Journalist Recounts Obama's Challenges and Triumphs in First Year

What President Barack Obama '83 calls the biggest surprise of his first year happened soon after his inauguration.

 

In an unprecedented move, the president went up to Capitol Hill and courted Republican lawmakers in an attempt to build consensus on the stimulus bill. But the GOP refused, said Jonathan Alter, a Newsweek senior editor and the author of the new book, The Promise: President Obama, Year One.

The political affairs journalist gave this and other revealing anecdotes about Obama's early days in the Oval Office in a talk, "Can Obama Get His Groove Back?," to a capacity crowd in Occidental's Johnson Hall on Nov. 15.

"He decided to let the Republicans take whatever they wanted out of the stimulus bill to get them to participate," Alter said. "But he found out that they would not join him in addressing the economic crisis. The president said, ‘I thought they would have more interest in governing.' That was his biggest surprise."

The Promise draws on interviews with more than 200 people, including the president and his top aides. This insider access allowed Alter to examine everything from the stimulus bill and the military surge in Afghanistan to the machinations of Obama's close circle of advisors.

The book not only tells the back story of legislative issues and political brouhaha in the 44th president's first year, it also appraises Obama's decision-making style, his failure to communicate effectively with the public, and his mental toughness. Kirkus Reviews calls The Promise "a freshman-year report card for the sitting president, with mixed but generally good grades."

The longtime journalist first met Obama in 2002, when the president was a young Illinois state senator. The fledgling politician had recently gotten walloped in a three-way race for Congress. But Alter sensed that Obama would not stay down for long.

"He had a lot of moxie," Alter said.

Since then, Alter encountered the future president several more times, and wrote the first national magazine cover story about him. A year into his presidency, Obama stated on CBS's "60 Minutes" that he had been studying The Defining Moment, Alter's 2006 book on the first 100 days of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration.

In The Promise, Alter's evident empathy for the president didn't blind him to Obama's shortcomings. The journalist said his biggest surprise was the president's failure to better communicate his legislative successes to the public, including passing the healthcare reform bill and other large-scale legislation.

"I thought he would ace communications, but he struggled. Obama has this disdain for sound bites, and sometimes he's too much ‘professor-in-chief' for his own good," Alter said. "But he succeeded with a very ambitious legislative agenda that was much more productive than any other administration since 1965."

The College's Global Affairs Office sponsored the Nov. 15 event, and diplomacy and world affairs professor and former U.S. ambassador Derek Shearer introduced Alter to an appreciative audience of students, faculty, administrators, alumni, and trustees. Questions from the audience included why Democrats aren't better at setting the political agenda, the effect of the Tea Party on the 2012 elections, and the president's progress on his campaign promises, such as closing Guantanamo and repealing the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on homosexuality.

"The ‘don't ask, don't tell' thing has been very poorly explained," Alter said. "You can't undo it with a stroke of a pen. It requires an act of Congress. You need the military to take the lead, and Obama asked [the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] to testify about this, which he did."

Alter leavened the serious tone of his talk with a few humorous anecdotes. The journalist said that even though Obama initially impressed him, Alter dismissed his son's prediction about the politician's future, made after Alter interviewed the then-senator in 2004 for a Newsweek cover story.

Thomas Alter, who was 13 years old at the time, listened to the interview closely. Afterward, he said, "Dad, that guy's going to be president in 2008."

"‘No way,'" Alter recounted saying. "‘He doesn't even know where the men's bathroom is in the Senate.'"

For more information about Jonathan Alter and The Promise: President Obama, Year One, go to: http://jonathanalter.typepad.com/.