ArtsATL > Books > Review: Jonathan Alter’s “The Promise” paints Obama as bold leader, professorially detached

Review: Jonathan Alter’s “The Promise” paints Obama as bold leader, professorially detached

Author appearance: Jonathan Alter, author of “The Promise: President Obama, Year One,” will speak about the book at 8 p.m. Wednesday, May 26, at the Atlanta History Center (130 West Paces Ferry Road N.W., in Buckhead). Admission is $5 for members, $10 for non-members. Reservations are required. 404-814-4150. Here’s a Q&A with the author.

“Starting on the day after he was elected, Obama was forced to grapple with the worst set of problems of any incoming president since Roosevelt in 1933,” Jonathan Alter writes in his new book, “The Promise,” which draws back the curtains on the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency.

It is a sharp, engaging account of how the nation’s first black president began making critical decisions about the imploding U.S. economy and other vital issues as soon as he took office. Surrounded by many larger-than-life personalities in his inner circle, Obama remains, in Alter’s view, cool, unflappable and professorial. According to Alter, his determination to push through landmark legislation is as impressive as his inability to convey its tremendous benefits to the American people — the combination is surprising and disappointing.

The economic stimulus package, known in short as the Recovery Act, not only saved the country from another Great Depression, Alter writes, but “was a generous and compassionate bill that set a new direction in American social policy.” Five bills in one, it contained the biggest tax cuts for the middle class since Ronald Regean; the biggest infrastructure investment since the 1950s; ditto the investment in scientific and medical research; the biggest clean energy bill ever; and the biggest education bill since Lyndon Johnson’s first federal aid to education.

On health care Obama was even bolder, Alter tells us, deciding to bet his presidency on it. Despite the objections of Vice President Joe Biden and other trusted advisers, Obama moved forward alone on controversial health care reform in the context of an economic meltdown, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the aggressive opposition of conservatives. The debacle over a “public option,” a sticking point for many liberals, nearly derailed the process. But in the end, with leadership by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, “the greatest social legislation since Medicare in 1965” was passed.

To Alter’s credit, he points out the great good in imperfect legislation whose worst enemies, at times, were liberal Democrats shouting down anything less than ideal. The times are still messy and clouded with pessimism. Jobs are hard to come by; “For Sale” signs are springing up all over our neighborhoods, with little selling; and a ruptured undersea BP oil well continues gushing thousands of barrels of toxic crude into our waters, threatening the economies and coastal ecosystems of the Gulf states. The left chastises Obama for being slow to take charge of this environmental disaster; the right, represented by Sarah Palin, recently accused the president of being in BP’s pocket.

“The Promise,” though alert to Obama’s flaws and mistakes, places him among the ranks of the greatest modern American presidents: Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Johnson. Alter makes us pause amid the tumult of present events to show us that this president has done historic work that is a kind of silver lining.

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