Every administration acquires the personality of its leader. By 2016, Obama’s foreign policy team had taken on the president’s self-possession, his distaste for confrontation, his weakness for lofty language, and his embarrassment at all the sins committed by his predecessors; also his need to let other people know of his embarrassment. The movie reminds us that Obama’s “apology tour”—during which he parachuted into various countries, told the residents how badly they had been hurt by America, and then, unburdened, skipped lightly away—was an ongoing feature of his presidency, through to the very end. In The Final Year we see the president instructing the citizens of Hiroshima about the incredibly destructive bomb we used to kill most of their grandparents. Later he drops into Laos to remind them that they were carpet-bombed by Richard Nixon. While apologizing to the Laotians, Rhodes explains, the president also wanted to force “Americans to confront that history, which is not a very good part of our history.” You may want to take notes.
When I think back over the Obama administration, I have the enduring impression of articulate, well-credentialed people talking, talking, talking. The stars of The Final Year are among the most skilled Obama talkers. When Kerry releases little bubbles of gas like “We have to be realistic about the challenges we face” he is taking a cue from the master, the president, who can say “It’s ultimately where politics, government, diplomacy has [sic] to be rooted—in that belief in a common humanity” and say it slowly, thoughtfully enough to almost persuade you he’s saying something substantial. “Bearing witness is both an instinct and a responsibility,” says Samantha Power, without clarification. Obama’s foreign policy, says Rhodes, is “engagement-focused.”