Jonathan Alter on Obama’s Promise and First Year

Jonathan Alter gives a favorable review of Obama's first year.

Of all the many gifts Barack Obama has given the world, one of the biggest may be what he has supplied to writers.

Not only has Obama written an engaging memoir and political blueprint, but the stuff of his life has been seemingly endless grist for the journalistic, historical and pundit mills.

No less than a dozen books about Obama, his wife Michelle, their marriage, his alleged betrayal of the American people and history-making campaign, to name just a few topics, came out before he ever had served a day as president.

The pace has not slowed since he assumed office on January 20, 2009, on the Mall in Washington in a ceremony attended by an estimated 1 million people, among them my brother Jon, childhood friend Teo Lee, and friend and colleague the Rev. Elaine Bellis.

I have written before about Sasha Abramsky’s intriguing look at the intellectual forces and thinkers that shaped Obama, and yesterday received a copy of Newsweek staffer Jonathan Alter’s The Promise, a highly sympathetic look at Obama’s first year.

I’m a bit more than halfway through the book, which Dr. Calvin Morris, Community Renewal Society’s executive director, gave to me, and thus far am enjoying it quite a bit.

Alter explains in the book’s introduction that he actually looks at closer to 18 months, starting with a September summit with the American economy on the precipice of utter disaster and ending with the passage of health care reform, arguably one of the most significant pieces of domestic legislation in the past half century.

These bookends illustrate neatly the general hue and tone of the work, which is far less critical than Robert Kuttner’s A Presidency in Peril, which I’ve also read about half of up to this point.  While Alter does point out times where Obama falls short-he says flatly that he communicated poorly about the need for health care reform and the substance of his proposal, for example-they tend to be in the context of things ultimately turning out pretty well in the end.

The caption to one of the pictures makes the same point.  Alter writes that Obama had followed through or made progress on 400 of 500 campaign promises he had issued during the campaign before cautioning that hard work lay ahead.  This is a decidedly rosy interpretation of Obama’s governance thus far, which has left many progressives like Kuttner with long lists of issues on which they feel Obama has not moved far enough, if at all.  And the Pulitzer Prize-winning site, PolitiFact, puts the figure of promises kept at 114, with 82 stalled and 19 broken.

The primary value I have taken from Alter’s book is his entertaining nuggets that come from his extensive access, dogged reporting and clean writing.  I did not know, for instance, what Michelle Obama said to her husband after he finally won the election in November, or that Obama, after attending all 10 inaugural balls, did not know where to go in his new home the night after his inauguration. Details like these don’t so much shed light on the man as take the reader behind the scenes and into the action.

Alter also does an effective job in conveying the historic nature of Obama’s election and the electric current that pulsed across the globe in the months leading up, and then directly after, his victory over Sen. John McCain.   The chapters on governing range from topical-I am working my way through the one about foreign policy-to profiles of key players like Rahm Emmanuel, Hillary Clinton, Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers.

More than seven weeks into the BP oil spill and with articles about waning support from Latinos, it can be hard to remember the euphoria that gripped large parts of the nation a less than 18 months ago.  Alter takes us back to that time and to the promises Obama has made, even as reasonable people differ on the degree to which he has been a man of his word.

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