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Dan Pfeiffer Didn't Plan To Write 'Yes We (Still) Can' — Until Trump Won


Let's just say it. These are hard days for many people on the left side of the political aisle, with President Trump in the White House, Republicans in control of both houses of Congress and a conservative majority and control of the Supreme Court. It doesn't take much to find Democrats who say they are angry, depressed, even in despair - and then there are people like Dan Pfeiffer. He was one of the first hired for Barack Obama's 2008 presidential run. He was one of the president's longest serving senior advisers. Now he's the co-host of the wildly popular podcast, "Pod Save America." and he has a memoir coming out early next week about his time working with Obama. It's titled "Yes We Still Can: Politics In The Age Of Obama, Twitter, And Trump." Dan Pfeiffer joined me yesterday from member station KQED in San Francisco, and I started by asking him why he wanted to publish this book now.

DAN PFEIFFER: Well, when I left the White House back in 2015, some people approached me and said, you have any interest in writing a book? And it wasn't until Trump won that I thought back to all the things that I dealt with in the White House and that President Obama dealt with - the political forces, the changes in media and technology, the radicalization of the right.

We were battling on a daily basis the very forces that helped lead to a moment where someone like Donald Trump could get elected. And so I thought that would be an interesting story to tell, but I didn't want to just tell the story, I wanted to dig in and see if there were lessons that could be learned - that could be applied to the future battles for Democrats and progressives going forward.

MARTIN: Give us some of the takeaways. I mean, what do you think are the circumstances that led to the current moment?

PFEIFFER: I think a couple of things that led to this moment are the fundamental changes in media where the ideas of rules and referees and fact checkers became much less important. And the power of the, quote, unquote, "media" to play that referee role has been diminished and allow someone without regard for facts to succeed in a way in which politicians could not before. And another thing that happened was the Republican base had a very strong reaction to Obama's election. It is what the Tea Party movement was about. It was the rise of this racially-based, white-identity politics. It was in its nascent stages in the early parts of Obama's presidency but then blew out into the open after Obama was re-elected.

And the Republican leaders had an opportunity or choice in the early days, which was, will you stand up to that? Will you tell them that there is no room for birthers in this party? There is no room for racists in this party. They chose not to do that. They preferred to get the votes of the birthers and the racists and then try to expel them from the party. You can see that just a year later. Mitt Romney goes to Trump Tower to beg Donald Trump for his endorsement, and so that spoke to the - what the party was willing to do to try to beat Obama.

MARTIN: But what does it say, though, that a majority of white women and a number of middle-class and upper-middle class Americans voted for Donald Trump? That's just a fact. So what's that about?

PFEIFFER: One of the things I look at in this book is this was a very winnable election. Even with all the things that happened, it was still an election that Democrats could have won. And this isn't just about Hillary Clinton. You could sort of throw blame entirely at Hillary Clinton and the Clinton campaign if Democrats had won everywhere else but she had lost. But we lost very winnable Senate seats. We lost seats in Congress that we should have won.

And so there was a failure to both understand the changes that happened in politics, leverage those changes for the future and tell a compelling story about why this election mattered because too many people did not turn out. And I missed it at the time as well. I was incredibly - I've never been more confident of anything in my life that Hillary Clinton was going to win and Donald Trump would lose by a very large margin.

MARTIN: Is there any part of you that sees any of yourself in some of the people who support Donald Trump who also see it as a cause?

PFEIFFER: I certainly understand the idea of people who are dedicated to what they believe in and willing to work really hard for it. What I am unable to understand with the people who associate themselves with Trump is their willingness to overlook the dishonesty, the indecency, the lack of empathy, to be asked to go out every single day and why. I understand people who - out in the country who support Donald Trump. It's not really something I would do.

But I can understand if you are so frustrated with Washington, if your life did not improve the way you had hoped, if you're angry at the (unintelligible) about something, and to put your hope into a vessel like Donald Trump, I get that. I understand why people would do that. I don't think those people are necessarily racist, or crazy, or anything like that. It is - you're making a bet about what is best for your future. And Donald Trump will have to answer in 2020 whether he made their lives better. But I do really question the people who are willing to subjugate their decency and their morality to serve Trump on a daily basis.

MARTIN: So we're having a very serious grownup discussion. OK, so tell me about that dinner with Kanye.

PFEIFFER: You know, we always say in the Obama world - in the toughest times, you can laugh or you can cry, so you might as well laugh. So in between the serious stuff - the things about Fox News that may make you mad, let's tell some funny stories and let's make it entertaining. And so back in 2014, we went to a fundraiser - a small fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee with Kanye. And everyone was very nervous about this because it was the first time that the president had seen Kanye West in person since he had famously called him a jackass after the Taylor Swift-Beyonce incident, and this is the only thing in the book I was nervous about writing.

And I was like, I hope this doesn't cause some sort of beef between Kanye and Obama after they patched everything together. And in between when I turned in the book and when the book came out, our friend Kanye West decided to put on the red MAGA hat, and I became less worried about that possible consequence of writing it...

MARTIN: OK, but...

PFEIFFER: There was a...

MARTIN: Story. Tell the - so tell the story. So you - the president's going around answering questions, and so apparently Kanye gets the last question and he goes on for like 30 minutes. What does he say?

PFEIFFER: So, he talked - he compared himself to President Obama. He talked about how everyone has opponents - President Obama has the Republicans, Nike has Adidas, Kanye has Drake. And it is crazy, I mean, it's Kanye crazy. And the president has this look on his face - he looks interested and serious. And I'm watching him thinking, what is he going to do? And I can see Kim Kardashian getting pretty uncomfortable as - the more Kanye talks. And when it ends, the president says, Kanye, thank you so much. We'll definitely follow up and get together. And we walk out. We get in the presidential limo. And I think, is he going to be mad at us for putting him in this situation? You know, he just spent 30 minutes listening to Kanye. He's got bigger problems to deal with.

And he just looks at us and says, all I could think about was that [expletive] cray, in reference to the famous Kanye West-Jay Z song. And we laughed all the way to the helicopter we got on, we laughed on the helicopter ride, we laughed on Air Force One the whole way home, and it was - it was so funny because it was just like Obama knew exactly what to say. And he also proved that he truly knew his hip-hop references.

MARTIN: Well, that's encouraging.


MARTIN: That's Dan Pfeiffer, former adviser to President Obama. His memoir, "Yes We Still Can: Politics In The Age Of Obama, Twitter, And Trump," is out next week. Dan Pfeiffer, thanks so much for speaking with us.

PFEIFFER: Oh, thank you for having me. It was so much fun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.