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.
I spoke with Jonathan Alter on May 25 about the Obama presidency while he was in Florida on the Southern leg of his book tour for “The Promise: President Obama, Year One.” A veteran journalist and Newsweek magazine columnist, Alter says he wrote the book with full access to virtually everyone in the White House, including the president, Vice President Joe Biden and the president’s four top aides: Rahm Emanuel, Valerie Jarrett, David Axelrod and Pete Rouse. He also interviewed 200 others inside and outside government, including Cabinet officers and congressional leaders. (Read my ArtsCriticATL review here.)
Parul Kapur Hinzen: In a little more than a year in office, Obama has pushed forward what you call two landmark pieces of legislation that put him in the company of FDR and Lyndon Johnson: the economic Recovery Act and health care reform. Given these achievements, what struck you as Obama’s most impressive quality as a leader?
Jonathan Alter: I would say it’s the same quality that helped him during the election — it’s his self-awareness. Like John Kennedy, he’s “an idealist without illusions.” He’s pragmatic and aware of what’s possible and what’s necessary and what might happen next. He’s making use of his restless curiosity.
PKH: In “The Promise” you describe the Recovery Act as containing many of Obama’s social policy objectives — aid to education, aid to scientific and medical research, funding of clean energy — which he deliberately did not publicize. In fact, you mention that when a member of Congress told the first lady that the stimulus was the best anti-poverty legislation in a generation, she responded by saying, “Shhh!” What do you think the significance of the Recovery Act will be in the long run?
Jonathan Alter: It’s a shift in direction of priorities. If you’re doubling funding for medical and scientific research, investing in high-speed rail, investing in clean energy, investing in education in greater amounts than any time in decades, you’re basically saying that even if money is going to be tight in years ahead, you’re going to continue having these priorities.
PKH: And do you think Obama will have to continue to hide his social policy agenda because of strident conservative opposition?
Jonathan Alter: It’s not because of conservative opposition. He had to hide it because of the budget climate — the economic crisis. He was able to use the crisis to do some things. But the stimulus has been stigmatized enough and the Recovery Act has been tarnished enough that the only way he can begin bragging about it is if we come into a robust recovery. If it works and the economy comes back in a strong way — and people feel they’re finding jobs — then he can crow about it. Stopping the bleeding is enough, but we still have a long way to go.
PKH: The president is facing growing criticism over the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. People in the region complain about finger pointing between BP and the government, and that no one seems to be in charge as the oil nears the shoreline. What do you think of Obama’s handling of the crisis?
Jonathan Alter: He did not do any finger pointing. I think Obama’s view was, “Let’s get the leak stopped — let’s cap the well — and then we can start pointing fingers.” One can only imagine his anger. I haven’t been in as close touch with people in the White House as I was when researching the book, but I can imagine their frustration. The government doesn’t have the equipment to go down and cap the well. And one of Obama’s shortcomings, arguably, is that he’s not into political gestures, he’s more into results. But his disdain for political gestures may be hurting him. If there’s something real he could do, he would do it. Sometimes, though, you do have to do something superficial.
PKH: During the previous administration, much was said about Vice President Dick Cheney allegedly being in charge of George W. Bush’s presidency. How would you characterize the Obama-Biden relationship?
Jonathan Alter: It’s greatly improved. During the primaries Biden was ostensibly neutral, but he was secretly advising Hillary Clinton. Even after he was selected for the [Obama] ticket, he was not really sure about Obama. And then he pissed Obama off, saying that he was going to be “tested” overseas and a couple of other silly things. But after the economic crisis developed, and Biden saw Obama in action during the conference calls, he said to him, “You sold me, sucker.”
He started to respect Obama more, though Obama still didn’t trust him and didn’t include him in personnel meetings in the early transition. Gradually, Obama saw that Biden had much more to contribute than he had thought. During the meetings on Afghanistan, even though Obama didn’t adopt the Biden plan of sending very few troops over, they had a good cop-bad cop relationship.
And then Biden was given the entire Iraq portfolio, which was a huge deal. Obama dropped it into his lap and said, “I want you to handle this, Joe.” I was in Biden’s office and listened as Biden talked to a very senior Iraqi leader, and he did it very skillfully. He’s very adept. He goes to Iraq every month. And he has a lot of friends in the Senate and has a lot of experience in foreign policy.
Biden doesn’t get invited to Camp David, and they’ve only played golf once. But Biden has said he doesn’t give a shit about that [a personal friendship]. They have a genuine affection for one another and a strong working relationship.