Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Promise: President Obama, Year One

Barack Obama is not a saint. What a relief. The Promise: President Obama, Year One, written by Jonathan Alter, a Newsweek reporter, is a refreshing change from the worshipful treatment of President Obama in Game Change. Mr. Alter provides an even-handed treatment of the first year of the Obama presidency. He shows us a president who is all too human, making mistakes in both personnel and policies but mostly getting it right.

The reader is provided with thorough background information on all of the major players in President Obama’s administration. I was especially fascinated by the description of Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s agonizing decision whether to take the job as Chief of Staff or remain in the House, eventually succeeding Nancy Pelosi to become the first Jewish Speaker of the House. First Jewish Speaker? I had no idea that anyone thought that way in the 21st century. I thought that we had put silly religious issues behind us. I’m old enough to remember when (Catholic) JFK was running for the presidency and voters (including my Goldwater Republican parents) were terrified that if he were elected, the Pope would be running the country. As history reminds us, JFK was elected and governed the country without the Pope.

First Lady Michelle Obama is treated respectfully. I was surprised to learn that despite her husband never having been subject to rumors of infidelity, she is described as "a tiger when it came to Barack and other women", the example of Halle Berry’s enthusiasm in campaigning for Obama prompting the future First Lady to forbid her husband to appear with her.

Mr. Alter’s previous book, The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, dealt with FDR and the New Deal. Not surprisingly, he frequently draws parallels between President Obama’s first year in office and FDR’s first year in office. Both entered office faced with a collapsing economy. Both were forced to clean up the messes left by the previous administrations. And both passed landmark legislation in their first year, Social Security by FDR and health care reform by Obama.

It’s often difficult to end a book of this length and breadth, especially with the protagonist still early in his administration and still likely to continue making history, but I found the ending to this book very satisfying. The long, drawn-out battle for health care reform takes up most of the book, but in the end the reader is reminded of President Obama’s other first year accomplishments such as banning pay discrimination against women (always close to my heart), health insurance for millions of children, tightened rules governing credit cards and the crackdown on predatory lending, achievements that have become lost in the noise and confusion of the battle over health care, but which are huge victories in their own right.

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