As the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, Rhodes writes the president’s speeches, plans his trips abroad and runs communications strategy across the White House, tasks that, taken individually, give little sense of the importance of his role. He is, according to the consensus of the two dozen current and former White House insiders I talked to, the single most influential voice shaping American foreign policy aside from Potus himself. The president and Rhodes communicate “regularly, several times a day,” according to Denis McDonough, Obama’s chief of staff, who is known for captaining a tight ship. “I see it throughout the day in person,” he says, adding that he is sure that in addition to the two to three hours that Rhodes might spend with Obama daily, the two men communicate remotely throughout the day via email and phone calls. Rhodes strategized and ran the successful Iran-deal messaging campaign, helped negotiate the opening of American relations with Cuba after a hiatus of more than 50 years and has been a co-writer of all of Obama’s major foreign-policy speeches. “Every day he does 12 jobs, and he does them better than the other people who have those jobs,” Terry Szuplat, the longest-tenured member of the National Security Council speechwriting corps, told me. On the largest and smallest questions alike, the voice in which America speaks to the world is that of Ben Rhodes.
Rhodes’s windowless back office, which doesn’t have a TV screen, is an oasis of late-night calm in a building devoted to the performance of power. The walls are painted a soft creamy color, which gives it the feel of an upscale hotel room with the drapes closed. He arrives here every morning between 8 and 9 from a modest two-bedroom apartment in a grad-student-type building in an unpretentious Washington neighborhood around the corner from his favorite post-collegiate bar. Before coming to work, he walks his 1-year-old daughter to day care. Then he drives to work in his Beamer, which appears to be the one grown-up luxury he and his wife, Ann Norris, who works in the State Department and longs to return to her childhood home of California, can afford. When his wife takes the car, he rides the bus, which offers him a touch of the anonymity he craves. His days at the White House start with the president’s daily briefing, which usually includes the vice president, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Deputy National Security Adviser Avril Haines and Homeland Security Adviser Lisa Monaco.
The books on his shelves are a mix of DeLillo novels, history books, recondite tomes on Cuba and Burma and adventure-wonk stuff like Mark Mazzetti’s “The Way of the Knife.” C. S. Lewis makes an appearance here, alongside a volume of Lincoln speeches (Obama tells all his speechwriters to read Lincoln) and George Orwell’s “All Art Is Propaganda.” I have seen the same books on the shelves of plenty of Brooklyn apartments. Yet some large part of the recent history of America and its role in the world turns on the fact that the entirely familiar person sitting at the desk in front of me, who seems not unlike other weed-smokers I know who write Frederick Barthelme-type short stories, has achieved a “mind meld” with President Obama and used his skills to help execute a radical shift in American foreign policy.
Price turns to his computer and begins tapping away at the administration’s well-cultivated network of officials, talking heads, columnists and newspaper reporters, web jockeys and outside advocates who can tweet at critics and tweak their stories backed up by quotations from “senior White House officials” and “spokespeople.” I watch the message bounce from Rhodes’s brain to Price’s keyboard to the three big briefing podiums — the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon — and across the Twitterverse, where it springs to life in dozens of insta-stories, which over the next five hours don formal dress for mainstream outlets. It’s a tutorial in the making of a digital news microclimate — a storm that is easy to mistake these days for a fact of nature, but whose author is sitting next to me right now.