The 24-hour News Cycle Rhetoric Yields to Something Far More Human in 'The Promise

President Obama'

by Evan Sawdey

17 October 2010


Walking Into Tricky Territory

Obama’s empathy for the American people is evident in other, less-obvious ways. When it came to the tricky issue as to what to do about the fledging auto industry, he knew he was walking into tricky territory. Never before had the government stepped in to essentially take over private companies, much less fire the people running them.  Yet as much of a risk this was—politically for him, financially for everyone involved—it was a calculated one. 

The year prior the auto industry had sold 17 million vehicles, and that sharply dropped all the way down to ten million in a mere 12 months, practically halving the income of one of the pillars of American industry.  While many had adopted a “let ‘em fail” philosophy to the issue, Obama rationed this out, according to Alter, noting that if the major manufacturers went bankrupt, there would be about one million workers out of a job right in the middle of America’s heartland.  If a nation already struggling with unemployment suddenly took on one million more in one foul swoop, what would that have done to the economy?  As tough a choice as it was, Obama went with the option that would’ve likely helped out the recovery efforts the best.

Just as Obama can sometimes get lost in his rhetoric, so can Alter.

Although many stories of his sometimes-brash nature come through as well (lambasting his staff for information leaks, which he despises), sometimes it’s these very traits that wind up helping him in the long run (as when him and tag-teammate Hilary Clinton burst into a back-room deal during an ill-fated climate conference). 

For those looking for some dirt as well, Alter doesn’t disappoint, as long before Michael Hastings’ infamous Rolling Stone article that lead to General Stanley McChrystal’s departure, its obvious that Obama and McChrystal never really got along in the first place, noting that the sheer amount of delay placed on the infamous “McChrystal report” was enough time for ground conditions to change by the time it had been handed in. 

Other hot topics touched on include the administration’s constant fight with Fox News, the whole Nobel Peace Prize surprise (as Ben Rhodes said to David Axelrod: “In all of your years as a political consultant, I bet you never thought you’d have to advise a client on how to defend himself against winning a Nobel Prize” [p. 357]), and Obama’s more glaring gaffes, including the “acted stupidly” comment Obama unleashed on the Cambridge, MA police for arresting Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. 

Yet just as Obama can sometimes get lost in his rhetoric, so can Alter.  Even with his thorough research and good humor, Alter frequently falls back on certain hackneyed expressions to get his point across, the worst being his overt use of hyperbole, referring to how a certain action of the administration is the most thorough version of that action since a time long ago.  When he’s referring to things like the health care reform bill, yes, there’s obvious precedent that being set. 

When Alter describes the President’s overview of Afghanistan in these terms, he goes a bit overboard, saying that in 2009, Obama “slowed everything down in August and September and launched the most detailed presidential review of a national security decision since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.” [p. 363]  His word choice is very particular, but such a statement cannot be backed up in any way.  After all, it’s hard to imagine that the Bush-Cheney White House spent less time reviewing and scrutinizing the way security was to be handled both at home and abroad following the 9/11 attacks.  Frequently, Alter draws out statements like this and just expects us the reader to accept it as fact, a move which ultimately drains power from his arguments, as half-way through the book, it feels less like he’s using these statements more as a crutch than as a useful argument tool. 

One of the most potent stories to emerge from the book, however, involves Obama figuring out what should be done about the wars in the Middle East. He gathered 16 top advisors in the Situation Room for the first of several meetings related to Af-Pak on 13 September 2009 (Alter: “This was to be the most methodical national security decision in a generation.”—enough already, Alter!). Here, Obama proceeded to work with policymakers to determine several questions: Is an effective partnership with Pakistan possible?  How does one decide that the Taliban had been “defeated”?  What is the likelihood that al Qaeda returns to Afghanistan in the event of a Taliban takeover?

Yes, Obama was going “professorial” on everyone (during which, of course, Dick Cheney accused Obama of “dithering” on the issue), but he was asking questions (and refining them) to the point where everyone, every department could agree on what “victory” was in the region and how to accomplish it.  It wasn’t easy by any means, but deciding what the best strategic course of action was far easier than implementing McChrystal’s plan and sending even more troops into the Afghan region at a cost of more than one trillion dollars (which would be on top of the one trillion already committed to the region).

In doing this detailed review of operations, Alter notes that Obama came to some remarkable common-sense solutions:

“It was a sign of how out of touch the Pentagon had been with realities on the ground that only now did the government learn that the Taliban offered the 17,000 freelance militia in the country a third more in pay each month than did the Afghan security forces.  No wonder the much-despised Taliban recruited better from the pool of young Afghan men trying to feed their families.  ‘You know what?’ Obama said. ‘We gotta pay them more.’  He issued an immediate order for a pay increase, and in December the Afghan army had its highest recruitment success in years.” [p. 374]

Given that The Promise is chiefly concerned with policy and the people involved, it’s not too surprising that certain issues only get fleeing mentions, like Obama’s constant media presence on the morning news circuit, and—at times—on late-night TV and comedy shows. Obama wanted to make sure he had a chance to connect to the American people in each and every way he can, although some called foul for his overexposure (Alter brilliantly culls a quote from Bill Maher to describe the predicament: “You’re the president, not a rerun of Law & Order”). 

Sometimes this connection with the people faltered, as during the health care debate, wherein Alter notes that Obama says he never really found the right language for describing this to the American people at large. Alter also correctly notes that even though Obama won the historical health care vote, it was a “dirty win”, with no Republican support at all.

These revelations, these pros and cons and remarkably detailed accounts of what’s transpired behind closed doors make up the backbone of The Promise: President Obama, Year One, and when finished reading it, one walks away with a genuinely greater understanding of what makes Obama tick, clearing away the 24-hour news cycle rhetoric for something far more human and far more understandable. 

Minor quibbles aside, this is an essential read for anyone (left or right, doesn’t matter) wanting to know more about our current Commander-in-Chief and why he’s done the things he’s done. Given what’s transpired since the end of Alter’s Year One (which actually ends on the health care passage in March of 2010), we can only look forward to what his look on Year Two will bring…

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