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The Promise: President Obama, Year One

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Barack Obama’s inauguration as president on January 20, 2009, inspired the world. But the great promise of “Change We Can Believe In” was immediately tested by the threat of another Great Depression, a worsening war in Afghanistan, and an entrenched and deeply partisan system of business as usual in Washington. Despite all the coverage, the backstory of Obama’s historic first year in office has until now remained a mystery.

In The Promise: President Obama, Year One, Jonathan ...

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Overview

Barack Obama’s inauguration as president on January 20, 2009, inspired the world. But the great promise of “Change We Can Believe In” was immediately tested by the threat of another Great Depression, a worsening war in Afghanistan, and an entrenched and deeply partisan system of business as usual in Washington. Despite all the coverage, the backstory of Obama’s historic first year in office has until now remained a mystery.

In The Promise: President Obama, Year One, Jonathan Alter, one of the country’s most respected journalists and historians, uses his unique access to the White House to produce the first inside look at Obama’s difficult debut.

What happened in 2009 inside the Oval Office? What worked and what failed? What is the president really like on the job and off-hours, using what his best friend called “a Rubik’s Cube in his brain?" These questions are answered here for the first time. We see how a surprisingly cunning Obama took effective charge in Washington several weeks before his election, made trillion-dollar decisions on the stimulus and budget before he was inaugurated, engineered colossally unpopular bailouts of the banking and auto sectors, and escalated a treacherous war not long after settling into office.

The Promise is a fast-paced and incisive narrative of a young risk-taking president carving his own path amid sky-high expectations and surging joblessness. Alter reveals that it was Obama alone—“feeling lucky”—who insisted on pushing major health care reform over the objections of his vice president and top advisors, including his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, who admitted that “I begged him not to do this.”

Alter takes the reader inside the room as Obama prevents a fistfight involving a congressman, coldly reprimands the military brass for insubordination, crashes the key meeting at the Copenhagen Climate Change conference, and bounces back after a disastrous Massachusetts election to redeem a promise that had eluded presidents since FDR.

In Alter’s telling, the real Obama is an authentic, demanding, unsentimental, and sometimes overconfident leader. He adapted to the presidency with ease and put more “points on the board” than he is given credit for, but neglected to use his leverage over the banks and failed to connect well with an angry public. We see the famously calm president cursing leaks, playfully trash-talking his advisors, and joking about even the most taboo subjects, still intent on redeeming more of his promise as the problems mount.

This brilliant blend of journalism and history offers the freshest reporting and most acute perspective on the biggest story of our time. It will shape impressions of the Obama presidency and of the man himself for years to come.

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Editorial Reviews

Jacob Heilbrunn
The Promise offers an excellent opportunity to appraise Obama's initial efforts. Drawing on interviews with over 200 people, including the president and his top aides, Alter examines everything from the economic bailouts to the military surge in Afghanistan. Throughout, he seeks to avoid what he refers to as the "polemics of punditry." This endows his narrative with a lapidary tone that is mercifully free of the breathless sensationalism of recent campaign books…
—The New York Times Book Review
Michiko Kakutani
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…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…and Richard Reeves's 1993 book, President Kennedy: Profile of Power
—The New York Times
Matthew Dallek
Jonathan Alter has delivered an exceptionally well-written account of President Obama's first year in office. Brimming with fresh and judicious ideas, his book fuses political analysis, subtle insights into the president's mind and policy debates into a fast-paced, crisis-filled story. The Promise, based on more than 200 interviews with Obama and his close friends and aides, provides an uncommonly candid look inside a somewhat walled-off White House.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Alter's sharply observed narrative follows Obama and his dedicated staff through a difficult, turbulent, and mostly successful first year in office. He reads his book in pedestrian fashion, adding little in the way of color or emphasis. Still, Alter takes us through the material ably enough, and the recording's interest is boosted significantly by an interview appended to the end of the book with President Obama from late 2009. The president is calm and assured in making a case for his first year in office, but it is particularly illuminating to hear Alter subtly prod Obama into considering his successes--and his missteps. A Simon & Schuster hardcover. (May)
From the Publisher
Praise for The Promise


“Gives us a new perspective on the 44th president by providing a detailed look at his decision-making . . . and a keen sense of what it’s like to work in his White House. . . . Alter uses his considerable access to the president and his aides to give us an informed look at No. 44’s management style.”

—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“Jonathan Alter has delivered an exceptionally well-written account of President Obama's first year in office. Brimming with fresh and judicious ideas, his book fuses political analysis, subtle insights into the president's mind and policy debates into a fast-paced, crisis-filled story. "The Promise," based on more than 200 interviews with Obama and his close friends and aides, provides an uncommonly candid look inside a somewhat walled-off White House. . . . Alter's deeply reported and analytically arresting book takes Obama's story in subtler and more contradictory directions than it has gone before.”

—Matthew Dallek, The Washington Post Book World

“Jonathan Alter is the new Theodore H. White. . . .The first 12 months of an American presidency as nonfiction melodrama. The Promise is not a campaign rehash, but a well-informed chronicle, sometimes sober, often raucous. Other books will be written about Barak Obama’s time in the White House; this snapshot fo 2009 will be a durable, well-thumbed guide.”

—Martin F. Nolan, San Francisco Chronicle

“A deeply reported, soberly appraised account of the president’s tumultuous first months in office. . . . The book is rich in the kinds of insider detail that make for an entertaining, as well as informative, reading experience. . . . When it comes to what we’ve all come to call the first draft of history, The Promise is more polished, and far more thoughtful, than most. For those attempting to get a fix on a fascinating but strangely elusive chief executive, it’s essential reading.”

—Tim Rutten, Los Angeles Times

“The Promise offers an excellent opportunity to appraise Obama’s initial efforts. Drawing on interviews with over 200 people, including the president and his top aides, Alter examines everything from the economic bailouts to the military surge in Afghanistan.”

—Jacob Heilbrunn, The New York Times Book Review

“An engaging, blow-by-blow account of the infancy of the Obama presidency. . . . Manna for political junkies. . . . Thoroughly researched . . . humanizes a figure considered periodically out-of-touch even by some of his admirers.”

—Carlo Wolff, The Boston Globe

“Jonathan Alter is a diligent political reporter with more sources than the Mississippi. . . . A calm, solid narrative of the people and events of the first Obama year. . . . The book offers a cascade of detail to please any follower of politics.” (This review also compares Alter to the great Walter Lippmann)

—Zay N. Smith, Chicago Sun- Times

“An impressively reported, myth-debunking and timely combination of journalism and history.”

—Harry Hurt III, The New York Times (“Off the Shelf” Sunday column)

Library Journal
Newsweek columnist/biographer Alter (The Defining Moment) drew on some extraordinary access to White House personnel to create this exhaustive biography seeking to present a physical, psychological, and spiritual definition of a man who is difficult to define. Aside from some spiteful digs at John McCain and Bill Clinton, he focuses on our current President as he tackles two wars, an imploding economy, wary foreign powers, crippling unemployment, congressional recalcitrance, the quicksand of health care, and two daughters who remind him of his promise to buy them a dog. Alter himself reads, in a steady, unemotional voice not belying his enthusiasm for his subject. An exemplary work of "instant history" certain to become one of the primary reference books on our President. [Includes a bonus interview with Obama; the New York Times best-selling S. & S. hc was recommended "to serious readers of current affairs and as a complement to [David] Remnick's [The Bridge]," LJ 6/1/10.—Ed.]—Joseph L. Carlson, Vandenberg Air Force Base Lib., Lompoc, CA
Kirkus Reviews
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. Agent: Amanda Urban/ICM
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781442334458
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio
  • Publication date: 5/18/2010
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged, 10 CDs, 11 hrs.
  • Product dimensions: 6.52 (w) x 5.16 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Jonathan Alter

Jonathan Alter is an analyst and contributing correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC. He is a former senior editor and columnist for Newsweek, where he worked for twenty-eight years, writing more than fifty cover stories. He has also written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, The New Republic, and other publications. He is the author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One and The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, both New York Times bestsellers, and Between the Lines, a collection of his Newsweek columns.

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Table of Contents

Author's Note ix

Preface xv

Prologue 1

1 Obama Takes Charge 3

2 White House-in-Waiting 15

3 Grant Park 34

4 The Cabinet Maker 45

5 Picking Hillary 67

6 Instant President 77

7 Historic Inauguration 100

8 Sea Legs 110

9 Zen Temperament 138

10 Rahmbo 159

11 The Shovel Brigade 173

12 Larry and Tim 189

13 The Un-Bubba 209

14 Global Reset 224

15 Tyrannosaurus Rx 244

16 Professor-in-Chief 267

17 Off-hours 291

18 The Skinny Guy and the Fat Cats 309

19 Modus Obama 325

20 "Don't Blow It!" 347

21 Chaos-istan 363

22 The Perfect and the Good 395

23 Achievements 422

Epilogue: 2010 435

Acknowledgments 452

Note on Sources 455

Notes 457

Index 463

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