With his years of experience covering the White House, Jonathan Alter understands intimately the shortcomings of the instant news cycle.
“You need to wait a few weeks or months before people will talk,” he told the full house at the RAND Corporation.
Alter, author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One, revealed what he learned writing the “second draft” of history: the inside story on Obama’s successes, failures, and his even and sometimes alienating temperament.
Healthcare, not school uniforms
The biggest surprise for Alter as he wrote The Promise was discovering that Obama essentially pushed healthcare legislation alone. Vice President Joe Biden believed Americans would give Obama a pass if he didn’t tackle it in his first year. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel told Alter he “begged the president not to do this,” and later suggested Obama only insure 10 million instead of 31 million people. Senior adviser David Axelrod thought Obama should tackle energy first which, Alter noted, “given the news, maybe he should have.” Council of Economic Advisers chair Christina Romer reminded Obama that Franklin Roosevelt waited two years before pushing social security.
When Alter asked Obama why he pursued healthcare, Obama said, “if we didn’t do it now, it wouldn’t have happened.” Obama knew he would lose a good chunk of public support, and some seats in Congress, as the party in the White House almost always does in midterm elections. But even when Democrat Martha Coakley lost the race for Edward Kennedy’s Senate seat to Scott Brown – which, Alter said, Obama knew would happen as soon as Coakley dared insult the “shrine” that is Fenway Park – Obama pushed for healthcare. As Obama said to Alter, in a hidden jab at Hillary Clinton, “I wasn’t sent here to do school uniforms.”
The healthcare bill ended up being the largest piece of social legislation in 45 years, and Alter pushed aside liberal concerns that it didn’t do enough. He compared comparing them to when liberals criticized social security as insuring too few seniors. “Roosevelt, like Obama, figured you gotta start somewhere,” Alter said.
Good cop, bad cop on Afghanistan
Obama has also been criticized by the left for his foreign policy in Afghanistan. Alter praised Obama’s measured and deliberate approach to crafting that policy – including 20 hours of meetings last fall, the longest deliberation since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Obama and Biden, he said, played “good cop bad cop,” and Hillary Clinton was on the side of the Pentagon, despite having a “generally good relationship with Obama.” She argued for a longer, open-ended counterinsurgency commitment. There was also a behind-the-scenes drama among top-level generals and the administration. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, for one, said he wouldn’t support the Obama-Biden plan – an instance of insubordination. While Alter admitted to having doubts about Obama’s ultimate decision – a “quick in, quick out” – he preferred his process to a nonexistent one: “In Vietnam and Iraq, they never surfaced the assumptions and key issues for debate. They slipped into war inch by inch by inch.”
And while healthcare and war have had much of the spotlight, Alter said that “Obama’s stimulus is the least appreciated piece of legislation in recent history.” He noted that the law includes the biggest infrastructure, education, and energy bills in decades. It also included the biggest tax cut package since Reagan, an item Obama offered to Republicans in the front end of negations – “bad poker,” Alter said.
Obama also could have done more to leverage his power over banks in early 2009, Alter acknowledged. He rightly resisted the recommendations of some on the left to nationalize banks, preventing bank runs and saving trillions of dollars. “The liberals who wanted nationalization, they got slam-dunked by history,” Alter said in Q&A. And some of Obama’s economic achievements have gone underappreciated, Alter said. “The auto bailouts went much better than anybody had any reason to accept,” and Obama put 250,000 Americans to work in 2009, much like Roosevelt did in 1933. He also “stopped the bleeding” of job loss.
While all eyes are on Obama’s energy policy during the Gulf oil spill, Alter pointed to a little-known success. In Copenhagen, Alter said, Obama crashed a meeting of the leaders of developing nations India, China, Brazil and South Africa in an attempt to make public each country’s carbon emissions. As the Chinese environmental minister tried to shove Obama out, the president ignored him. And when the minister talked in Chinese to the Chinese premier – telling the interpreter only to translate “for internal use only” – Obama ignored him and said, “I’ll take that to mean we have an agreement.”
“China had to live with it,” Alter said.
But Obama hasn’t handled the public part of the BP spill as well as he could have, Alter said. While the administration paid close attention to the crisis early on, Obama didn’t demonstrate that to the public. “He was on the defense for six weeks – a terrible place for him to be politically.” His Oval Office speech did start to take the offensive, Alter said, finally making clear that BP would be paying for everything, and taking Lousiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s recommendation to build barrier islands.
Needing to be needy?
Analyzing the president’s successes and failures requires studying his unusually calm demeanor As Alter put it, Obama has a great private temperament – “he gets calmer when the situation gets worse.” He’s more authentic and psychologically healthy than most people, and especially more than politicians, Alter said. His decision-making isn’t based on emotion, something that served him well during the 2008 race with John McCain. He makes decisions quickly, unlike Bill Clinton, whom Alter said was sometimes called the “second-guesser-in-chief.” That said, as Alter noted in Q&A, “he has a weakness for experts….he needs to cut through the experts faster.”
Obama’s public temperament, Alter said, remains “a puzzle.” While Obama has said that the presidency is not a theater, Alter countered, “It’s always been a theater, it always will be a theater, and he hasn’t found the right key to connect to the American middle class.” Obama has a disdain for the sound bite, but as Alter noted, all the great presidential speeches have had sound bites. Without them, Alter said, “his speeches kind of become elegant fast food – they sound great but they wear off pretty quickly.” Alter added that Obama sometimes seems openly frustrated by the “stupidity” of the media. “He was just disgusted by the lack of seriousness,” Alter said. “That disgust isn’t going to take him anywhere. He needs to adjust to it and make sure that irritation doesn’t show through.”
And his cool temperament can be a hindrance even when he’s not in the public eye. As Alter explained, when other presidents, notably Bill Clinton, screamed at an employee, they followed with forgiveness. Alter noted when it happened to him – after he asked Clinton whether he was seeking “counseling for the Monica Lewinsky problem.” Clinton eventually calmed and later granted Alter his first post-presidency interview. “With Obama, he’s not yelling at you, but he’s not giving you that warm embrace,” Alter said. “You’re not always sure where you stand with him.”
It might have something to do with the fact that Obama is “not needy himself. He doesn’t quite understand that congressmen are really needy and the American public is really needy.”
As Later said, he has no crystal ball for predicting the future of Obama’s administration. “The economy, Afghanistan, and the BP spill will determine his political fate going forward,” Alter said. And while the left has criticized him for what they see as shortcomings, Alter said many of Obama’s compromises are because “he doesn’t want to leave empty handed. It’s so hard for liberals to understand that he’s not into gestures. He’s not into making you feel good that he took the right position on something.”
He added, “There are a hundred ways for Obama to fail, but he’s a gifted individual and a more successful president than many acknowledge.”
Watch the video here.
Watch a highlight clip here.
See more photos here.
Read Jonathan Alter’s In The Green Room Q&A here.
Buy the book here.
Read an excerpt here.
*Photos by Aaron Salcido.