Jonathan Alter’s “The Promise: President Obama, Year One” is just what the title suggests. If you haven’t been paying attention for the past 18 months (since he begins with the campaign), this book’s for you.
Alter has been on the politics beat for Newsweek for more than 25 years, and a newsmagazine ethos shows in his zeal for organizing the whirl of events into digestible chunks: the Cabinet choices, the economy, health care, and so on. Since I try to stay on top of the news, Alter didn’t tell me that much I didn’t already know, though he probes more deeply and certainly arranges more neatly.
His many years on the job have given him excellent access, and the meat of “The Promise” comes from interviews he’s conducted with more than 200 political heavyweights (including the president) since mid-2008. All that insider info allows him to put together plausible if not exactly astonishing reports on the process -- how the big decisions got made.
The one point on which I found his meeting minutes really illuminating was his long chapter on Afghanistan. Entertaining, too: The interplay between the neophyte president and his generals has its comic side. (“Accustomed to dealing with Bush, the Pentagon kept it real simple for the new president.”) It’s fascinating to watch Gen. David Petraeus, Adm. Mike Mullen and the rest of the wily officers discover that their new commander- in-chief isn’t so easy to game.
Explaining the President
Alter sometimes does a better job of explicating the president’s concerns than the president himself has. (“If the Taliban took Kabul and controlled Afghanistan, could it link up with the Pakistani Taliban to threaten the command and control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons? Quite possibly.”) Though personally I’m not convinced (and I’m still flummoxed about the Nobel Peace Prize), at least I’m less puzzled after reading Alter than I was before about the what and the why of Obama’s war policy.
And the when: He makes clear the president’s determination to see American involvement winding down by the middle of his reelection campaign in the summer of 2012 -- a goal it appears the military may already be trying to foil.
Though Alter dutifully chides the president when he thinks he’s misstepped (generally the same places everybody does, like confusing the electorate about health care), his crush on the man is unmistakable. The book lies somewhere between Obamaology and Obamaolatry.
When the subject is the previous administration, Alter can be the president’s terrier. (“Dick Cheney’s complaints about ‘dithering’ set a new high in chutzpah...: here was the architect of the policy that ignored Afghanistan for eight years complaining about Obama’s careful attention to it.”)
Don’t Knock the Press
He rolls his eyes at the dysfunctional Congress and gives short shrift to the Party of No. Only when the White House goes after Alter’s own team, the press, does he get ruffled and, occasionally, sanctimonious.
Mostly, though, he’s mesmerized by Obama’s sphinxlike calm. “What’s the president like?” Alter asks. “Never before have we known so little about someone so intensely observed.” So he provides extensive analysis of Obama’s decision-making style, his management style, his friendship style, his anger style, his basketball style and so forth -- all of it intelligent, little of it unfamiliar.
I don’t mean to be too hard on the book: there’s nothing disreputable or shoddy about it (though Obama haters will object -- justly, I think -- to its partisanship). Alter acknowledges right off the bat that “it’s too early to draw definitive conclusions” about the 44th president. He’s right about that -- which makes his book mainly a fix for political junkies and a useful resource for future scholars. Me, I’d rather have been reading “Middlemarch.”
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer on the story: Craig Seligman at firstname.lastname@example.org.