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For the Disappointed, the Deluded and the Disillusioned, the Promise Sets the Record Straight

August 24, 2010 | Comments: 0 | Views: 127

Alter's book may be about the first year of Obama's presidency, but it feels like it covers decades of American history. There's a great moment in Oliver Stone's film Nixon in which the protagonist concludes a conference held during 1963 in which allies call for him to run for president in 68 by rejecting their offer, saying "in politics five years is an eternity." All too true. This was before the JFK assassination, Vietnam, the climax of the civil rights movement, etc.

It's astonishing how many issues come up in The Promise: Health care, Afghanistan, the war on terror, the auto bailouts, the stimulus, education, Republican obstructionism, research and development in science and medicine... Following politics during the Obama era can be challenging and disorienting because there is so much to keep up with. But Alter does a fine job at guiding the reader through everything with precision. His decision to employ the voice of an historian, as opposed to that of a contemporary journalist, by talking in the past tense, lends the narrative an air of neutrality and authority; his research enables him to provide at once an inside perspective gleaned from interviews with Obama and his aides and an external viewpoint culled from the media and public opinion; and his prose are crisp and clear-The Promise is not quite a page turner, but it can be a quick read.

Most important, the author puts many things in perspective by fully delineating Obama's legislative accomplishments, how and why they are poorly understood by the public, and the president's decision-making process.

Here are some of the highlights: the Stimulus Package consisted of "five landmark pieces of legislation in one," featuring "the biggest tax cuts for the middle class since Reagan, the biggest infrastructure bill since the Interstate Highway Act in the 1950's, the biggest education bill since Lyndon Johnson's first federal aid to education," and "the biggest scientific and medical research investment in forty years" (131). Alter explains that the "Race to the Top" education program allocates billions of dollars to be awarded only to states that illustrate improvement in student/teacher performance.

Nevertheless, most Americans felt little impact (and amazingly continue to confuse the stimulus with the bailouts) because the benefits, such as "energy tax credits, scientific research, and averted teacher layoffs were largely invisible" (128). In other words, although according to most economists the stimulus staved off a depression and put in place a plethora of programs that will benefit the country in time, the average American saw few tangible effects of the effort in his daily life.

As for health care reform, the author calls attention to the administration's lesser known decision to incentivize health care providers to switch from the fee-for-service model to a salary-based one for doctors. Most of the top hospitals employ this method, and it will save billions. This along with Medicare cuts and prioritizing preventive care will significantly reduce the financial burden of health care according to a CBO analysis. Alter provides a nice summary of the reform, which, among other things, will insure 31 out of the remaining 47 million uninsured Americans by providing subsidies for them to join a new exchange market and guarantee coverage for those with pre-existing conditions.

Alter explains that Obama knew his push for reform would damage his approval ratings, and most of his aides begged him to back off. But he persisted, driven by the belief that health care costs would render the national debt unmanageable in a matter of years. Although he could not include everything he wanted in the legislation, Obama took solace in considering how FDR's social security program was at first feeble but strengthened with each ensuing decade. Not surprisingly, health care reform was unpopular because the real benefits got lost in the national discussion, which revolved around angry disinformation on the right about death panels and lamentation on the left about the lack of a public option. The latter was more surprising and confusing, however, because, as Alter points out, "the phrase 'public option' wasn't used a single time in a single campaign speech... but now it became a rallying cry for the liberal base" (259). As with the stimulus, health care reform fell prey to imaginary problems and awful PR.

Perhaps most fascinating and worth reading, however, is the discussion of Obama's decision-making process. He deliberates with acute care and caution, but, contrary to his detractors' claims, once he makes up his mind, he does so decisively. To quote Alter, Obama's "approach in meetings resembled that of a judge in a courtroom. The president, advisors said, was often like a swing-vote Supreme Court justice peppering lawyers with questions during oral arguments without revealing which side of the case he would come down on" (219). However, once a decision had been made, Obama's attitude was, "it's settled and I don't want to see it on my desk again" (221).

In addition, Alter describes how every day Obama receives a "purple folder" containing ten letters (selected from a pool of forty thousand) written by ordinary Americans. The letters provide the president with a "lifeline to the world outside the bubble" (213) of Washington and enable him to connect with the people by perusing accounts of their problems, such as health care induced bankruptcy or general injustices. He composes two or three personal handwritten notes in reply each day.

Above all, The Promise did much to restore my faith and confidence in Obama. We all know how rocky and confounding his fist year in office was. And for an administration which most people can agree experienced serious communication deficiencies, Alter's book does an excellent job at providing the White House's perspective, all the while offering fair criticism. For example, Alter dismisses Obama's temporary boycott of Fox News, claiming that it was counterproductive and created the charge that if the president is willing to negotiate with enemies abroad, such as Iran, it's hypocritical of him to refuse to talk to enemies at home.

The book also satisfactorily details the thinking behind many of Obama's controversial strategies: In Iran Obama remained quiet during the Green Revolution last summer lest he revive an excuse for the regime to blame America for the uproar and brand it a conspiracy with any credibility; next, the president deems the Israeli-Arab peace process essential for the former, whose current predicament is unsustainable in the long run, and he has been more irate at the latter (ironically), who have acted as if they could just sit back and wait till the White House dismantles all the settlements; in Afghanistan, he ordered a pay increase for the Afghan army to recruit soldiers that would have previously been enticed by the Taliban's generous salaries, and he set a deadline for troop withdrawal to signal that the Afghans should feel a sense of urgency at training soldiers and securing the country rather than become too reliant on American forces; last, he failed to create a smart grid with his stimulus package not because of a lack of effort or desire, but because the bureaucratic hurdles were insurmountable, forcing the president to focus on smaller projects to reshape our energy system.

In sum, The Promise offers a thorough account of a tumultuous first year for a highly capable, intellectually impressive, surprisingly tough and persistent president struggling with the most demanding of all jobs and a severely damaged political system.

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Source: EzineArticles
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