Because of his frequent appearances on MSNBC and his left-of-center punditry, conservatives might be tempted to skip Jonathan Alter’s new book: The Promise: President Obama, Year One.
That would be a mistake, and a large one.
The Promise is a riveting though sympathetic look inside the Obama White House, and very revealing about the new president’s few strengths and many weaknesses. Alter is a fine reporter and an excellent writer, and while his political opinions do show through occasionally, most of The Promise is an unvarnished account of how the president organized –or didn’t—his first year in office, and contains a shrewd assessment of his failures as well as of his signal “success” this far, which is of course pushing the federal takeover of health care over the goal line.
Skeptical that Alter might not hit the president hard? Alter’s comment on the decision of Team Obama to flood the media zone with the president week-in and week-out: “The danger was that in becoming impossible to avoid, Obama might ‘jump the shark’ as a cultural phenomenon –cross an invisible line from hip to tiresome.”
Would the Newsweek columnist scrutinize the media's love affair with Obama? There are a few pages on the need to hide the president’s smoking addiction and other obvious examples of the MSM covering for their favorite president ever.
Alter’s assessment of Vice President Biden? An “irrepressible Labrador.”
Relations with Great Britain, Germany and especially Israel? “Obama’s great stature and his own shortcomings in showing gratitude led to claims he was taking America’s friends abroad for granted,” Alter summarizes. “This became a particular problem with Israel…The Israelis, like American Jews during the primaries simply didn’t trust Obama.”
There are also accounts of insider drama such as the shouting match between Lawrence Summers and Christina Romer (“Don’t you bully me,” the latter yells at the former,) and astonishing details on the inexperience of those called upon by the president to take huge roles in the economy, like the team assembled to “rescue” the car businesses. The account of the hostile takeover of GM and the firing by the president of the company’s CEO correctly analyzes this episode as one that cost the president dearly with an American center that saw in this power grab an ambition to run everything out of D.C.
Though Alter rejected my description of the president as thin-skinned in the on-air conversation we had about the book (the transcript is here) the president’s reflexive whining about the lack of credit he is getting leaves a lasting impression of immaturity and an unfavorable comparison with the stoic Bush that preceded him. Alter also delivers the verdict widely shared within elite media that Team Obama’s decision to start a war with Fox and Rush were both bad decisions.
The most telling observation made by Alter is of what I see as the president’s “gratitude gap.” Alter agreed that the account he provides supplies all the evidence needed to conclude that President Obama is unaware of all the people who helped him get where he is. This is a function of an overwhelming ego that is on display on nearly every page of every chapter. No president lacks ego, but President Obama’s is far beyond the even out-sized confidence that most bring to the Oval Office. This continual display of arrogance has not worn well with the public.
Though Alter would not agree with my diagnosis of the president’s declining popularity, his assessment of where the president finds himself is the same as mine.
“So little by little in the second half of the year,” Alter notes, “Obama lost much of his connection to the American people.”
As conservatives especially read Alter’s account they will see in it keys to successfully combating even greater expansion of federal power and an ever growing deficit. It is crucial to keep the focus on the GM fiasco, on the failed stimulus, and on the small ball Obama played throughout 2009 as his massive majorities in the House and Senate went unused because he could not decide what he wanted to do. Obama ambled through a year of exploding unemployment and soaring deficits, unable to see that his prescriptions for the economy weren’t working and that his plans for health care were wildly unpopular. He pushed his “plan” to take over health care through the Congress but at an extraordinary cost. The loss of his confidence in his communication skills has already led to the president’s refusal to engage in full blown press conferences and to a sequence of soft ball interviews, and his defensiveness about his many policy pratfalls can only sour the public more on his future agenda.
The president, Alter admitted, takes no responsibility for the failures that plagued his first year, but all credit for every “success.” This is not the sort of character that Americans reward with greater and greater confidence.
Read the Promise, and mark the sections to send to your friends who voted for the president. This is an account from a journalist sympathetic to the president’s objectives. Imagine what voters opposed to him from the beginning must be thinking, and then extrapolate that to November’s elections and the president’s return date with the electorate in 2012.
“I have to run [in 2012],” Alter recounts the president as telling a friend, “otherwise it’ll mean letting someone like Mitt Romney step in and get credit for the good stuff that happens after we’ve been through all this crap.”
That perfect combination of braggadocio, self-pity and arrogance about the future is just one of the revealing moments in a book that delivers on its promise, and one the White House cannot be too happy is on best seller lists across the country.