Monday, 21 June 2010

“The Promise”, by Jonathan Alter (Simon & Schuster)

Alter-PromiseUK President Obama, Year One

Barack Obama’s inauguration as president on January 20, 2009, inspired the world. But the great promise of “Change We Can Believe In” was immediately tested by the threat of another Great Depression, a worsening war in Afghanistan, and an entrenched and deeply partisan system of business as usual in Washington. Despite all the coverage, the backstory of Obama’s historic first year in office has until now remained a mystery. In The Promise, Jonathan Alter uses his unique access to the White House to produce the first inside look at Obama’s difficult debut.

What happened in 2009 inside the Oval Office? What worked and what failed? What is the president really like on the job and off-hours, using what his best friend called “a Rubik’s Cube in his brain”? These questions are answered here for the first time. We see how a surprisingly cunning Obama took effective charge in Washington several weeks before his election, made trillion-dollar decisions on the stimulus and budget before he was inaugurated, engineered colossally unpopular bailouts of the banking and auto sectors, and escalated a treacherous war not long after settling into office.

It will seem to many readers that a book on Obama’s first year in office is somewhat unwise. Most of the key pieces of legislature and events of his presidency thus-far occurred or came to conclusion in his second year – therefore making this book automatically out of date (Alter does, thankfully, keep things up-to-date by referring to events of 2010).

Given the avalanche of Campaign 2008 books that were churned out over the past year, it was a nice change to be reading something about Obama as president, rather than as candidate. That being said, however, the first quarter of the book, while necessary for setting up the rest of the narrative, covers the campaign and transition, is really nothing new, and it’s a little disappointing that it goes on for so long (the chapter on Obama’s Inauguration starts on page 101). The Promise has been described as “fast-paced”, but I must say that I don’t entirely agree, as I found the book rather slow-going. I will happily accept that this might be because of my familiarity with the subject already, and the level of detail Alter provides, while admirable and useful, does not make for a quick read.

The book improves considerably after Alter moves to Obama’s Cabinet appointments and beyond. The economic team section (and the chapter “Larry and Tim”) is like a better, tighter version of what can be found in Robert Kuttner's Presidency in Peril, which should be preferable for some readers. His explanation of how they came to choose Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State is interesting (and amusing, at one point) – Obama “always understood the upside” of Hillary at State, but “the upside of Bill Clinton was a little harder for Obama to see” – and was very useful for me (it’s relevant for my PhD), especially the fact that some “national security appointments… seemed tailored to Hillary” and her needs and temperament. It is in describing the behind-the-scenes events, the reasons behind key decisions for personnel and policies that The Promise offers its greatest value.

Alter reveals that it was Obama, “feeling lucky”, who insisted on pushing major health care reform over the objections of his vice president and top advisors, including his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, who admitted that “I begged him not to do this.” There are a number of instances throughout the book where Obama is described as overruling his advisors, insisting on specific courses of action even when he’s told it’s the ‘wrong’ one to take.

The author takes the reader ‘inside the room’: Obama prevents a fistfight involving a congressman; coldly reprimands military officers brass for insubordination (in a good example of Obama’s strength of conviction); crashes the key meeting at the Copenhagen Climate Change conference; and bounces back after a disastrous Massachusetts election to redeem a promise that had eluded presidents since FDR, when he got his Health Care bill passed. To refer back to the military brass, Obama also paid them a huge compliment at the start of his presidency, visiting them at the Pentagon:

“By visiting the brass on their turf rather than summoning them to the White House Obama was making a significant gesture. He was simultaneously restoring their status and showing respect from a Democratic president with no military experience.”

This is partly in reference to the long-held trope of Democratic presidents being anti-military, with no experience in the armed forces – even though Reagan and George W. Bush didn’t, either. Obama’s actions could also have been a conscious effort to undo some of the damage done to Executive-Pentagon relations: President George W. Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney had frequently circumvented the Pentagon when they disagreed or were too slow, instead going straight to CENTCOM.

Alter’s portrayal of Obama is nicely balanced: he is alternately positive, neutral and occasionally negative. The ‘real’ Obama is not the messianic-figure from the campaign. He is certainly authentic and idealistic, but also demanding, unsentimental, and sometimes overconfident.

For me, what was most interesting is what Alter wrote about those around Obama – either his staff or opponents. This, for me, was highly revealing not only of the characters of those who serve the president, but also the mentality prevalent in Washington.

During the transition, his appointees for key positions were hampered by his own wishes and the wishes of those who had worked for his campaign. In a series of chapters highlighting the incredible fragility of people in Washington (not to mention naïveté and arrogance), Obama’s choices were delayed or derailed often: his wish for diversity and ‘the best candidates’ weren’t always compatible, and there are times when it appears as though the best candidate was rejected because either they weren’t a minority or because someone from their state had already been nominated (Alter’s example is of two Coloradans). The fragile egos of those who worked on his campaign also needed easing and stroking, as the youngest members were perturbed at not getting positions way above their experience.

“Many disappointed applicants from the campaign didn't understand that most of the good jobs required particular experience or expertise”

This reminded me of Season 7 of West Wing, but also displays a surprising naïveté (and arrogance) from Obama's campaign staff, whose bubbles seem to have been burst upon winning the election.

“Veterans of the Obama campaign yearned for the ego-free days of Chicago; instead they faced the usual sharp-elbowed Washington narcissism, where every relationship was transactional and people felt their very identities threatened when they weren’t invited to a meeting.”

The new administration’s problems with appointments continued into office, as minor infractions and immaterial issues derailed one choice after another. The petty nature of the process is well explained:

“When you discourage or eliminate anyone with nanny problems, tax problems, lobbyist associations, Wall Street associations, complex personal finances, difficult family situations, and other miscellaneous concerns, the short list gets shorter.”

As “dozens of potential nominees took themselves out of the running” to avoid public humiliation, Obama’s team was left to look for alternates. Unfortunately for the new administration, the unwanted complexities and pettiness of the process meant Obama’s promise of fundamental ‘change’ in Washington and government was not possible, in the end:

“The Obama administration’s choices soon consisted mostly of the usual suspects from Washington: Clinton administration veterans eager to go back into government as the fourth or fifth choice for the job.”

As it became clear that the new administration would not be populated by the new ‘best and brightest’, Obama’s staff started to lose its veneer of professionalism and poise. Alter tells of Obama’s ‘victory’ at being able to keep a Blackberry with him, and the rule that he must keep correspondence to a minimum number of contacts through it. To be included on Obama’s Blackberry became an indicator of status, even though it was primarily meant for family correspondence. Larry Summers was apparently “annoyed” at not being included on the device, and only calmed down after Rahm Emanuel put him on it. Overall,

“three weeks before the Inauguration, the mood in the Washington headquarters had gone from collaborative to wary and even poisonous, as old relationships ruptured over the unseemly scrambles for position.”

Many of the problems Obama faced throughout his first year (though not all problems) were the result of Republican intransigence and obstinacy. True, some of Obama’s gestures of bipartisanship were just that: gestures, without much belief or hope that they might work. That being said, when Obama made some genuine choices aimed at bridging the gap, the Republicans and Fox News would have none of it. For example, when “bona fide conservative” Senator Judd Greg was nominated for Commerce Secretary, he was hounded “as a traitor” by the GOP and conservative talk-show hosts until he dropped out of the running. Obama couldn’t believe how small-minded his opponents could be, saying that people and politics in Washington are “insane”.

Obama has adapted to the presidency with ease and put more “points on the board” than he is given credit for, but he has neglected to use his leverage over the banks and failed to connect well with an angry and excitable public. His “reasonableness” with those on Capitol Hill in the beginning “would cause him trouble in this first hundred days, though he would get points for trying.” His historic Inauguration Day was “merely a twenty-four-hour ceasefire” in what would become an endless war of words and slander between the left and right, continuing the “partisan wars that had consumed the capital for at least two decades” but seemed to be worsening in recent years. We see the famously calm president cursing leaks (which “offended” his “sense of discipline and reminded him of everything he disliked about the capital”), playfully trash-talking his advisors, and joking about even the most taboo subjects, still intent on redeeming more of his promise as the problems mount.

Alter describes Obama’s issues with his new job well, and clearly, as the new president “found the amount of time consumed mopping up after Bush the most exasperating part of the job”, not least because all of his key policy promises required considerable government spending commitments, but “however one adds it up, Bush amassed more debt in eight years than all his predecessors combined”, and

“It didn’t take long for Obama to realise he had inherited a nightmare – much worse than even the most partisan Democrats charged in 2008.”

The market for books about Obama is, in my opinion, now reaching saturation point; this should make any author cautious about embarking on a new Obama-centric project, but there seems to be no end in sight. Alter, who has known the president for years, benefitted from extremely good and friendly access to the President and his staff. As a result, this book offers a lot more than any true outsider might be able to write. If you only buy one book on Obama this year, I would recommend that it be The Promise. Unfortunately, however, you’ll have to read through a lot of old information to find the amusing, interesting, and surprising details. Alter’s writing is good, fluid, and accessible. The level of detail sometimes derails the flow, but his use of footnotes is welcome and offers a more rounded picture of events – filling in gaps of historical detail, or information that isn’t integral to the point he is making. As someone interested in day-to-day politicking in the US, I found a lot of this fascinating (particularly the characters of the president’s advisors and staff). Anyone interested in a detailed, behind-the-scenes look at the Obama Presidency will find no better book than this.

The Promise is worth a read, but be aware that you will likely already know a fair bit of what’s covered. Certainly one of the better books on Obama, and I imagine it will be much better than Bob Woodward’s eventual book on Obama’s first year (which isn’t out until September 2010, I think), due to Alter’s level of access.

Recommended for political and presidential junkies, and The West Wing, with an interest in what the view from behind-the-scenes is like.

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