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The Promise: Year One of the Obama Presidency

At the end of Year 1, it’s still not clear where Obama is heading.

By Kevin Hartnett / May 25, 2010

The Promise By Jonathan Alter Simon & Schuster 458 pp., $28

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As someone who admires Barack Obama and worked for a year on his presidential campaign, I find it hard to understand the depth of the anger he has inspired on the political right. His policies are left of center but hardly extreme, and by themselves don’t explain why a small but significant portion of the country sees in his ascent to power the end of life as we know it in America.

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Given this puzzle, other explanations for the vitriol have been proposed: that his skin color, middle name, or elite bearing incite a visceral response in people who consider him to be different from themselves. These strike me as relevant considerations, but I think they stop short of fully explaining phenomena like the “tea party.”

The gap between the apoplectic rhetoric and the reality of the Obama administration seems even more pronounced after reading Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter’s new book The Promise, which depicts Obama’s first year in office as a clinic in sound decisionmaking. Obama is seen shuttling between policy meetings that he concludes by enumerating “take home” messages, and his study where he reads briefing binders late into the night. While George W. Bush may have been our first president with an MBA, it is Obama who seems to have absorbed the management practices taught in business schools. The result is a White House that feels wonky, competent, slightly claustrophobic, and even a little boring, but never revolutionary.

Yet there is clearly something else going on. In an interview with Alter, Obama describes his approach to policymaking as a search for the correct answer to a problem. In this view, if you ask analytic questions, collect good information, and strip away ideological predilections, the right policy choices for America should become self-evident.

But Alter is correct to ask, “a right answer for whom?” As the health-care debate demonstrated, it’s possible for both parties to take a clear look at the facts and come to different conclusions about what’s best for the country. Though there was plenty of political hoopla around the issue, it was also true that Democrats and Republicans assigned unequal values to the goal of achieving universal coverage; the question ultimately turned on core values, and no briefing book was going to be able to say which approach was the wiser.

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