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.”
Among those critics who are fundamentally sympathetic to Obama, explanations for his disappointing performance abound. To many, he is not and never really was a progressive, only a cautious pragmatist who pandered to primary voters in 2008 by speaking in broad liberal bromides and reminding them incessantly that he had been to the left of Hillary on Iraq. Many see him as far too wedded to a naive and platonic ideal of bipartisanship that amounts to unilateral political disarmament when confronting an opposition party as nihilistic and cynical as the current GOP. He lacks a fierceness in battle that, as William Pfaff and Robert Reich have suggested, might have driven him to exercise federal authority over BP at the start of the oil spill, much as an angered Truman did when he seized the steel industry to end the crippling strike of 1952. (Truman’s executive action was ruled unconstitutional in the absence of a law authorizing it, but Reich has argued that present law, including the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, would allow BP to be placed in temporary receivership as AIG and General Motors were last year.) Obama is also faulted by disappointed fans for his surprisingly subpar political skills. The master orator who left millions of Americans fired up and ready to go during election season has often come off as aloof once in office, and has proven a surprisingly prolix and lackluster salesman for his own policies.
There is some validity to all these diagnoses. The falloff in messaging prowess is particularly perplexing. Alter attributes some of it to the success of Obama’s speech on race during the Jeremiah Wright firestorm of the campaign. Because that comprehensive and nuanced address was “a hit without sound bites,” Obama felt that his congenital distaste for glib verbal formulas had been vindicated. But as Alter notes, his “diffidence toward cogency was ahistorical.” Sound bites like “a house divided against itself cannot stand” or “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” are hardly without their virtues. “Without them,” Alter writes, Obama’s speeches often amounted to “fast food that left you hungry again soon after the meal.”
The White House’s sporadic attempts to dress up its marketing with catchphrases—”New Foundation” as an umbrella description for Obama’s domestic programs, for instance—have been too bland and scattershot to gain traction. They are certainly no match for a focused, Fox-perfected Republican message that conjures up vivid bogeymen like “government takeovers,” “out-of-control spending,” and “death panels.” That the GOP, which perennially pushes for the castration of Medicare, could present itself as Medicare’s valiant defender during last year’s health care wars was a particularly telling feat. Obama had a lot of trouble formulating his own health care message in accessible language—”It was like he was trying to find the combination on a lock,” said his close friend and adviser Valerie Jarrett—and so the opposition could fill the White House’s vacuum with any outrageous bumper-sticker message it could whip up.
It’s also true that Obama has been victimized by his overconfidence in his ability to woo political adversaries. “We should have taken the hit for ending bipartisanship early because it was never going to be bipartisan,” a White House aide admitted to Alter in retrospect, after months had been wasted waiting for the administration’s health care point man in the Senate, Max Baucus, to strike a bargain with supposedly congenial moderate Republicans like Charles Grassley and Olympia Snowe. As detailed in The Promise, Snowe was particularly adept at stringing along the White House to burnish her public image as a paragon of Maine’s vintage brand of flinty Yankee Republicanism. When she finally announced that she would join the rest of her caucus in a filibuster after all, her excuse, that she hadn’t had time to read and absorb the bill, was patently false. “I’m an eternal optimist,” Obama had said months earlier, after his tussles with congressional Republicans over the stimulus. “That doesn’t mean I’m a sap.” But Snowe had played him for a sap.
Even so, Alter’s chronicle confirms that the biggest flaw in Obama’s leadership has to do with his own team, not his opponents, and it’s a flaw that’s been visible from the start. He is simply too infatuated with the virtues of the American meritocracy that helped facilitate his own rise. “Obama’s faith lay in cream rising to the top,” Alter writes. “Because he himself was a product of the great American postwar meritocracy, he could never fully escape seeing the world from the status ladder he had ascended.” This led Obama to hire “broad-gauged, integrative thinkers who could both absorb huge loads of complex material and apply it practically and lucidly without resorting to off-putting jargon”—and well, why not? Alter adds:
Almost all had advanced degrees from Ivy League schools, proof that they had aced standardized tests and knew the shortcuts to success exploited by American elites. A few were bombastic, but most had learned to cover their faith in their own powers of analysis with a thin veneer of humility; it made their arguments more effective. But their faith in the power of analysis remained unshaken.
This was a vast improvement over the ideologues and hacks favored by the Bush White House, but the potential for best-and-brightest arrogance was apparent as soon as Obama started assembling his team during the transition. The Promise leaves no doubt that his White House has not only fallen right into this trap but, for all its sophistication and smarts, was and apparently still is unaware that the trap exists. During the oil spill crisis, Obama and his surrogates kept reminding the public that the energy secretary, Steven Chu, was a Nobel laureate—as if that credential were so impressive in itself that it could override any debate about the administration’s performance in the gulf.
This misplaced faith in the best and the brightest has not coalesced around national security, as in the JFK-LBJ urtext, but around domestic policy—especially in the economic team, whose high-handed machinations Alter chronicles in vivid detail. Contrary to some understandable suspicions on the left, Obama’s faith in that team has nothing to do with any particular affection for captains of finance (his own campaign donors included), or their financial institutions, or wealth. “Over and over in his career, often to Michelle’s chagrin, he had turned down chances to make more money,” Alter writes. Obama is if anything annoyed by Wall Street’s hypocrisy and tone-deaf behavior. “Let me get this straight,” he said at one meeting about TARP and its discontents. “They’re now saying that they deserve big bonuses because they’re making money again. But they’re making money because they’ve got government guarantees.” Obama’s angriest moment in his first year of office came when he heard that Lloyd Blankfein had claimed that Goldman was never in danger of collapse during the fall 2008 financial meltdown—an assertion the President knew was flatly untrue.
But if Obama is not blinded by dollar signs, he suffers from a cultural class myopia. He’s a patsy for “glittering institutions that signified great achievement for a certain class of ambitious Americans.” In his books, he downplayed the more elite parts of his own resume—the prep school Punahou in Hawaii, Columbia, and Harvard—but he is nonetheless a true believer in “the idea that top-drawer professionals had gone through a fair sorting process” as he had. And so, Alter writes, he “surrounded himself with the best credentialed, most brilliant policy mandarins he could find, even if almost none of them knew anything about what it was like to work in small business, manufacturing, real estate, or other parts of the real economy.” Not only did the director of the Office of Management and Budget, Peter Orszag, have the quintessential best-and-brightest resume (Princeton summa, Marshall Scholar, Ph.D. from the London School of Economics) but even the OMB spokesman, Ken Baer, had a Ph.D. from Oxford.
Obama complains that he doesn’t get enough credit for stabilizing an economy that was teetering toward another Great Depression when he arrived in office. “It’s very hard to prove a counterfactual, where you say, ‘You know, things really could have been a lot worse here,’” as he puts it. He has a point. The stimulus package, actually five ambitious pieces of legislation packaged together for political expediency, was the largest economic recovery bill in American history, bigger in constant dollars than any program of FDR’s first hundred days. It gets no respect because it left no New Deal–style legacy of grand public works and did more to prevent jobs being lost—as more than 2.6 million were in 2008—than it did to add new ones.
Yet it’s hard not to wonder if much more would have been accomplished, both substantively and politically, had Obama’s economic principals, Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers, been more open to ideas not of their own authorship and more capable of playing with others, including a public that still hardly knows either of them. Obama “apparently never considered appointing a banker or Fed governor from outside the East Coast who knew finance but was less connected to the policies that caused the crisis,” Alter writes. The homogenous team he chose “all knew one another and all looked at the world through nearly identical eyes.” Once in place in Washington, they would all underestimate the threat of rising unemployment, be blindsided by the populist anger rising outside the capital, and even fail to predict the no-brainer popularity of the “cash for clunkers” program. Their paramount group-think lapse—their inability “to think more boldly about creating jobs fast”—still haunts the administration. A White House job summit didn’t materialize until December 2009, nearly a year too late.
The Promise depicts a carelessness and dysfunctionality in the economic team that at times matches that revealed by Rolling Stone in the military and civilian leadership of the team managing the Afghanistan war. Geithner’s inexplicable serial income tax delinquencies, as elucidated by Alter, should have disqualified him for Treasury secretary just as Stanley McChrystal’s role in the Pentagon’s political coverup of Pat Tillman’s friendly fire death should have barred him from the top military job in Afghanistan. Summers’s Machiavellian efforts to minimize or outright exclude the input of ostensible administration economic players like Paul Volcker, Austan Goolsbee, and Christina Romer seem to have engaged his energies as much as the policy issues at hand.
In April 2009, at Obama’s insistence, a group of economists that Summers had blocked from the Oval Office, including Volcker, Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, and Alan Blinder, was invited to a White House dinner. That colloquy has been cited ever since by White House aides in response to complaints that the administration’s economic circle is too insular. The dinner was a one-off, however, and the liberal economists’ ideas about tougher financial reform and a more ambitious stimulus package have languished.
Obama may have entered the White House with the intention of assembling a Lincolnesque “team of rivals,” but Summers subverted that notion by making himself chief packager and gatekeeper for any dissenting arguments about economic policy—all, he claimed, to spare the President from meeting with “long-winded people.” Lincoln’s “team of rivals” reported directly to Lincoln, but, as one source told Alter, Summers so skewed the process in this White House that it was like “a team of rivals reporting to Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s prideful secretary of war.” Even Warren Buffett, a supporter who had spoken to Obama weekly during the fall of 2008, “found himself mysteriously out of touch with the new president” once he took office.
Obama was now imprisoned within the cozy Summers-Geithner group “and it would be increasingly difficult for him to see beyond its borders.” This “disconnection from the world,” Alter concludes, was not due to ideology or the clout of special interests but was instead “the malign consequence of the American love of expertise, which, with the help of citadels of the meritocracy, had moved from a mere culture to something approaching a cult.” For all Obama’s skepticism of cant, he was “in thrall to the idea that with enough analysis, there was a ‘right answer’ to everything. But a right answer for whom?”
Once he belatedly reached out to business leaders for other ideas, Obama began to overrule his own economists. Presumably he will continue to learn from his mistakes. The administration is still young, and so is the President. If he has any immutable ideological tenet, it’s that he is “a big believer in persistence.” He doesn’t like to lose. Health care had not been an Obama priority in the campaign, but he embraced it during the transition. Though Joe Biden, Rahm Emanuel, and David Axelrod were all skeptical of pursuing it as a Year One goal, he wouldn’t be deterred.
His achievements so far have been accomplished in spite of obstacles that would fell most mortals—the almost uncountable messes he inherited from Bush-Cheney, a cratered economy, a sclerotic Congress in thrall to lobbyists and special-interest money, and a rabid opposition underwritten by a media empire that owns both America’s most-watched cable news channel and its most highly circulated newspaper. Indeed it could be argued that the matrix of crises facing Obama would have outmatched any Bush successor, no matter how talented. (They certainly would have drowned John McCain, whose utter cluelessness about the economic crisis alarmed even his Republican allies in 2008.) But Obama knew what he was getting into when he ran for president, and the question that matters now is how he can do the job better.
The most challenging quandaries he has faced from the start, unemployment and Afghanistan, may be overcome only if he addresses his own internal obstacles. These include not just his misplaced faith in his own cultural cohort and his romantic illusions about bipartisan collaborations with a Mitch McConnell–John Boehner GOP that has no interest in governance. He might also reexamine his split-the- difference approach to decision-making. Compromise and pragmatism have their virtues, but they can also produce Rube Goldberg policies like an Afghanistan strategy that is at once intellectually clever and yet makes no discernible sense on the ground.
Can Obama self-correct? He remains the same driven, smart, psychologically balanced leader we saw in the campaign, and to these familiar attributes, Alter adds another quality that is less frequently displayed in public—an utter lack of sentimentality. He’s “the most unsentimental man I’ve ever met,” says one aide, summing up for many of his peers. That trait may be the most useful of all if Obama undertakes the ruthless course corrections that are essential to the realization of his promise.
—July 22, 2010