Jonathan Alter: Obama, Year One

Jonathan Alter writes The Promise: President Obama, Year One, a behind-the-scenes look at Barack Obama's first year as president.

Photo by Ted Axelrod/The Record Herald News.

Jonathan Alter had no idea what kind of a story he would get to tell when he signed on to write about Barack Obama’s first year as president. For his book, The Promise: President Obama, Year One (Simon & Schuster), Alter, national affairs columnist for Newsweek and a Montclair resident, interviewed about 200 sources in and around the White House—including the president on two occasions. His behind-the-scenes reporting starts on the campaign trail, at a September 2008 meeting about TARP—the bank-bailout plan—where it seemed Obama had already stepped in as George Bush’s successor.

New Jersey Monthly: Why was the TARP meeting so pivotal?

Jonathan Alter: At a certain point, John McCain suspended his campaign and postponed participation in a debate so that everybody could return to Washington and try to confront the economic meltdown…. When they got to the meeting Obama just took over. McCain was poorly prepared, and that’s why the Republicans in the room said, “we’re all ready to vote for Obama.” ….Afterward [Obama, speaking of McCain] said, “Maybe I shouldn’t be president, but this guy can’t be.”

NJM: Obama seemed intent on bipartisanship. Why was he so surprised when the GOP didn’t play along?

JA: The president said to me, “We thought they would have more interest in governing.” At the beginning of the stimulus debate during the transition, he put $300 billion in tax cuts on the table as a gesture of good faith to get Republicans to cooperate. Then he went over and he met just with Republicans on the House side…. [The Republicans] decided even before that meeting that they wouldn’t cooperate. He was surprised by that…. I actually thought that by saying that they weren’t interested in governing that he was being mild. My book is not a book of punditry and argument, it’s a book of reporting, but I thought for them to not participate in trying to save the economy was unpatriotic.

NJM: You write that the recovery act and the auto bailout were underappreciated. Why has Obama, a great campaigner, had such a hard time communicating as president?

JA: The great surprise about Obama is that we expected him to ace communications and struggle in executive leadership, because he had no experience. Instead, he struggled in communication and he did extremely well as a crisp and decisive and effective leader behind closed doors…. Part of it is that he believes, as Mario Cuomo does, that you “campaign in poetry and govern in prose.” He has a kind of an allergy to sound bites and he thinks it’s phony to participate too much in the cable culture. But he makes a mistake in neglecting that the presidency is a theater and you have to be something of an actor in it.

NJM: Didn’t we see this again with the BP oil leak?

JA: The oil spill is a perfect metaphor for the Obama presidency, because he was left all of these other messes to clean up. The banking mess. The auto mess. The Afghanistan mess…. In each case, he responds very well substantively, but he has a bigger problem kind of feeling the pain, to put it in Clintonian terms. Part of that is that he doesn’t want to seem like he’s a phony, and part of that is that, since he’s not a needy individual, he doesn’t always understand that other people are needy.

NJM: You say the key people around Obama advised him to wait on health care. Why did he press ahead?

JA: He was driven by two things: One was that he really was hearing these terrible stories on the campaign trail from people who, maybe their kid gets cancer and they’re out of work and they have to sell their house to pay for the medical treatment, and a hundred varieties on that kind of story. He also felt that the health-care system was unsustainable financially on its current course. So he didn’t want to spend his entire presidency cleaning up after Bush. He wanted to do something that he felt was important to put the country on a more firm footing.

NJM: Obama hoped to avoid being isolated as president. How’s he doing?

JA: Not as well as he needs to. He does read ten letters a day from average people, which helps, but despite his claim that he doesn’t want to be surrounded by yes-men, there are very few people, Rahm Emanuel excepted, that are willing to tell him hard truths.

NJM: Has the presidency changed Obama?

JA: I don’t think he has changed that much. He’s always been a self-aware, serious, yet wry, self-confident, yet not arrogant, and businesslike person…. His feeling beforehand was that he would slip easily into the job, and I think for the most part he has. He might not have anticipated just how hard it would be, and…he was surprised that he would fail to pull the country together a little bit more. So I think what’s changed in him is, he is no longer as optimistic that he can bridge various differences that he has spent his life trying to bridge.

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