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President Obama, Year One

A-The PromiseJonathan Alter is a columnist and senior editor at Newsweek and the author of the best-selling The Defining Moment: FDR’s One Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope ( 3 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2006). The Promise is an insider’s look at President Barack Obama’s first year in office.

The Topic: Barack Obama ran a successful presidential campaign on the slogan "Change We Can Believe In." Weeks before his historic January 2009 inauguration, the president-elect began working to make that promise a reality--despite early and persistent opposition to some of his most difficult decisions. Beset during his first year in Washington by severe challenges, including a shattered economy, an escalating war, rising health care costs, and a deeply divided congress, he carried out the duties of the office with confidence and optimism, if also with a characteristic iciness. Yet he sometimes failed to adequately measure the national climate and to communicate effectively with the average citizen. Who is Barack Obama--really?
Simon & Schuster. 458 pages. $28. ISBN: 9781439101193

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Jonathan Alter delivers an engaging, blow-by-blow account of the infancy of the Obama presidency. ... This thoroughly researched, occasionally critical work humanizes a figure considered periodically out-of-touch even by some of his admirers." Carlo Wolff

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The Promise is the sort of solidly reported book that will provide readers with a full measure of instructive color to events that even those who closely follow the news think they know. ... For those attempting to get a fix on the character of a fascinating but strangely elusive chief executive, it’s essential reading." Tim Rutten

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"What’s clear from Newsweek editor Jonathan Alter’s exhaustively researched, nonpartisan and insightful account of Obama’s first year in office is that the president is no ideologue, but a pragmatist confident in his lawyer-like ability to analyze data, hear from all sides and make decisions that weigh benefits and costs. ... Of course, it’s still too early to judge Obama’s presidency, but Alter gives readers an outstanding overview of his epically challenging first year." Chuck Leddy

Providence Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"[Alter] has written a nuanced, detailed, even-handed, meticulous analysis of Obama’s first year in office, though he clearly is in awe of the man who rarely loses his cool, inhales information like air and produces logical and thorough arguments leading up to decisive action, who reveals no psychological demons despite his extraordinary past, no status anxieties, a self that’s intact and optimistic, radiates intelligence and concern, and is pursuing a program that is ‘centrist, pragmatic, and nonideological.’ ...Alter gets down into the trenches with the egos, the turf wars, the pettiness of Congress." Sam Coale

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"The Promise: President Obama, Year One is not a campaign rehash, but a well-informed chronicle, sometimes sober, often raucous. Other books will be written about Barack Obama’s time in the White House; this snapshot of 2009 will be a durable, well-thumbed guide." Martin F. Nolan

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Brimming with fresh and judicious ideas, [The Promise] fuses political analysis, subtle insights into the president’s mind and policy debates into a fast-paced, crisis-filled story. ... Alter’s deeply reported and analytically arresting book takes Obama’s story in subtler and more contradictory directions than it has gone before." Matthew Dallek

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"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. ... In the opening pages of this book Mr. Alter vacillates somewhat awkwardly between channeling Mr. Obama’s own perspective on his record-in-progress and standing back as a journalist and assessing his subject’s victories, missteps and incomplete passes." Michiko Kakutani

Christian Science Monitor 3 of 5 Stars
"The book takes a necessarily nearsighted perspective on events that only recently happened, like Obama’s decision to escalate in Afghanistan and to pursue health-care reform over the objections of his senior advisers. There are moments of synthesis--Alter concludes that, contrary to the campaign critique of Obama as all style and no substance, he has turned out to be an even better executive than he was a candidate--but on the whole the narrative sticks to facts and anecdotes, many of which will be familiar to anyone with an RSS feed stuffed full of political news." Kevin Hartnett

Critical Summary

Drawing on insider access and more than 200 interviews with key players, Washington veteran Jonathan Alter examines the nascent Obama presidency with a journalist’s eye for the telling detail and a historian’s perspective. Despite the transparency that the office of president demands (for the most part), Obama remains enigmatic--ebullient, confident, and optimistic; aloof, demanding, and maybe a bit out of touch. Alter, whose obvious admiration for Obama never impedes his journalistic instincts (he candidly discusses Obama’s missteps with Wall Street, for example), captures those contradictions well. Presidential chroniclers won’t have the advantage of hindsight for some time, but "when it comes ... to the first draft of history, The Promise is more polished--and far more thoughtful--than most" (Los Angeles Times).

Also Reviewed

The Bridge The Life and Rise of Barack Obama | David Remnick: Rather than focusing on Obama’s first year, the editor of the New Yorker looks at Obama’s whole life. 4 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2010