Political dynamo Samantha Power, former UN Ambassador and Obama's right-hand woman is the star of a new documentary about the president's final year in office
It’s the early hours of the morning in Washington on 9th November 2016, moments after Donald Trump has been confirmed as the winning candidate in the Presidential Election.
Obama’s UN Ambassador Samantha Power sits in her Washington apartment attempting to digest what has happened. Hours earlier she was entertaining guests including Gloria Steinhem and Madeleine Allbright at an ill-fated Clinton victory party. ‘The idea that we could go gently into the night has been vanquished’ she says in a voice croaky with shock, ‘We’re in this for the long haul.’
It’s one of many fascinatingly candid moments in new HBO documentary The Final Year, a film that follows some of Obama’s closest lieutenants (and, to a lesser extent, Obama himself) in the last, busy year of the 44th president’s second term: Power, Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Advisor Susan Rice and White House advisor Ben Rhodes.
With the pace of a thriller we watch as the four criss-cross the world from Nigeria – where Power meets the families of the kidnapped Boko Haram schoolgirls – to Hiroshima for Obama’s historic speech, battling through a vast diplomatic to-do list that includes Syria, North Korea, Libya and climate change. In the background we see occasional glimpses of Trump, who nobody believes will win until he does (Rhodes is so shocked he can’t speak).
Power, who I meet at a hotel in London just before Christmas, is a former war reporter turned Harvard Professor who cut her teeth in Bosnia in the 90s and went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for her 2002 book about genocide, A Problem From Hell. She hit it off with Obama over a steak dinner when he was a senator, joined his administration as a special advisor in 2008 and became UN Ambassador in 2013. What was her first impression of him?
‘He wasn’t looking for the positions that he could take’ she says, ‘He wasn’t like, “Samantha, what can you do for me tomorrow?” Like, “What’s the op-ed I should write to make me a better known senator on foreign policy?” […] He asked a lot of questions – that’s not common for a politician. I’m used to asking the questions. I’m the reporter and I felt mined. He wanted to know what made me tick, what drew me to those conflicts.’
Later as a boss, she says, he was impatient with office politics. ‘Do you remember the expression “No Drama Obama”? [He was] pretty impatient with office politics and squabble, he’d be like “I got real problems, you go sort it out”, but he was extremely solicitous of alternative viewpoints – and very decisive.’
He was also, she adds, authentic ‘to a fault’: ‘He can’t fake wanting to hang out with Mitch McConnell, you know, he was never able to be phony (sic) […] not even for political cause, he just couldn’t do it.’
The Final Year lifts the lid on the frequently frustrating behind-the-scenes graft that goes into high-stakes diplomacy. We follow Power on the ground going into her old war reporter mode, visiting refugee camps in Syria to talk to families affected by the crisis, the real human cost of decisions made thousands of miles away, and meeting the relatives of the kidnapped Boko Haram girls in Nigeria.
Her old skills as a reporter were frequently applied to her new one as an Ambassador. ‘When I was in the refugee camps or villages or meeting with the mothers of the girls, I would ask them to open up to me, not by promising them panacea for all that ailed them’ says Power, ‘but by saying that I’d be able to go and convey that to President Obama on my return, and I always did that. I tried to write these very vivid trip memos so President Obama could get almost the equivalent of a New Yorker article from his UN Ambassador, so that it would bring the stakes home to him.’
There are lighter moments of the film too, like a tour of the comically unglamorous inside of the West Wing, with its poky offices where cockroaches scuttle out from under chairs, and Obama claiming a security breach over a dropped pacifier.
Power is a big reason why The Final Year was made, having worked with its director Greg Barker in his 2004 film Ghosts of Rwanda. She believed it was important to give people an inside view of the corridors of power if they were ever going to engage in politics. ‘I had never worked in the US Government before January 2009, and this whole world opened up to me, and the more I saw the good faith and seriousness and exhaustion associated with the enterprise, the more I was sold by Greg on the idea that other people needed to see that’ she says. ‘More exposure at a time when people’s faith in government and institutions was going down would be better, not worse, for people’s understanding and appreciation of what’s going on.’
Though Trump is at most a background figure in the film, a brief moment just before the election perhaps best reflects the administration’s belief that he could never win. On a visit to Laos, Obama advisor Ben Rhodes is asked if he’ll work for the next president. He shrugs that he knows Hillary Clinton a little and has worked with her before. Did Power have the same certainty?
‘Yeah, I did’ she says, ‘and in fact I had an ongoing debate with my husband [legal scholar Cass Sustein]. In effect you have to decide who you root for among the Republicans, and my view was that it would be way better if Trump got the nomination because it would be so unthinkable that he could get elected. My husband’s view was that since any Republican who gets the nomination will draw a lot of support from Republican voters, even a small chance that Trump becomes president is so terrible that we should root for the people who are more likely to get elected but who would be more responsible and better stewards of the nation, like Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush or Chris Christie.
‘Whereas I was saying, “Oh no, they will have an easier time pulling Democratic voters away. Better to have an extremist who won’t win.” And my husband, I’ll never forget, you know the polls at one point had Hillary at like 80% likely to win, and I was saying, “You see, see my theory was right”, and my husband looked at me and said, “Well the trouble with your theory Samantha is that things that are 20% likely happen 20% of the time” He was completely right […] I mean, my approach was a flawed one, a demonstrably flawed one.’
Power has enjoyed the decompression since her exit from the White House, getting to read books for pleasure for the first time in eight years and spending time with her husband and two kids, Declan (8) and Rian (5). ‘I had a lot to make up for with my kids, you know, I’d had both of them while I was at the White House, so every extra-curricular, carpool, that I can orchestrate, I build. I used to build multi-lateral coalitions for fight terrorism, now I’m building you know multi-elementary school kid carpools – my grand coalition of elementary school kids’ she jokes.
But there’s also an upcoming memoir about her time working for Obama – The Education of an Idealist – and an anti-Trump fightback plan in the works ahead of this year’s mid-term elections.
‘There’s a catharsis in going back over it and asking myself, “What could we have done differently? How did we miss Trump?”’ she says. ‘But as we ramp up to the next election, I think you’ll see all of [the Obama administration] being more visible, this film is an example… I really hope it can be a tool for activating people and making them take responsibility again for the elections that are going on around them.’
The Final Year is in cinemas and on iTunes now