NYR iOS app Android app More

'The Promise': Jonathan Alter's Look At Obama's First Year Impresses Critics, Though The Story Is Left Unfinished

The Huffington Post   First Posted: 05/20/10 05:34 PM ET Updated: 05/25/11 05:30 PM ET

The Promise

Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter's retrospective on Barack Obama's first year in office titled "The Promise," came out this Tuesday, May 18, and is already receiving acclaim across the board as essential reading on our "fascinating but strangely elusive chief executive," as the Los Angeles Times calls the 44th president.

It's no surprise that a journalist like Alter, who has, as the LA Times points out, known Barack Obama for years and is largely sympathetic towards him, would have the first crack at a detailed look into the President's world. "Instant histories of presidential administrations based on privileged access to White House insiders have become so de rigueur that vetting the appropriate journalist/historian really ought to be part of every new chief executive's transition process," LA Times reviewer Tim Rutten remarks.

Though Alter's look into Obama's presidency is "largely admiring," as the Boston Globe puts it, no reviews of the book so far find Alter to be too forgiving. "While it praises the president as a commanding leader," says the Washington Post, "'The Promise' isn't a paean to Obama or a blinkered brief on behalf of his administration."

One thing that the book does well, all agree, is to cast some light on Obama's character when he's away from the public eye. From the New York Times:

Mr. Obama's "winning smile," Mr. Alter writes, "obscured a layer of self-protective ice, a useful combination in a chief executive." But his detachment also made him vulnerable to charges that "he lacked the human touch," did not connect with voters or feel their pain, the way, say, Bill Clinton could.

Among the incidents that the book accounts, those where Obama shows uncharacteristic anger have garnered some of the most attention. As the San Francisco Chronicle puts it, "Obama freaks over leaks." He raged at Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Joint Chief chairman Michael Mullen for Pentagon leaks, saying that he was "exceedingly unhappy" with their conduct. Alter also details Obama's fury towards big bank executives for the bonuses that they received after the government bailouts. The San Francisco Chronicle describes these juicy moments as "staff squabbles" which "fascinate those who miss television's 'The West Wing.'"

One flaw that many of the book's reviews point out is its "unfinished tenor," as the Washington Post puts it. This seems somewhat unavoidable -- Alter notes that he struggled to keep the book as up-to-date as possible, especially in his section on the health care debate. In an interview with Politico, Alter admitted, "If health care had wrapped up a week later... it wouldn't have been in the book and I would have been completely screwed." The Chicago Sun-Times notes that "Alter's book is history in a hurry, as he freely admits, but is a good first step for putting events in order and figuring things out."

"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," says the San Francisco Chronicle.

FOLLOW HUFFPOST BOOKS