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Penetrating the process of Obama’s decisions

Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter’s book “The Promise” gives 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.
Image: President Barack Obama talks with Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel
A new book offers a keen sense of what it’s like to work in his White House, day by day.The White House / Getty Images File
/ Source: The New York Times

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 the Newsweek columnist 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” (a book that Mr. Obama reportedly read before taking office), and Richard Reeves’s 1993 book, “President Kennedy: Profile of Power,” though obviously without the kind of retrospective wisdom possible decades after the completion of those presidents’ tenures.

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. But Mr. Alter soon finds his voice, using his considerable access to the president and his aides to give us an informed look at No. 44’s management style — his methodical approach to policy making, which favors “logic chains” and “decision trees,” and which stands in nearly direct opposition to George W. Bush’s gut calls and distaste for process.

While reminding the reader that the Obama administration inherited a dire financial crisis and two wars from its predecessor, Mr. Alter gives this White House a mixed grade so far on achieving its policy goals, working with a highly politicized Congress and communicating with the public. Along the way he seasons his narrative with some insidery, “Game Change”-like asides.

He tells us, for instance, that Mr. Obama believed “he knew how to deal” with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who “reminded him of Chicago pols who would cut deals” and play to their base. In another chapter he tells us that the success of the White House counsel’s office in convincing the president to use his BlackBerry only to communicate with 25 to 30 people deprived him of e-mail back channels to hundreds of friends and associates who had offered him valuable advice and feedback during the campaign.

As for Mr. Obama’s cabinet members, Mr. Alter contends that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was initially “too deferential to the president in meetings, just shy of obsequious”; that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, called “Yoda” by some White House staffers, was “almost certainly the most influential member of the cabinet”; and that Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner bonded with the president because “they had the same ‘no drama’ style.”

The overall portrait of Mr. Obama that emerges from these pages is one that will be familiar to readers of earlier books like Richard Wolffe’s “Renegade,” and “The Audacity to Win” by the former campaign manager David Plouffe, but new anecdotes and details add chiaroscuro to the picture. Cool, calm and collected, the president is described as a sort of cerebral Zen master: unflappable, “psychologically healthy” and something of a control freak who is reluctant to delegate (“one of his agency heads said that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being obsessive control, the president was an 8 or 9”).

Brains, talent and luck, Mr. Alter observes, had led to easy success (in becoming editor of The Harvard Law Review and later winning a Senate seat and the presidency with remarkable speed), and that success fueled Mr. Obama’s confidence: confidence, in Mr. Alter’s telling, that can occasionally tip over into “presumptuous certainty about his own views.” According to Mr. Alter the one “pet peeve” that could make the president lose his famous cool “was a common source of anger for presidents: leaks,” which offended his “sense of discipline.”

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.

This detachment could also make him a withholding boss who dispensed few thanks or apologies. “His reputation for staying calm made even the mildest verbal slight or passing glance sting all the more,” Mr. Alter writes. He adds that aides “often knew Obama was satisfied only when he said ‘What’s next?’ ” and that some “came to fear Obama’s dropped smile, his way of beaming broadly and insincerely before reverting instantly to a frown and a penetrating glare.”

Mr. Alter emphasizes that Mr. Obama was “virtually the only one in his inner circle” who wanted to go for a big health care program in his first year; many staff members, he says, worried that such “a big reform package would overload the circuits” and argued that he should focus on the economy or energy instead. Mr. Alter adds that health care was not high on Mr. Obama’s initial to-do list either: an internal memo from his Senate office, he points out, “showed that as recently as 2006 he had listed his policy priorities in the Senate as energy, education and nonproliferation; there was no mention of health care.”

Why did Mr. Obama’s thinking change? As Mr. Alter recounts it, Mr. Obama told his aides that “in a quiet moment on Election Night he had asked himself, ‘What’s the single achievement that would most help average Americans?’ ” and that his answer “was health care reform, though he hadn’t emphasized it during the campaign.” As president, Mr. Alter goes on, Mr. Obama pressed on “because for greatness he needed health care” and “because he was genuinely convinced that the status quo was financially unsustainable” given rising health care costs.

On Afghanistan, Mr. Alter writes, the president came “into office knowing little about the situation on the ground” there and “received advice from Bush holdovers that he wasn’t prepared to resist.” As a result, “he stumbled into a large commitment without fully realizing what he was getting into,” and “when he saw what had happened, he slowed everything down in August and September and launched the most detailed presidential review of a national security decision since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.”

Although the Pentagon tried to take advantage of the new president’s inexperience in running a huge bureaucracy and box him into supporting Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s recommendations, Mr. Alter says, the president summoned Mr. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to the Oval Office in early October, telling them that leaks and positioning in advance of a decision were “disrespectful of the process.” In what Mr. Alter describes as “a cold fury” and as “the most direct assertion of presidential authority over the U.S. military since President Truman fired General MacArthur in 1951,” Mr. Obama demanded to know “here and now” if the Pentagon would be on board with any presidential decision and could faithfully implement it.

In this volume Mr. Alter is toughest on what he sees as the narrow approach of the White House’s economic team in dealing with Wall Street. He says that, as one former Treasury official observed, the president’s economics team, headed by Mr. Geithner and Lawrence H. Summers, “ran the gamut from A to C,” , and that more progressive voices who had advised the campaign, like Robert Reich and Joseph Stiglitz, were increasingly marginalized.

If Mr. Obama had listened to his adviser David Axelrod, who early on argued in favor of attaching strings to bank bailouts (and not heeded Mr. Geithner and Mr. Summers who opposed such conditions), Mr. Alter writes, “he might have pre-empted a brewing populist revolt and shown toughness that could make him more formidable in later tussles.” Instead, Mr. Alter observes, the administration missed a big opportunity to exert leverage over Wall Street.

Around Thanksgiving, when frustrations were piling up, Mr. Alter reports, the president said to an old friend, “Who would really want this job for more than one term?” Then added: “But I have to run now, otherwise it’ll mean letting someone like Mitt Romney step in and get credit for the good stuff that happens after we’ve been through all this crap.”

This story, "," first appeared in The New York Times.