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Newsweek's Jonathan Alter on President Obama's first year in power

By Hope Katz Gibbs
July 1, 2010
Be Inkandescent Magazine

The word “promise” was repeated 19 times during Barack Obama’s acceptance speech on August 28, 2008 — the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, explains Jonathan Alter in the prologue of his new book, The Promise: President Obama, Year One.

The President said: “I told you my story of the brief union between a young man from Kenya and a young woman from Kansas who weren’t well-off or well-known, but shared a belief that in America their son could achieve whatever he put his mind to. It is that promise that’s always set this country apart.

The promise of America, [is] the idea that we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also rise or fall as one nation, the fundamental belief that I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper. That’s the promise we need to keep. That’s the change we need right now.”

Alter writes that less than three weeks later, “the economy nearly vaporized, and some of the promises he mentioned would soon recede from public view. But many of his words would resonate — or clang — through the first year of his presidency.”

Here’s why.

History in the Making

“I basically had three questions that I wanted to answer in the book,” explained Alter, when I sat down with him for an interview on May 21. “First, I wanted to know what happened when the doors of the Oval Office, Situation Room, and Cabinet Room closed.”

“Second, I wanted to learn what the president, known as the ‘professor-in-chief,’ was really like in meetings, on the basketball court, and when he was meeting with members of Congress,” he said. “Finally, I wanted to gauge how well he did that first year — how many promises did he keep, where he succeeded, where he failed.”

Alter also wanted to be first out of the gate with a book on the President. “It was neck-and-neck with another author for a while,” he admitted, but pulled it off with a May 2010 publication date.

And, he wanted to keep the book as “un-pundit-y” as possible so that it would appeal to conservatives and liberals alike. “This book is not about my opinion of President Obama,” Alter said. “My goal was not to say whether or not the country is going in the right or wrong direction. I simply wanted to provide as many details as possible so that everyone — Republicans and Democrats alike — could form a better and more informed judgment.”

The Critics Cast Their Ballots

Alter seems to have accomplished his mission, considering the quantity of partisan news programs, publications, and blogs that have featured him and the new book this summer — from the liberal Colbert Report to Jim Cramer’s conservative Mad Money TV show.

In fact, New York Times reporter Michiko Kakutani’s take on the book was reflective of the dozens of other newspaper reviews.

She wrote: “With relentless 24/7 media coverage of President Obama and a floodlet of books about him, the reader might well ask: Why another study of him and his White House, when his presidency is less than a year and a half old? And yet… Jonathan Alter’s book The Promise actually does give us a new perspective on the 44th president by providing a detailed look at his decision-making process on issues like health care and the Afghanistan war, and a keen sense of what it’s like to work in his White House, day by day. It’s an effective and often revealing approach reminiscent of Mr. Alter’s 2006 book, The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope.

About Jonathan Alter: A Historian with a Powerful Pen

A student of history, and passionate about the presidents who shape it, Alter is also the author of the 2006 bestseller The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days the Triumph of Power. I had the opportunity to interview him then for a feature in The Costco Connection, and was taken by the depth of his research, and his understanding of what made FDR tick.

The same holds true for the insight Alter brings to “The Promise,” a 458-pager filled with facts and footnotes based on interviews he conducted with 200 people inside and outside the government who have worked with the 44th president.

Alter also interviewed President Obama twice — once off the record, and then again on the record on November 30 in the Oval Office. (Listen to that conversation on the audio version of the book.)

He admitted that landing meetings with the Commander-in-Chief was no easy task. “Everything that has to do with the White House is complicated because they are extremely busy,” but similar to Obama’s “philosophy of persistence,” the journalist persevered.

Leadership Lessons from The Promise

In addition to offering insight into Obama himself, the 22-chapter book serves as a mini history lesson that recounts the events and legislation that shaped Obama’s first year in office. For example:

Obama Takes Charge: In Chapter 1, we learn that playing “3-D chess” is how his friends refer to Obama’s ability to always think a few moves ahead of his opponents. During the campaign especially, Alter writes, “His aim was to position himself on the board before anyone else — and checkmate his adversaries.”

White House-in-Waiting: “When the Democratic nominee called advisors in September and October about the future, Alter tells us in Chapter 2, he didn’t superstitiously say, “If I’m president …” He confidently said, “When I’m president …” Alter also notes that unlike Democratic presidents before him, who were generally considered bad at making the transition into office because they focused on policy rather than management, Obama appointed John Podesta to run the transition effort. “Podesta was a supremely well-organized guy and ran the operation as if it were a corporation,” Alter explains.

Picking Hillary: Podesta’s role was also pivotal in choosing Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State, as we learn in Chapter 5. “It was first raised by John Podesta in small meetings over the summer,” Alter writes. “Obama had already been thinking about it… When Obama said publicly in 2007 that they began the race as friends, he was being sincere. He found Bill Clinton exasperating but Hillary formidable, even when she was delivering low blows.”

The Un-Bubba: We learn more about Obama’s insight into Bill Clinton in Chapter 13, as Alter explains, “The relationship between the former president and Obama moved over the course of three years from frost (they barely knew each other and traded private insults) to chilly, to polite.”

Chaos-istan: In Chapter 21, Alter gives us insight into Obama’s views on the Afghanistan war. “The autumn of 2009 was when Afghanistan became Obama’s war. The hundreds of news accounts missed a deeper and more personal story of conflict at the highest levels of government. For months, the military brass tried to box in and manipulate the young Democratic president with no military experience. Finally, he asserted his authority as commander-in-chief to dress down his commanders and impose his will.”

In the End

After the research was done and Alter had time to step back and assess Barack Obama as a man and leader, he says:

“I like him. He’s smart, thoughtful, capable, and really a decent guy who has done some things right and some things wrong. Like others, I thought his silver tongue would have been enough for him to ace communication with the American people once in office. He surprised everyone, for in this first year he really failed to connect with his biggest supporters — the American middle class.”

The task that Obama did ace, Alter believes, is being an executive leader — another area where he had no experience prior to taking office.

Alter said he also credits Obama with having an incredibly focused discipline, which he describes in Chapter 9 as his Zen Temperament.

“Temperament is different than having a winning personality, for that denotes a particular mixture of ease, poise, and good cheer,” Alter explains. “Obama’s cool, wry temperament has a mellow yet restless cast, a peculiar mix of calm, confidence, and curiosity.”

What does the future hold for the current president?

As for whether Obama will win re-election, Alter said even Obama said it was too soon to tell.

“Health care was a big win for Obama,” Alter says. “None of his advisors wanted him to go for it, but he insisted and in the end he won. While he lost his connection with the American people, he has a wonderful ability to reinvent himself. So time will tell.”

Read Jonathan Alter’s Tips for Entrepreneurs.

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"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.

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