The truth in Mario Cuomo’s famous words that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose has perhaps never been more obvious than in the case of Barack Obama. In his book The Promise: President Obama, which was published last year and is now out in paperback, American historian and journalist Jonathan Alter assesses the troubled first year of Obama’s presidency.
But the book begins already in September 2008 and ends in March 2010, making it an account of more than just the first twelve months in the White House (the paperback edition adds a short epilogue on the remaining months of 2010). In giving his reasons for starting four months before the inauguration, Alter argues that this was when Obama actually took charge. This was clear from the bipartisan White House meeting which Republican presidential candidate John McCain talked President George W. Bush into convening when the financial crisis hit, a meeting to which McCain himself contributed absolutely nothing. Even President Bush presumably then realised how little McCain had to offer and joked to Nancy Pelosi: “I told you you’d miss me when I’m gone”. From then on, Alter argues, Bush was convinced that Obama would be his successor.
His taking control continued during the transition period and Alter argues that no previous president-elect had made “so many presidential-level decisions before being sworn in”. But this was necessary because of the wreckage Bush left to his successor, a wreckage the new president would have to spend much of his time trying to repair.
While Bill Clinton left office in 2001 with a $ 236 billion budget surplus, George W. Bush amassed more debt during his presidency than all previous US presidents combined and left his successor a budget deficit of $ 1.3 trillion. Jonathan Alter’s previous book was The Defining Moment: FDR’s First Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, a work which he is able to draw upon in many ways in this book as the situation facing Obama in 2009 had much in common with that Roosevelt faced in 1933. But Alter argues that Roosevelt’s task was in fact easier: “Taking action to get out of a major depression was less controversial than taking action to prevent one”. And Roosevelt’s predecessor did not leave him with two mismanaged wars.
Under such circumstances it is quite astonishing that President Obama was able to achieve so much in his first year. Only the bill stimulating the economy which was passed (with Democratic votes only) shortly after his inauguration was in itself “the biggest tax cuts for the middle class since Reagan, the biggest infrastructure bill since the Interstate Highway Act in the 1950s, the biggest education bill since Lyndon Johnson’s first federal aid to education, the biggest scientific and medical research investment in forty years, and the biggest clean energy bill ever”.
The historic healthcare reform which was passed in March 2010 (again with only Democratic votes) meant that “Barack Obama was in the company of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson [...] in terms of domestic achievement, a figure of history for reasons far beyond the color of his skin”.
When Bush left office the US economy was shrinking with 6 percent annually and was losing 741,000 jobs every month. After Obama had been in the White House for one year the annual growth was 6 percent and the job losses only 20,000. And then there were many other achievements in between, including almost overnight restoring the US’ standing abroad and setting his country back on a more constructive foreign policy course.
Although it seems clear that the author is impressed with President Obama, this is not a partisan account and Alter is not uncritical of his subject. For despite his great political achievements it remains an obvious fact that much of the trouble he encountered during his first year in the office was a result of the fact that the great orator did not succeed in communicating with his people, Alter argues.
Obama himself believed that he should have focused more on the legacy left him by the failed Bush presidency, as FDR did with Herbert Hoover and Ronald Reagan with Jimmy Carter. But this would only have worked for a limited amount of time, Alter argues, after which the sitting president would anyway own the mess the country was in no matter who had made it.
He took Mario Cuomo’s words too literally and failed “not just to communicate but to inspire once he reached the presidency” and the White House “couldn’t make basic information about its accomplishments stick”. According to Alter, “the real blame rested with Obama, who, from the first days after the election, retained too much control. He resolved in the new year  to widen his circle of advice and trust his Cabinet and other surrogates to speak for him. He had failed, he knew, to ‘flood the zone’ with a consistent, memorable message”.
Another mistake was made when the Democrats for too long a time tried to win at least some Republicans’ support for the healthcare reform bill, attempts which were entirely rejected by an opposition party with their mind set on being as unconstructive as possible. (“Had they chosen to take part”, Alter reminds us, “they could have passed many amendments and wielded considerable power over the final shape of the legislation”). Thus much time was lost, and Obama’s strategy was built on speed. When healthcare reform took a much longer time than anticipated, “it threw a monkey wrench into the engine”.
It was certainly a crowded first year, in which the new President was met with countless challenges on many fronts. Not every single issue can be crammed into a book of 475 pages and it seems that the author has chosen to concentrate on those issues where Obama made a difference, a choice which for instance means that we hear little about the Middle East peace process, where he has not been able to bring about any progress.
But Alter mostly succeeds in saying at least something about all the major issues and decisions without losing track of the main story. It is not a book only about Obama; the author offers sharp profiles not only of the President, but of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, and on several occasions he highlights the contrasts between President Obama and President Clinton. The other players are also given their due and the result is a fascinating and insightful account of a pivotal year in US politics.
Like all books on what the late George F. Kennan dubbed “the history of the present” this book is to a fairly great extent based on anonymous sources, but that is how things have become these days and in a postscript Alter takes care to give a clear explanation of how he has approached his sources.
Naturally most of what he writes is based on what he has been told by others, many of whose identities remain unknown to the reader, and is thus difficult to verify. There may be things in this book which future historians will be in a position to reject when primary sources become available and there may have been major things going on behind closed doors which remain unknown to Jonathan Alter and other outsiders. But as for now, his book is probably as close as we can get to the inside story of the early stages of Barack Obama’s presidency.