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

by Evan Sawdey

17 Oct 2010


“Who would really want this job for more than one term? [...] But I have to run now, otherwise it’ll mean letting someone like Mitt Romney step in and get credit for all the good stuff that happens after we’ve been through all this crap.”
—President Obama on re-election

Jonathan Alter opens his detailed account of Barack Obama’s first year—called simply The Promise: President Obama, Year One—with a rather tense and unexpected scene: the 2008 meeting of then-candidates Barack Obama and John McCain with George W. Bush and a series of economic advisors to discuss what to do with the imminent collapse of the US economy. This was after McCain’s “suspend the campaign” wild card was pulled and a country realizing what dire straits it was in suddenly looked towards the two candidates with even more of a weighted interest: much more was riding on this election than mere party-line politics.

cover art

The Promise: President Obama, Year One

Jonathan Alter

(Simon & Schuster)
US: May 2010

During the meeting, however, it soon became obvious to everyone in the room who was going to win this election. Obama stepped forward and took charge, presenting a few observations of his own but spending most of the time gathering information from the numerous fiscal luminaries that filled the room, mulling through a complex issue while collectively summarizing the points at hand with very simple bullet points, making sure every one had a say. It wasn’t too surprising that he’d make such a bold move, given that it’s not only his nature to bull-pen like that, but also because he had already spent plenty of time on the phone with Henry Paulson (and although Paulson briefed both candidates during the entire ordeal, Paulson noted in close company that the comprehension level between Obama and McCain about the crisis was “night and day”). 

When it was McCain’s turn to speak, obviously one-upped in tight company, McCain threw out some generic campaign slogans, rehashed a bit of Bush’s introduction to the whole thing, and then by and large kept to himself for the rest of the meeting. Officials on both sides were a bit shocked by such an underwhelming response from the Maverick himself, but when it was game time, Obama proved to the political higher-ups that he was more than ready to tackle a challenge.

Really, it’s stories like this that are the backbone of any good political campaign. It’s the lack of such stories during Obama’s presidency, however, that have created a bit of a disconnect between the White House and the everyday American. Jonathan Alter is one hell of a researcher, having already proven his intimate knowledge of presidential history with his excellent The Defining Moment: FDR’S Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, and by now writing and analyzing the actions of a sitting president, he’s given himself a difficult journalistic task. The Promise works, however, due to the even-handedness of his critiques and the unique insider information that is revealed, showcasing many similar stories of Obama’s intellectual resolve that simply do not make it out to the media at large. Alter dives into a bit of excessive hyperbole at times, but when contrasted with the thought process that went into the decisions that Obama made in his first year, such grievances prove to be minor.

Very early on in the book, Alter zeroes in on a rather unique comment that the president made in November of 2008:

“[Before the election] he mused to aides that with all the controversial things he planned to do in office there was a ‘decent chance’ he would be a one-term president. This was the kind of thing that candidates and presidents like to say, and almost nobody believes them. From afar it had an especially phony ring from a man who despised the conventional artifice of politics and derived some of his authenticity and self-regard from that sense of separation from the process. Obama was too competitive to consign himself to being a one-termer. He knew that in the modern era, one term is synonymous with failure, and that his being defeated for reelection would be especially humiliation for African Americans.” [p. 35]

It’s fascinating to know that Obama was fully aware that some of what he was planning to do was going to be controversial: to take the swing he did at something as all-encompassing as health care reform is a bold move no matter what angle you come from. He ran on a very ambitious agenda so it’s no surprise that he’s been working hard on every aspect since taking off. Yet even before he could even begin to tackle his pet projects, he had to worry about the health of the economy and that whole nasty “bailout” issue. 

Alter’s book starts at the tail-end of the campaign (leaving most of those juicy details about what happened during it for books like Game Change), as Obama and his tight circle of advisors focus on the transition to the White House while selecting a solid staff. Things don’t take long to get off course, however: Timothy Geithner’s unfortunate lapse in certain tax payments suddenly poisoned the entire staffing process leading up to the inauguration. Geithner—an obvious choice for Treasury Secretary, given his close proximity to the financial crisis while running the New York Fed—was soon hounded for his tax lapse, which forced the Obama team to start tightening up the screening process for all appointees. 

Wanting to avoid such public pratfalls again, it wasn’t long before the Administration began looking for candidates with squeaky-clean resumes—which didn’t necessarily translate into the best candidates. Alter notes that the sudden media scrutiny on the hiring process meant that the Administration had to be that much more thorough and detailed when screening potential staffers, which made the process drag on for far longer than it should have.

This relatively small speed bump, however, shadowed the far-larger issue of bailing out the banks and, later, the auto industry. When things began looking grim early on, Obama knew he would have to make some risky decisions. Alter points out how many far-left forces continued to lean on Obama to simply nationalize the banks, to which he scoffed: taking an action that radical was not the way to keep the confidence of the American people, added to the fact that nationalization was already an incredibly tricky move on top of it. TARP funding is what ultimately saved the day for the banks, but as Alter notes, “Even by late 2009, when every major bank except Citigroup had paid back its TARP money, the impression of a colossal injustice remained—that fabulously wealthy bankers would be made whole, but ordinary Americans would not.  This impression would weaken faith in government and complicate Obama’s efforts in 2009.” [p. 27]

Ultimately, Alter’s book paints a fascinating picture of Obama: little has changed in his intellect or demeanor during that transformation from Candidate to President, but the public at large began to lose a bit of that connection that it had felt with Candidate Obama. One of the joys of The Promise is discovering the little, unheard-of details that humanize Obama more and more. One key example is how even though the White House receives tens of thousands of letters and e-mails from ordinary Americans every day, a small staff selects ten of them to be placed in a purple folder that is then read by the president each and every morning. 

Obama is said to have repeatedly mentioned that he does not want to lose his connection to the everyday American, so these ten letters—some praising him, some rather critical—are what he looks forward to reading each and every day, as he usually responds to them if he can (Alter correctly notes, however, that much power is given to those people that actually select what Obama is going to read). So when it seemed that Obama was getting defensive with Fox News’ Brit Hume during a 17 March 2010 interview wherein they compare the number of letters that they get from Americans every day, Obama wasn’t going on the attack just for the hell of it.

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