Book Review: The Promise: President Obama

Jonathan Alter in The Promise: President Obama, Year One uses his self-described “unique access” to the President and the White House to write a “behind the scenes” account of President Obama’s first year in office. In doing so, he provides a look at the major players as they tackled historic challenges and insights into the personality, character, and decision-making strategy of the new President.

Early in book, Alter writes, “[Obama’s] first task was triage.”

Before assuming the presidency, Obama’s year one agenda was aggressively focused on tackling both long-term problems and a bevy of short-term calamities confronting the country. Thus, the lofty ideas delivered with soaring oratory throughout the 2008 campaign had to be largely abandoned in the face of domestic and foreign troubles.

Alter primarily focuses on Obama’s decision making processes. He gives us a nuanced view of President Obama’s management style and his methodical approach to policy making. Alter discovers that Obama favors “logic chains” and “decision trees,” all of which stand in direct opposition to President Bush’s decision making style.

Alter notes that the Obama team exerted serious amounts of political capital pushing legislation tied to the Bush presidency such as the stimulus package. While the passage of these bills were critical to the survival of the economy, Obama nary received any credit. Instead he was often branded a “socialist” by right wing pundits. The failure of the Obama team to get in front of the media coverage on the stimulus package deal and later health care reform are examples’ of Obama’s failure to effectively deploy political capital.

Politically competent leaders craft a compelling agenda. The strongest agendas all share something in common: they raise awareness of key challenges and they lay out a straightforward approach to achieving results. Obama’s ability to craft a narrative to raise awareness was his critical strength during the presidential campaign but it quickly became a liability when he hit the road to promote critical legislative issues during his first year.

Successful pragmatic leaders know how to blend political and managerial competence. At this juncture President Obama has shown remarkable managerial competence in his first year in office. What has eluded him thus far is the political competence necessary for political success in this hyper factionalized partisan legislature.

Alter’s work penetrates beyond the superficial arguments on cable news shout-fests and goes deeper than the media’s coverage of Washington personalities. The Promise underscores how much political and policy contradictions have defined the president’s early tenure.

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