Review of 'The Promise: President Obama, Year One' by Jonathan Alter

By Matthew Dallek
Sunday, May 16, 2010


President Obama, Year One

By Jonathan Alter

Simon & Schuster. 458 pp. $28

Jonathan Alter has delivered an exceptionally well-written account of President Obama's first year in office. Brimming with fresh and judicious ideas, his book fuses political analysis, subtle insights into the president's mind and policy debates into a fast-paced, crisis-filled story. "The Promise," based on more than 200 interviews with Obama and his close friends and aides, provides an uncommonly candid look inside a somewhat walled-off White House.

While it praises the president as a commanding leader, "The Promise" isn't a paean to Obama or a blinkered brief on behalf of his administration. It penetrates beyond the superficial arguments on the cable news shout-fests and goes deeper than the media's high-beam focus on Washington personalities. It underscores how much political and policy contradictions have defined the president's early tenure.

Obama's Year One agenda was aggressively focused on tackling both long-term problems and the urgent conditions confronting the country. The president's most inspirational ideas from the 2008 campaign -- transcending the red-blue divide and restoring Americans' faith in their political leaders -- smacked into crises, domestic and foreign. Credit was still frozen when he entered office; the nation was shedding jobs at a frightening pace.

"The first task was triage," Alter writes.

Obama attempted to stop the hemorrhaging. Yet he simultaneously pursued his broader, and politically risky, structural reform agenda. It is this economic, international and political context that must be understood to grasp the magnitude of Obama's presidency and properly assess his time in office so far, Alter suggests.

The economic stimulus, bank and auto bailouts, and other policies, though deeply unpopular, collectively averted a depression in Obama's first year, Alter convincingly argues. The president considered his swift action a significant achievement. But he lamented how an angry public gave him little credit for avoiding "an abstract 'counterfactual' " economic meltdown.

Obama's perception of the tension between the news media and the White House is particularly revealing. Although "Saturday Night Live" satirized a star-struck press, the president and his aides have often scorned the 24-7 cable news culture as a noxious circus that corrodes civility and stifles civic-minded debates about policy. While Obama vowed to bring change to Washington, his administration's anti-media bent is more in keeping with the Clinton and Bush White Houses than a sharp break.

The book also reveals the gap between Obama's image as a great orator and his flagging efforts to communicate his policies lucidly. While his "hope and change" mantra proved a highly effective campaign message in 2008, "he sometimes needed help connecting with the average person" as president, Alter writes. Obama loathes sound bites and "talking points." His "diffidence toward cogency," however, has provided an opening for his critics, who ably cast his subtle domestic and foreign policies in a harsh light.

Communicating a broader vision for his presidency also proved a nettlesome and elusive first-year task. Obama argued that smart policies and a longer-term "new foundation" based on systemic health-care changes, energy independence and education reform would be the basis for 21st-century growth -- yet a catchy phrase and a consistent, repetitive theme were missing, and his vision never took flight. His White House lost control of the message on bailouts, health care and jobs. Ironically, a brilliant orator who has been likened to Ronald Reagan endured one of the rougher presidential communication debuts in modern times.

The familiar images of Obama -- the left says he's overly pragmatic; the right, a dangerous radical -- evaporate in Alter's analysis. He aptly calls Obama a "prudent gambler." When his politically savvy chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, "begged him" not to tackle health-care reform first, Obama overrode his advice and that of his senior staff members. He felt morally impelled to pursue the late senator Ted Kennedy's cause, didn't want to go small by pushing for "school uniforms" (a dig at Bill Clinton) and concluded that Year One was the time to fight the hardest battle of all. He was "all alone" in that decision.

Obama also chafed at the "insubordination from the Pentagon" in the form of leaks designed to pressure him to increase troop levels in Afghanistan. He "dressed down" military leaders and ultimately agreed to insert 30,000 additional troops there, while committing to withdraw in mid-2011 -- another sign, in Alter's view, of the prudent gambler.

Obama appears in these pages as a skilled executive leader, a first-rate mind on policy, and occasionally more adept at the ideas and substance than the political style of the modern presidency. He is seen having difficulty escaping "the bubble" and anticipating how the politics will unfold on a given issue.

The book is not without a few flaws. It has, as Alter himself suggests, an unfinished tenor. It's impossible to know whether, for example, Obama's health-care law, economic bailouts or outreach efforts to Muslims worldwide will ultimately bear fruit. And Alter's understandably heavy reliance on unnamed sources and interviews with Obama and his close friends and White House aides means that his book lacks the perspective of Obama's most sophisticated first-year critics.

Still, "The Promise" is an illuminating window into Obama's tenure so far. Alter's deeply reported and analytically arresting book takes Obama's story in subtler and more contradictory directions than it has gone before.

Matthew Dallek, a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, is the author of "The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan's First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics."

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