The Promise: President Obama, Year One
by Jonathan Alter
Simon and Schuster, 458 pp., $28.00
Of course Barack Obama was too hot not to cool down. He was the one so many were waiting for—not only the first African-American president but also the nation’s long-awaited liberator after eight years of Bush-Cheney, the golden-tongued evangelist who could at long last revive and sell the old liberal faith, the first American president in memory to speak to voters as if they might be thinking adults, the first national politician in years to electrify the young. He was even, of all implausible oddities, a contemporary politician- author who actually wrote his own books.
The Obama of Hope and Change was too tough an act for Obama, a mere chief executive, to follow. Only Hollywood might have the power to create a superhero who could fulfill the messianic dreams kindled by his presence and rhetoric, maintain the riveting drama of his unlikely ascent, and sustain the national mood of deliverance that greeted his victory. As soon as Inauguration Day turned to night, the real Obama was destined to depreciate like the shiny new luxury car that starts to lose its book value the moment it’s driven off the lot.
But still: How did we get to the nadir so fast? The BP oil spill, for weeks a constant fixture on the country’s television and computer screens, became a presidential quagmire even before Afghanistan could fulfill its manifest destiny to play that role. The 24/7 gushing crude was ready-made to serve as the Beltway’s bipartisan metaphorical indicator for a presidency that was verging on disaster to some of Obama’s natural supporters, let alone his many enemies. “I don’t see how the president’s position and popularity can survive the oil spill,” wrote Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal on Memorial Day weekend without apparent fear of contradiction.
Pressed by critics to push back against BP with visible anger and kick-ass authority, Obama chose to devote the first Oval Office address of his presidency to the crisis in the gulf—on June 15, nearly sixty days after the Deep- water Horizon rig had exploded. His tardy prescriptions were panned even by the liberal Matthews-Olbermann-Maddow bloc at MSNBC. To many progressives, Obama’s too-cool handling of the disaster was a confirmation of a fatal character flaw—a professorial passivity that induced him to prematurely surrender the sacred “public option” in the health care debate and to keep too many of his predecessor’s constitutional abridgements in place at home and at Gitmo. When, a day after his prime-time address, he jawboned BP into setting up a $20 billion escrow fund for the spill’s victims, the Obama-hating tag team of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and its Tea Party auxiliaries attacked him for not being passive enough. To them, the President’s aggressive show of action was merely further confirmation that a rank incompetent and closet socialist (or is it National Socialist?) had illegitimately seized the White House to subvert America and the free-enterprise system.
Though the specifics may have differed from left to right, such was the political culture’s consensus on Obama’s presidency in June 2010: doomed. Even the near-universal praise that greeted his firing of the Afghanistan commander, General Stanley McChrystal, came with asterisks from both ends of the political spectrum. To many liberals, McChrystal’s demise accomplished little but to prolong the inevitable catastrophe of a futile policy in Afghanistan. To hawks, cashiering McChrystal did nothing to alter their conviction that Obama was a weak-kneed commander in chief whose vow to start withdrawing troops in July 2011 was a timeline for defeat. They gave the President a bye on the McChrystal firing only because of their long-time crush on his irreproachable successor, General David Petraeus.
There was, however, one contradictory footnote to the many provisional Obama obituaries of late spring and early summer 2010. For all the President’s travails, his approval rating, somewhere between 45 and 50 percent depending on the poll, still made him the most popular national politician in the country. By contrast, Congress’s popularity was in Bernie Madoff territory, with Republicans even more despised than Democrats. Perhaps some of the Obama faithful had a take on his still-young presidency that, in defiance of (and perhaps ignorance of) the Beltway consensus, paralleled a report card cited by Jonathan Alter in The Promise, his account of Obama’s first year in office:
PolitiFact.com, a database of the St. Petersburg Times that won a Pulitzer Prize for its fact-checking of the 2008 campaign, had catalogued 502 promises that Obama made during the campaign. At the one-year mark the totals showed that he had already kept 91 of them and made progress on another 285. The database’s “Obameter” rated 14 promises as “broken” and 87 as “stalled.” With promises ranging from “Remove more brush and vegetation that fuel wildfires” to “Establish a playoff system for college football,” PolitiFact selected 25 as Obama’s most significant. Of those, an impressive 20 were “kept” or “in the works.”
Alter goes on to cite some of Obama’s more substantive achievements. Despite continued violence and political stalemate in Iraq, he was on track to withdraw combat troops (however loosely defined) by his stated August 2010 deadline. He scrapped the F-22 fighter, ended Homeland Security pork in states where terrorist threats are minimal, attached strings to US military aid to Pakistan, and banned torture (if not “extraordinary rendition”). He pushed the Pentagon to abandon “don’t ask, don’t tell,” expanded AmeriCorps, increased funding for national parks and forests, and “overperformed on education” (at least for those who buy into the reforms of Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan). And then there’s the piece de resistance, the health care bill, which among other things will extend Medicaid to some 16 million relatively poor people. “He had won ugly—without a single Republican—but won all the same,” writes Alter in his book’s concluding paragraph. “Whatever happened next—however bad it got—Barack Obama was in the company of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson now in terms of domestic achievement, a figure of history for reasons far beyond the color of his skin.”
That achievement has since been joined by another legislative victory for Obama’s domestic agenda, the enactment of what he has called “the toughest financial reform since the ones we created in the aftermath of the Great Depression.” Never mind that the financial regulatory bill, like the health care bill, fell considerably short of many progressives’ ambitions. (Not for nothing did the stocks of JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley rise more than 3 percent on June 25, once the bill emerged from the congressional reconciliation process.) A win is a win, and when you toss in the stimulus package at the inception of the Obama presidency, it is hard to deny the administration’s record of accomplishment, however irksome some of the small print.
Alter, a native Chicagoan, a columnist for Newsweek, and a fixture on MSNBC, is a sympathetic observer of this president. His previous book—The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope (2006)—was a celebration of the comparable passage in one of the three heroic presidencies (along with Lincoln’s and Kennedy’s) most frequently invoked by him and other Obama fans as the most pertinent historical antecedents. There has been some sniping from the left and right that The Promise is hagiography, as Alter’s sunny accounting of Obama’s achievements might suggest. But that’s not the case. One may quibble with some of Alter’s emphases, but his well-reported, judicious book is as mindful of Obama’s failings as his successes and seems to be carrying water for no one in the White House or outside it. It’s a credible guide to what’s gone right, but also to what’s gone wrong and what, we must hope, can be fixed.
Alter’s reporting feels trustworthy not just because it’s nuanced and persuasively sourced but also because it spares us any of those tinny slam-bam-pow recreated “scenes” that have become a plague in books of this genre in the Bob Woodward era. There are no huge revelations here, aside from an exceptionally complete and prescient account of Obama’s first confrontation with McChrystal after the general’s early acts of incipient subordination in the fall of 2009. But the many grace notes in The Promise are often telling, if not exactly scandalous. Lest anyone doubt that this president is a boy scout, Alter reports that the much clucked-over Reuters photo of him and Nicolas Sarkozy seemingly ogling the derriere of a seventeen-year-old Brazilian woman at the G-8 meeting in Italy was misleading (at least as far as Obama was concerned). “When the video came out,” Alter writes, “it was clear that the president was merely turning to help an older woman down the steps.”
Alter also provides some footnotes to the well-worn story of Obama’s path to the White House. We get—in an actual footnote, as it happens—a new and credible reason why Al Gore, for all his distaste for the Clintons, remained neutral during the primaries: “He depended on the largesse of Clinton Global Initiative donors for his own climate change activities.” We also learn that Obama’s praise of Ronald Reagan for having “changed the trajectory of American politics” in a Nevada newspaper interview was not some idle riff but a calculated stunt to shake things up after his loss to Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire primary. He knew his reference to Reagan would be “like waving a red cape in front of the Clintons” and provoke an embarrassing overreaction—as indeed it did, in the form of over-the-top ads that were widely ridiculed. To the close Obama friend and confidant Marty Nesbitt, “this may have been the most brilliant move of the entire Obama campaign.”
There is nothing in these pages to contradict the idea that Obama is the smartest guy in every room, hard as he works to avoid advertising that fact. He is in on the joke of his own outlandish success and the almost absurd run of good luck that has helped fuel it. He never ceases to remark how unlikely it is that a man named Barack Hussein Obama, the black grandson of Kenyan goatherds, “could run against the most potent political machine in a generation and become president of the United States.” As Alter observes, FDR may have been a second-class intellect with a first-rate temperament, in the famous judgment of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., but Obama “came to office with both a first-class intellect and a first-class temperament.”
To which one might respond: If he’s so smart, and so sane, why has he fallen short of his spectacular potential so far? That shortfall is most conspicuously measured by his escalation of a war held hostage by the mercurial and corrupt Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai; a woefully inadequate record on job creation; and the widespread conviction that the White House tilts toward Wall Street over those who have suffered most in the Great Recession. Alter doesn’t soft-pedal these criticisms. “Even by late 2009, when every major bank except Citigroup had paid back its TARP money,” he writes, “the impression of a colossal injustice remained—that fabulously wealthy bankers would be made whole, but ordinary Americans would not.”