Newsweek senior editor Alter (The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, 2006, etc.) turns in a freshman-year report card for the sitting president, with mixed but generally good grades.
Obama is acing civics, to be sure, but he’s having difficulty with some of the schoolyard bullies. A case in point, and one that occupies much of the author’s account, is the battle for health-care reform. The book closes before the recent congressional squeaker passing bills in the House and Senate, but the lesson remains the same. The president took terrific pains to involve the Republicans in the enterprise, and the Republicans responded by kicking sand in his face. At countless points during its life, health-care reform seemed dead in the water, but it was helped at the last moment by an incredibly callous move on the part of a California Blue Cross enterprise, which “announced a 39 percent rate hike in the middle of the debate.” Re-energized, Obama spent much of March 2010 mustering his forces and applying pressure so he could get the reform package passed—putting his presidency, Alter notes, as well as the future of the Democratic Party, in jeopardy. Looking into the president’s past, the author portrays Obama as a fighter who sometimes gives the impression that he would rather be doing something else, a peacemaker who isn’t afraid to pressure friends and enemies alike to achieve the larger good, but also as a man who thinks things through well in advance. One of the newsworthy moments comes early in the narrative, with Obama recruiting Hillary Clinton for his Cabinet even as the primaries were still in heated contention. Alter is admiring but not uncritical, rejecting the too-much/too-soon view of some commentators while noting a few missteps.
Politics junkies will find this rewarding, particularly in Alter’s account of the inner workings of the White House and Capitol Hill.