rift within the city’s power echelons, with some prominent Black officials supporting Cokely and others calling for his firing.

In Jager’s recollection, what set off the quarrel that precipitated the end of the couple’s relationship was Obama’s stubborn refusal, after seeing the exhibit, and in the swirl of this Cokely affair, to condemn Black racism. While acknowledging that Obama’s embrace of a Black identity had created some degree of distance between the couple, she insisted that what upset her that day was Obama’s inability to condemn Cokely’s comments. It was not Obama’s Blackness that bothered her, but that he would not condemn antisemitism.

No doubt, Obama’s evolving race-based self-consciousness did distance him from Jager; in the end, the couple broke up. Yet it is revealing to read Obama’s account of the breakup in Dreams against the very different account that Jager offers. In Obama’s account, he was the particularist, embracing a personal meaning for the Black experience that Jager, the universalist, refused to grant. In Jager’s account, the poles of the argument are nearly, but not quite, reversed: It is Obama who appears to minimize Jewish anxiety about blood libels coming from the Black community. His particularism mattered; hers didn’t. While Obama defined himself as a realist or pragmatist, the episode reads like a textbook evasion of moral responsibility.

In evaluating the truthfulness of these two competing accounts, it seems worth noting that Jager is something more than a woman scorned by a man who would later become president of the United States. Obama asked her to marry him twice; she refused him both times, before going on to achieve her own high-level professional successes. A student of the great University of Chicago anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, Jager is a professor of East Asian Studies at Oberlin College whose scholarship on great power politics in Southeast Asia and the U.S.-Korean relationship is known for its factual rigor. In contrast, Dreams from My Father, as Garrow shows throughout Rising Star, is as much a work of dreamy literary fiction as it is an attempt to document Obama’s early life.

Scholarship aside, there is another reason to assume that Jager would be less likely to misremember an incident involving race and antisemitism than Obama. As it turns out, Jager’s paternal grandparents, Hendrik and Geesje Jager, were members of the Dutch resistance, whose role sheltering a Jewish child named Greetje in their home for three years led to their recognition as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. In that context, at least, it seems quite likely that Jager would remember the particulars of a fight with Obama related to antisemitism, and be turned off by his response—while Obama’s version of the fight has the feel of an anecdote positioned, if not invented, to buttress the character arc of the protagonist of his memoir, which in turn positioned him for a career in public life.

The episode reads to me like the beginning of Obama’s in-group identity and how it clashed with the moral universalism of his girlfriend, Sheila Miyoshi Jager. The higher your in-group identity, the less likely you will be to see flaws in your group and the less likely you will be to condemn them.

Perhaps the most revealing thing about Jager’s account of her fight with Obama, though, is that not one reporter in America bothered to interview her before David Garrow found her, near the end of Obama’s presidency. As Obama’s live-in girlfriend and closest friend during the 1980s, Jager is probably the single most informed and credible source about the inner life of a young man whose election was accompanied by hopes of sweeping, peaceful social change in America—a hope that ended with the election of Donald Trump, or perhaps midway through Obama’s second term, as the president focused on the Iran deal while failing to address the concerns about rampant income inequality, racial inequality, and the growth of a monopoly tech complex that happened on his watch.

The idea that the celebrated journalists who wrote popular biographies of Obama and became enthusiastic members of his personal claque couldn’t locate Jager—or never knew who she was—defies belief. It seems more likely that the character Obama fashioned in Dreams had been defined—by Obama—as being beyond the reach of normal reportorial scrutiny. Indeed, Garrow’s biography of Obama’s early years is filled with such corrections of a historical record that Obama more or less invented himself. Based on years of careful record-searching and patient interviewing, Rising Star highlights a remarkable lack of curiosity on the part of mainstream reporters and institutions about a man who almost instantaneously was treated less like a politician and more like the idol of an inter-elite cult.

…Russiagate had not originated with the Bureau, but with the Clinton campaign, which having failed to get even sympathetic mainstream media outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post to bite on its fantastical allegations, was reduced to handing off the story to campaign press apparatchiks like Slate’s Franklin Foer and Mother Jones’ David Corn. The fact that the story only got bigger after Clinton lost the election was due to Obama’s CIA director, John Brennan, who in November and December of 2016 helped elevate Russiagate from a failed Clinton campaign ploy to a priority of the American national security apparatus, using a hand-picked team of CIA analysts under his direct control to validate his thesis. If Brennan was the instrument, the person who signed the executive order that turned Brennan’s thesis into a time bomb under Trump’s desk was Barack Obama.

That strikes me as spot on.

…who was actually making decisions in a White House staffed top to bottom with core Obama loyalists. When Obama turned up at the White House, staffers and the press crowded around him, leaving President Biden talking to the drapes—which is not a metaphor but a real thing that happened.

That Obama might enjoy serving as a third-term president in all but name, running the government from his iPhone, was a thought expressed in public by Obama himself, both before and after he left office. “I used to say if I can make an arrangement where I had a stand-in or front man or front woman, and they had an earpiece in, and I was just in my basement in my sweats looking through the stuff, and I could sort of deliver the lines while someone was doing all the talking and ceremony,” he told Steven Colbert in 2015, “I’d be fine with that because I found the work fascinating.” Even with all these clues, the Washington press corps—fresh off their years of broadcasting fantasies about secret communications links between Trump Tower and the Kremlin—seemed unable to imagine, let alone report on, Obama’s role in government.

Obama was detached as president. It’s hard to believe he’s pulling the strings behind the scenes.

…the problems that are inherent in having a person with no constitutional role or congressional oversight take an active role in executive decision-making. Near the end of June, for example, Politico ran a long article noting Biden’s cognitive decline, with the coy headline “Is Obama Ready to Reassert Himself?”—as if the ex-president hadn’t been living in the middle of Washington and playing politics since the day he left office. Indeed, in previous weeks Obama had continued his role as central advocate for government censorship of the internet while launching a new campaign against gun ownership, claiming it is historically linked to racism. Surely, the spectacle of an ex-president simultaneously leading campaigns against both the First and Second Amendments might have led even a spectacularly incurious old-school D.C. reporter to file a story on the nuts and bolts of Obama’s political operation and on who was going in and out of his mansion. But the D.C. press was no longer in the business of maintaining transparency. Instead, they had become servants of power, whose job was to broadcast whatever myths helped advance the interests of the powerful.

When Trump was president, he was power, and the press wasn’t interested in broadcasting myths to advance his interests.

Obama’s campaigns against the First and Second Amendment haven’t gained any traction and don’t strike anyone as particularly effective.

There is another interpretation of Obama’s post-presidency, of course—one shared by many Republicans and Democrats. In that interpretation, Obama was never the leader of much of anything, neither during the Trump years nor now. Instead, he was focused on buying trophy properties, hanging out with billionaires, and vacationing on private yachts while grifting large checks from marks like Spotify and Netflix—even if his now-stratospheric levels of personal vanity also demanded that every so often he show up President Biden for the sin of occupying his chair in the White House.

In the absence of what was once American journalism, it is hard to know which portrait of Obama’s post-presidency is truer to life: Obama as a celebrity-obsessed would-be billionaire, or as a would-be American Castro, reshaping American society from his basement, in his sweats.

The idea of Obama as a would-be Castro seems absurd. So I’d share the first opinion — Obama was never the leader of much of anything.

What I could never understand was Obama’s contempt for the idea of American exceptionalism. Even as president, Obama insisted on poking exceptionalists in the eye, saying that he believed in American exceptionalism “just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” Why would the president of the United States feel the need to disabuse his countrymen of the idea that they are special?

I suspect that Obama’s contempt for the idea of American exceptionalism is not exceptional among people with his level of education. That Samuels finds it strange is strange. The more left you go, the less nationalist you go. The further left you go, the more you believe in centralized rule by experts (who tend to come from places like Harvard).

What made Obama’s rejection of American exceptionalism seem particularly weird to me was his attachment to Abraham Lincoln, whose cadences and economy of language he urged his speechwriters to emulate. As a historian, one might plausibly argue that Lincoln was a saint who saved the Union or a monster who shed rivers of blood—or that he didn’t go far enough. But there is no arguing with Lincoln’s belief in the uniqueness of the American destiny, for which he sent hundreds of thousands of young men to die. Of all men, Abraham Lincoln would have been baffled by an American president who denied that America was exceptional. What did all those people die for, then? And what exactly did Obama think that Lincoln’s speeches were about?

Obama wanted Lincoln’s reputation. That doesn’t mean he wanted all of Lincoln’s beliefs or felt that they were necessary in a different America at a different time. A time of war is usually a time of greater nationalism. Lincoln was more of a war president than Obama.

Obama’s hostility to American exceptionalism also seemed linked to his hostility to Israel, or more specifically to America’s identification with Israel, which finally resulted in his determination during his second term to reach his agreement with Iran—an agreement with the main objective of integrating that country into America’s security architecture in the Middle East, while limiting Israel’s power in the region. Again, why?

Because it was in America’s interests to reach some sort of agreement with Iran, and Obama got about the best deal possible.

There’s no objective reason for America to identify more with Israel than with New Zealand.

The sheer amount of political capital and focus Obama put into achieving the JCPOA during his second term, to the near-exclusion of other goals, suggests that the deal was central to his politics.

Obama put an appropriate level of focus on the deal to reduce the chances of a Middle East conflagration.

I have never seen any evidence that Barack Obama has the slightest personal animus toward Jews as individuals. But from his denial of American exceptionalism, and his sourness toward Israel, going all the way back to Sheila Miyoshi Jager’s account of their breakup, there does seem to be an awareness of the underlying problem posed to his politics by Jews—that is, the problem posed by Jewish group survival and their continuing insistence on Jewish historical particularity.

Progressive theology is built on a mythic hierarchy of group victimhood which has endured throughout time, up until the present day; the injuries that the victims have suffered are so massive, so shocking, and so manifestly unjust that they dwarf the present. Such injuries must be remedied immediately, at nearly any cost. The people who do the work of remedying these injustices, by whatever means, are the heroes of history. Conversely, the sins of the chief oppressors of history, white men, are so dark that nothing short of abject humiliation and capitulation can begin to approach justice.

I suspect that to Obama, Jews are white. Almost all Jews in America regard Jews as white.

Ghettos were invented for Jews. Concentration camps, too. How can Jews be “privileged white people” if they are clearly among history’s victims? And if Jews aren’t white people, then perhaps lots of other white people are also victims and therefore aren’t “white,” in the theological sense in which that term gains its significance in progressive ideology. Maybe “Black people” aren’t always or primarily Black. Maybe the whole progressive race-based theology is, historically and ideologically speaking, a load of crap. Which is why the Jews are and will remain a problem.

Every group can make the case that it is a victim. All strong in-group identity depends, in part, upon victimization. All nationalisms depend upon a sense of victimization. If you believe your group was victimized, and deserves reparations from out-groups, you’re not going to be deterred by the suffering of out-groups.

David Samuels says to David Garrow:

I can make the case that Obama’s public life was the amoral part, beginning with the toleration of genocide in Syria and the extrajudicial killing of U.S. citizens, and extending to wide-scale illegal surveillance and spying, and his now becoming the spokesperson for gutting the First Amendment in favor of government censorship of large tech platforms.

The defense of the Obama people when you talk to them is he was never touched by scandal, meaning personal scandal. And you’re like, “Well, I’m sure all those people who got gassed to death in Syria or are growing up in American towns with no jobs feel just great about the fact that he never got a blow job in the Oval Office.”

What does it mean that Obama tolerated genocide in Syria? Genocides are going on all over the world. Is it America’s job to stop them? Obama approved the killing of U.S. citizens abroad who had turned their backs on America and were organizing terror attacks on Americans. Samuels believes it was Obama’s job to stop Syrians getting gassed. If Syrian were gassed, how is that any worse than getting shot?

David Garrow: “I think a major turning point in his presidency was that whole thing where he and Denis McDonough walk around the White House grounds and he changes his mind about Syria.”

Changing his mind means walking back his red line comments on Syria, which were stupid comments to make in the first place. Walking back stupid comments strikes me as wise.

Samuels: “I do kind of cherish the idea of Bibi and Obama in the same room, each competing in an effort to demonstrate that they are each indeed the most brilliant person on earth. The other big thing they have in common, aside from their belief in their own genius, is that they are both products of the periphery of the American empire.”

Garrow: “Doc [Martin Luther King] always believed that he was not essential, that he was accidental, and that if he hadn’t ended up as him, that Ralph Abernathy or Fred Shuttlesworth or someone else would’ve been him instead.”



Doc’s essential nature is, to a significant degree, because the white press elevates him. The press makes him this symbol, and as I say in BTC [Garrow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Bearing the Cross], he realizes this is not really him, that there’s him and there’s this projection.

Let me say one other thing. Doc always 100 percent retained his individual self, even while realizing that there was this press creation. And when he’s wearing that uniform of the black suit, little tie, and he’s being so relentlessly sober whenever he’s in the public eye, that’s not him. That’s him playing the part that he’s been called into.

With Barack, I’m not sure I like the word binary, but with Doc, Doc was very clear about himself and the role. With Barack, there’s an extent of intertwining, there’s an absence of keeping the two selves separate.

That rings true.


With Alex [McNear, Obama’s girlfriend at Occidental College], I think she wanted to have her role known. So when Alex showed me the letters from Barack, she redacted one paragraph in one of them and just said, “It’s about homosexuality.”

…Barack writes to Alex about how he repeatedly fantasizes about making love to men.

Garrow: “Barack starts calling Sheila again.”

Samuels: “Do you think that he starts calling her again because he needs to keep her close because she knows too much of his story, and she becomes a wild card if she no longer feels a tie to him?”

Garrow: “I think that’s accurate.”

“When I start reading about Barack in early ’08, I read Dreams and thought, “This is a crock.” It’s not history. It’s all make-believe. Who knows what the real story is?”

Samuels: “Barack’s love letters to Alex, if they are actually love letters, are hard to read. Not just because they’re so poorly written, but because of the clear lack of any human interest in the person he’s writing to. The letters are completely performative. She may as well have been a tree or some kind of theater backdrop. Maybe all young men are guilty of this fault, but these examples seem pretty egregious.”

Garrow: “It’s pretty clear to me, and this is me putting little pieces together with Alex and with Sheila, but I’m 97 percent convinced that Barack either drafted all those letters in his journal and then made them into letters, or he wrote the letters and then copied them into the journal.”

“He wants people to believe his story. For me to conclude that Dreams from My Father was historical fiction—oh God, did that infuriate him.”

Samuels: “I’ve gotten the sense, from my read of him and from people close to him, that the pose of being a writer is actually one that he prefers in many ways to being a politician.”

Garrow: “Oh God, yes. Yes, yes, yes.”

Samuels: “So why wouldn’t he want his writerliness to be revealed?”

Garrow: “He doesn’t want the writerliness challenged. It’s my story and I’m sticking to it. The book [Dreams] is so fictionalized.”

Samuels: “So is Barack Obama the prime mover in the transformation of the American society we are living through now? Or was he simply a mannered observer, or a huge narcissist who couldn’t care less about anything outside himself?”

Obama was too passive to move much of anything. He’s both a mannered observer and a narcissist who doesn’t care much about anything outside himself.

Garrow: “I think Barack in that winter of ‘08, ‘09, realized there was no way that his presidency could actually live up to the expectations. And I think even the fanboy journalists would acknowledge, under a little bit of pressure, that it ended up being an underwhelming, disappointing presidency. It will, in the long run, be seen as a failed presidency because of the international failures.”

What international failures?

Garrow: “[T]he number one legacy of the Obama presidency is going to be the failure to intervene in Syria and the failure to object to Russia taking Crimea and the Donbas.”

That’s absurd.

Samuels: “[The] best way to understand Barack Obama is that he is a literary creation of Barack Obama, the writer, who authored the novel of his own life and then proceeded to live out this fictional character that he created for himself on the page.”

Garrow: “Something that comes from an electronic intercept is 99.9 percent reliable because they were very good transcriptionists. Where FBI records are bullshit is when it’s coming from human informants.”

“The number one thing about Barack this past five years is how completely he’s vanished.”


I think future historians are going to look at the Obama presidency and see it as the moment when this new oligarchy merged with the Democratic Party and used the capacities of these new technologies and the power of this new class of people, the oligarchs and their servants, to create a new apparatus of social control. How far they can go with it, what the limits are … you see them trying to test it out every week or so.

So my question is: Is Barack Obama the author of this new machine? Did he create it purposefully? Does it report back to him?

It’s absurd to think of Obama creating and running this machine.


He has no interest in building the Democratic Party as an institution. I think that’s obvious. And I don’t think he had any truly deep, meaningful policy commitments other than the need to feel and to be perceived as victorious, as triumphant. I’ve sometimes said to people that I think Barack is actually just as insecure as Trump, but in ways that are not readily perceived by the vast majority of people. I think that’s probably my most basic takeaway.

But it does go back to Dreams being a work of fiction, that the absence of an actual personal story makes him need to compose one. For every time he says, “Oh, I spent years reading the history of the civil rights movement,” I know he read BTC, but I don’t think he read much else. This is someone who … 98 percent of his reading has always been fiction, not history…

He’s not someone who retains people. Even Valerie [Jarrett] and [David] Axelrod only go back to, like, 2003 with him. There’s no real history. The only person who’s a little bit of a through line is Rob Fisher, who I think is the brightest person I’ve ever met in my life. Rob would argue with him, and the second book, when Barack is trying to get the second book finished during the campaign, Audacity [The Audacity of Hope], Rob at one point tells him that it’s a mess. And Barack is angry. You can’t tell a U.S. senator that his book’s a mess. Rob would disagree with him in intellectual, academic ways, which had been a whole part of their closeness, and Rob put lots of time into Dreams—or into the earlier, right version of Dreams.

Now, Rob and his wife went to the White House a few times. I’ve got all the details on this because I remember Rob describing them to me sitting out on that Truman Balcony. But again, and this is not the usual sort of thing I say, but Barack doesn’t want to be close with people who are his equals. None of the people who are ostensibly his best friends are anywhere close to his equal.

…If one compares how he gets elected to the [Harvard] Law Review presidency and then how he functions as president of the Law Review to his U.S. presidency election and term in office, at the review, he’s seen as the least ideological figure.

And he’s perfectly comfortable with the incipient, sort of Federalist Society folks like Brad Berenson. And it’s a distant, light-touch management system. He has no investment in what the content of the volume ends up being. He doesn’t write his own note because he’s not that interested in producing a work of student legal scholarship.

…So, the Law Review presidency is like going to Harvard itself; it devolves to being a credentialing enterprise—just like what he’s doing in the state senate in, particularly, 2003, once the Dems take the majority. It’s now a credentialing process rather than an actual, personal investment in the policy substance.

…He’d be terrible [on the Supreme Court] because he’s too lazy. This is in the book. It goes back to him being Hawaiian. At one point, he says, “I’m fundamentally lazy and it’s because I’m from Hawaii.” That’s close to the actual quote.

…I’ve always found their need to hang out with celebrities bizarre. Because the people they both were, all the way up through at least 2000, would’ve had no desire to do that. It wouldn’t have crossed their minds to be with Beyoncé and Jay-Z or Richard Branson, or you name it.

…I do find the Iran deal offensive and puzzling, yes. I mean, it’s an explicitly antisemitic state.

What does it matter to a deal that Iran is antisemitic? What matters for America are American interests.

Why is it surprising that once the Obamas become celebrities they want to hang around other celebrities? We all want to be with people like ourselves.

Barack once said to him that the only two things he wanted were a valet and an airplane.

Everybody, especially white folks, thought that having a Black family in the White House would be cure for the legacy of American racism. Now there’s no question in anybody’s mind that on that score, that scale, the presidency was a total failure. But why are race relations, at least as people perceive them or imagine them, ostensibly well worse today post-Floyd than they were in 2008?

America’s race problems are mirrored everywhere in the world where you get similar combinations of races. Only a silly person would have thought that one person could solve America’s race problems. One person such as Obama certainly had the ability to make them worse, which he did.

Anyone who thought that electing a black nationalist would heal American race problems was naive.

Samuels: “They’re all hollow. That’s what the system produces.”

David Samuels is a smart and accomplished writer. Everything he publishes is thought-provoking. On the other hand, he doesn’t make much of an effort to substantiate most of his points nor does he seem particularly interested to know much about what he’s pronouncing on. His epistemics are lousy. He’s essentially asking us to accept his points on faith.

In his previous interview, he promoted JFK Jr’s worldview.

I wrote June 11, 2020:

David Samuels, who normally publishes great work, fails to advance the Kevin MacDonald story one inch. What a waste. A day after publication, nobody but me has written about this story (except for a few mentions on Twitter).

Tablet refused to consider any of Nathan Cofnas’s penetrating essays on Kevin MacDonald, instead they publish this nothing burger by the husband of Tablet’s Editor Alana Newhouse. David apparently hasn’t even read the Cofnas critique (he links to an article by Cofnas responding to Ed Dutton’s critique of the Cofnas critique).

Samuels writes: “Rural Oregon has many of the same problems as any American inner city, except it is overwhelmingly inhabited by people with white skin.” He provides no evidence for this assertion. How on earth does rural Oregon resemble American inner cities? By which metrics?

Medford averages fewer than a murder a year. That’s hardly inner-city levels. What’s the crime rate in rural Oregon? What’s the percentage of felons there? What’s the average education level? What’s the average IQ level? What’s the out of wedlock birth rate? Is it close to inner city life or not? Or is Samuels just lying? The evidence says he’s lying.

He seems to hate the goyim and that may motivate his bizarre lies about rural Oregon. Report: “According to SafeWise, Oregon is well below the national rates for both property and violent crime. The national crime rate is 4.49 incidents per 1,000 people. Oregon has an average of 1.43 incidents per 1,000 people. The city with the lowest violent crime rate was Monmouth, which ranked the third-safest on the list.”

Oregon is 85% white and 2% black. According to Wikipedia, “As of 2015, Oregon ranks as the 17th highest in median household income at $60,834.” That’s hardly an inner-city rate of household income.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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