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'The Promise': A clear-eyed analysis of Obama's first year

The approach that Jonathan Alter takes to assess President Obama's first year in office works handily on two levels - the candidate's promise from his campaign and his promise (as in his potential) to lead the country.

The Promise
nolead ends nolead begins President Obama, Year One
nolead ends nolead begins By Jonathan Alter

Simon & Schuster. 458 pp. $28

nolead ends nolead begins

Reviewed by Gerald B. Jordan

The approach that Jonathan Alter takes to assess President Obama's first year in office works handily on two levels - the candidate's promise from his campaign and his promise (as in his potential) to lead the country.

More than that, though, The Promise, written by a journalist whose bent for history and detail flashes vividly in every chapter, speaks of an arguable decline in standards in American journalism and the overwhelming impact of the speed and recklessness of Internet communications on politics, government, and media.

Alter gives the reader not only the benefit of his inside view of the campaign and the first year of the Obama administration, but also of his broad historical perspective, which reaches from his own education through the splendid work he did in The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope. He knows how and why campaigns succeed and knows the same about the success of presidents. So his look at the president and his surrounding cast is a clear-eyed analytical assessment, by no means a fawning tribute.

The hard measures he uses are facts surrounding events. Alter's nearly 10 years of knowing Obama and the Newsweek columnist's access to top administration sources give readers a close look and listen behind the scenes. The portrait of Obama he paints is, as expected, a likable one - Alter's written pieces and TV commentary express, in political parlance, progressive views and don't align with conservative critics of the administration. But he does report administration failures and missteps.

The Promise walks the reader through the end of the presidential campaign and through the transition, the assembling of the administration, and the launching of policy initiatives. The pace is exhausting, just to read and try to digest all that lands on the president's desk, let alone contemplate how someone could manage events. One result is obvious: Not all of it gets done, and not all that is done is successful.

The Obama administration was handed massive problems, domestic and foreign. From Alter's account of three signal events - the stimulus bill, the health-care overhaul, and the measure to regulate financial institutions - the reader might presume that success on these matters would mark success for a term, let alone the first year or so of a presidency. These triumphs, though, are lost in the frustration of the Democratic Party's left, who cheered that at long last they had a president, and the GOP right, who are convinced that they have a Goodyear blimp of a target to attack. Frustrations are played out in arguments to which Alter is given access through sources, including interviews with the president.

The president's love for basketball, for example, and the skills he still possesses, describe a supremely confident campaigner who at crunch time would let his staff know "I've got this" and unload the political equivalent of a three-pointer at the buzzer. In the White House, there were shattered moments when staffers were a bit less confident in Obama's ability to deliver in the face of the arsenal of political weapons pointed at him. So, the man whose approach to problem-solving is almost Zen-like does have his occasional Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moments, as one high-ranking Pentagon official likes to borrow from the military phonetic alphabet.

Does Rahm Emanuel express himself in the same way? Most assuredly. Vice President Biden? Yep, even occasionally on mike. Rep. Barney Frank, the fiery liberal Democrat from Massachusetts? Oh, yes, if you trust Alter's source, and his penchant for accuracy and detail tell the reader through footnotes and other supporting references that he got it right.

A variety of issues proved frustrating for the president. One not fully explored, though, until The Promise, is his near anger over what he perceives as the White House press corps' inattentiveness to serious matters. Alter cites, as example, the aftermath of the 2009 emergency meeting of the G-20 nations in London. With 80 percent of world trade represented there, it was perhaps the most significant economic conference since London in 1933, which some historians saw as "a fiasco," Alter writes, and set back efforts to end the Depression.

The stylistic impression that the Obamas left seemed to interest reporters more, Alter writes. "Did Michelle breach protocol when she lightly hugged the queen of England? (No.) Was an iPod the wrong gift for a monarch? (Maybe.) Did the president bow too deeply to the king of Saudi Arabia? (No. It was mostly the camera angle.) To the emperor of Japan? (Yes, though he is a powerless figurehead.)

In London, the G-20 member nations agreed to spend $1 trillion to bolster one another's financial institutions and an additional $500 billion for the International Monetary Fund to help stabilize the global economy. The biggest news consisted of what didn't happen: There was no squabbling, no fatal miscommunication and, most important in a deep recession, no rush to protectionism, Alter writes. What might have gone differently, he writes, had no immediate political significance but deserved a place on Obama's ledger.

Faint credit for the good, overwhelming blame for the bad is the hallmark of Obama's young administration. Alter saw Obama's decisiveness in making final calls on the bailouts for GM and Chrysler as on a par with President Ronald Reagan shutting down the air traffic controllers' union. "It was an early sign that Obama wouldn't get much credit for confronting what he inherited," Alter writes.

There are lots of instances in which little to no credit is given the president for an accomplishment, or accomplishment is turned into cries that Obama has destroyed the moral and fiscal fabric of the country. As one frustrated staffer put it on the TV show The Colbert Report: "Your house is on fire. A guy goes in and rescues your kid. Now is not the time to accuse him of kidnapping."

And it is against a background of strident political attacks that Democrats want Obama to fight back. Alter reports that Obama told a group of liberal columnists aboard Air Force One that he would continue to try to work with Republicans in the future, but he clearly had been chastened by their obstructionist tactics, Alter writes. "I'm an eternal optimist," the president said. "That doesn't mean I'm a sap."

Alter's portrait of Obama shows a man whose brilliance attracted attention very early during his transition among Bush administration members and Obama's former Democratic challengers, nearly all of whom said he was right for the job.

Message, though, would prove problematic for the White House, as Alter reveals. Republicans, frustrated Democrat Al Franken argues, can distill their message on bumper sticker: No. "Our bumper sticker has - it's just way too many words. And it says: 'Continued on next bumper sticker.' "

That ability to label and dismiss seems to come easier for Republicans, Alter writes. Obama's three-day wait before speaking about the Christmas Day underwear-bombing attempt on a Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit was heavily criticized. Yet, President George W. Bush took six days before speaking on the shoe bomber, whose failed attempt to blow up an airliner took place at Christmastime in 2001.

So, against a barrage of attacks by former Vice President Dick Cheney that Obama was weak on fighting terrorists, the president's policy of staying on the offensive had yielded results after his first year: 12 key al-Qaeda targets and 100 "associates" killed, Alter quotes Biden as reporting. Yet, Obama resisted chest-thumping or showing pride in waging war. The Obama administration conducted more Predator drone strikes - 50 - in the president's first year than took place during his predecessor's two terms.

Alter also gives Obama credit for riding out rough times with his party's congressional leadership. "Obama knew that [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid and [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi were colossally unpopular, but the three of them would need to stick together to get anything done." This in the face of cries from Democratic voters for Obama to step up and act as President Lyndon B. Johnson would: Take them to the woodshed.

That's not his style.

Obama's style is portrayed admirably in The Promise.