Michael Sean WintersAugust 30, 2010
Book cover
The Promiseby By Jonathan AlterSimon & Schuster. 480p $28

Political journalism often buries itself in unimportant minutiae. Historians often lose sight of the lived circumstances and daily challenges of the politicians they survey, placing them in sweeping historical narratives that would have made little sense to the actors themselves. Both genres suffer from the same projection of the needs of the author into the subject matter, the journalist sacrificing perspective to break her story, the historian sacrificing the historical record to justify his theories.

Jonathan Alter’s new book seeks to be both political journalism and a first history of President Obama’s first year in office. Alter’s earlier book about the first 100 days of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency achieved a nice balance, a sound book of history, enlivened by his journalist’s sensibility for details that brought the characters to life. Unfortunately, his new book never breaks out from its journalistic confines. It reads like a series of observations strung together by chronology alone.

The portraits of the personalities in the Obama White House are uneven. Alter does best with Larry Summers, the demonstrative former Treasury Secretary who had difficulty adjusting to the rhythms of the “No Drama Obama” White House. Alter artfully tells the tale of a policy discussion in which Summers began to say, “That’s the stupidest argument I’ve ever heard,” but only got as far as “That’s the stu-“ before catching himself, smiling to the group, and promising to try and be more constructive. Conversely, Alter’s portrait of the White House chief of staff is remarkably flat. How many times do we need to be reminded that Rahm Emanuel has a potty mouth? More damning, the relentless focus on the actors results in a lack of focus on such complex issues as health care and the economy.

Amid the rehearsal of gossip, one piece of significant news does emerge. Alter describes in detail the way the Pentagon brass tried to “box in” President Obama regarding the options facing the United States in Afghanistan, selectively leaking to the press to build their case for more troops. Obama did not like the pressure, but he also did not like the fact that the generals often could not agree about the facts on the ground, let alone about strategy. He dressed them down in a confrontation that Alter claims was the strongest assertion of presidential authority since Truman fired MacArthur.

More important, Obama ordered a top-down review of the situation in Afghanistan and the strategic options available to the United States. He convoked multiple national security meetings to thrash out a way forward. Obama was determined not to repeat the mistakes of his predecessor, who gave the Pentagon free reign. The meetings he convened yielded results at once. For example, the Pentagon had not learned that the Taliban paid considerably higher wages to freelance militias in Afghanistan than did the Afghan government: Obama ordered a raise effective immediately. His policy may work or it may not, but it will not fail for lack of forethought.

Alter’s account fills out the picture we already had of Obama as professorial, but at the end of the book, he still remains opaque. In his calm demeanor and well-documented disdain for letting political considerations intrude into policy debates, the president is quite different from his immediate predecessors, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, both of whom were mercurial and insistent that politics shape policy. Alter admires Obama for his insistence that “good policy is good politics” and notes the irony that the pre-election concerns about Obama’s fitness for the presidency were reversed in execution: “Before taking office, Obama was expected to ace communications and personal narrative and struggle in executive leadership; instead, the reverse happened.” Obama was unafraid of making tough decisions. But in his first year in office, time and again he was unable to communicate his administration’s policy goals in a way that convinced the American people that this was the change they had wanted.

Obama’s inability to connect with working-class white voters plagued him in the primaries, was overcome when the economic crisis made “change” seem existentially necessary for the nation in the fall, but came back to haunt the Obama presidency. Alter mostly focuses on Obama’s failure to find the right message on health care and his reluctance to get the Cabinet engaged in spreading the administration’s message. He passes over in two sentences the more proximate political challenge for Obama. Alter writes, “Obama was so obviously intelligent and well spoken that he reminded [white working-class voters] that a class of well-educated elites had left them behind.” Almost 200 pages later, Alter writes, “Obama often paid a price for underplaying the politics and overestimating his ability to reason with people.”

Alter should have expended more time on those two observations and the linkages between them. Since Obama turned 18, more or less, he has moved in a world dominated by high achievers. He has become master of that world. His aides and his friends are all successful and smart. They all flourish in their respective fields. They all have Ivy League degrees. But they do not know what it is to be afraid that you are going to lose your house or your job or your health care.

The challenge for Obama, then, is to recognize that his cosmopolitan world is, in fact, quite parochial. The problem with rational arguments is not their cogency, but their limits: sometimes reason does not explain people’s attitudes and opinions. That the technological advances of the past 20 or 30 years have not reached many for whom a good job on the shop floor was a source of pride and accomplishment is a brute fact that the president must master. The problem with Alter’s book is, finally, that it too often shares in the parochialism it chronicles.

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