Jim's Reviews > The Promise: President Obama, Year One

The Promise by Jonathan Alter
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's review
Feb 02, 2013

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bookshelves: politics-and-society, history, non-fiction
Read from March 22 to 30, 2011

Jonathan Alter details the actions taken by the Obama administration through the year 2009. It is a detailed but readable account, in the style of solid, long-form journalism. Alter does a good job of explaining the dynamics and personalities that shaped decisions and politics surrounding the financial and auto bailouts, the stimulus, and, most centrally, the push to pass healthcare reform.

Sometimes, the minutiae of policy-making can be a bit of a slog. What is more interesting, perhaps, are accounts of the personalities involved. Alter's Obama comes across as a little sphinx-like, hard to get a read on, which is probably his main strength as a political player (sharply-honed intellect, aside).

One of the more colorful people in the book is chief-of-staff, later Chicago mayor, Rahm Emmanuel. The Rahm of this book is very much in the mold of a quasi-Machiavellian, hard-nosed realist. Behind the scenes, Emmanuel played a central role in the way "Obamacare" took shape. Anyone who bewails the loss of the public option has Rahm to blame. (Emmanuel would counter that the public option was never going to be passed and insisting on it would sink the legislation. Then he would flip you off.)

Overall, this is an important account of a crucial period in our history. Any fair analysis of the situation compels one to admit that the Obama administration took office at a time when it was very likely that the financial system was about to implode and the largest part of the US manufacturing sector was about to fail. Whatever the shortcomings of their decision-making, and there is much to criticize, one has to admit that the Obama team pulled off some fairly impressive crisis management. When compared with the panicked reactions of the previous Bush administration, the Obama team was a picture of institutional competence.

As with most inspirational leaders, Obama's support has suffered when inspiration has come up against the needs of practical governance. Alter's account shows how idealism succumbed to hard reality and the ways in which decisions, taken in a context of crisis and necessity, would set up resistance on the right and erosion of support on the left. The cruel irony of Obama's first year is that his successes fueled his party's defeats in the 2010 elections (and perhaps, from the hindsight of 2013, set up his reelection).

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