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Monday, Sept. 13, 2010

President Obama: Year One

Jonathan Alter reflects on a busy 365 days

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If it seems premature and injudicious to undertake a critical look at President Barack Obama’s daunting first year in office,journalist-historian Jonathan Alter, author of the Franklin Roosevelt biography The Defining Moment,comes with impressive credentials. In The Promise: President Obama,Year One (Simon & Schuster), he tackles the formidable task of trying to evaluate the most dynamically progressive yet temperamentally conservative young president in decades. Alter cautiously avoids obvious comparisons with Roosevelt. FDR’slegacy has the advantage of beingviewed through the softening glow of historical perspective, while the final outcome of Obama’s whirlwind of daring enterprises—the stimulus, the health plan—are still pending, and, as Alter points out, not enjoying the greatest public confidence.

For Alter, Obama’s first year accomplishments include an unappreciated stimulus package, the auto bailouts, bank rescue and regulation, reaching out to the Muslim world, advancing nuclear nonproliferation, sending more troops to Afghanistan anda health plan that “repeatedly came back from the dead.” Alterpoints outthat the resurrected health care legislation had precedence in aborted or abandonedefforts bysuch notable predecessorsas Theodore Roosevelt, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan—membersofthe same Republican Party that left no stone unturned in its efforts to undermine Obama’s legislation,using media frenzy and public uncertainty to damn him as a Socialist running roughshod over the Constitution.

Although it is too early to tell, the passage ofhealth care maybe the singulardefining step toward future greatnessfor this president. Alter makes no secret of his sentiments, emphasizing the swift efficiency and sound judgment with which Obama set up his team prior to inauguration.

The author devotes a chapter to eachmajor issue of Obama’s presidency, but the reader may find most interesting Alter’s view of the president’s “Zen temperament” along with his ever-apparent “first-classintellect.” But ease, poise and good cheer are not always sufficient. Obama’s cool temperament “could be perplexing. It had a mellow yet restless cast, a peculiar mix of calm, confidence and curiosity. If the effect could sometimes be too professorial and disconnected from human hurt, the package was nonetheless impressive,” Alter writes. “With his high-wattage smile,elegant carriage and a commanding baritone that could make his most ordinary utterances sound profound, Obama inhabited the role of president.”

The recurring health care debate would haunt Obama’s first year even before the tea party “uprisings.” Although the book is chock full of political maneuvering, Alter has a tendency to skim over legislative details. He does, however, hover over two interesting points. First, Obama’s decision to undertake health carewas his alone. He “felt lucky,” he said.His chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, begged him not to do it. Economic advisers Larry Summers and Tim Geithner were unenthused. Secondly, in the face of impending defeat during the final vote, Obama was forced to facefriction within his own party,as the Democratic majorityin the House and Senate bickered over the final format of the bill, appeared fearful of constituencybacklash back home or, asAlter suggests, simply flexed their ego muscles. The members of Congress tried to negotiate their votes in a “what’s-in-it-for-me?” context, requiring extra pushing,largely from the formidable Nancy Pelosi. No Republicans backed the bill. Obama hadlearned the hard way that even within his own party,politicalself-interest trumps civility. Integrity, so important to his public perception, doesn’t come at an easy cost.

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