Chicago Tribune Interviews Jonathan Alter about Obama's first year — and the 2012 race

June 1st, 2011

Chicago Tribune

Author Alter talks about Obama’s first year — and the 2012 race
‘The same guy who rolled the dice on getting bin Laden … will roll the dice on other issues if he sees the opportunity.’

10:00 p.m. CDT, June 1, 2011
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Chicago native Jonathan Alter is author of the best-selling book “The Promise: President Obama, Year One,” and is working on a sequel due out in 2013. He writes a weekly column for Bloomberg View and spent 28 years at Newsweek. He will appear at the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Lit Fest at 10 a.m. Saturday, in conversation with the Tribune’s Rick Kogan.

He recently spoke with Tribune senior editor Kerry Luft about Obama’s tenure and the campaign ahead. An edited transcript follows.

Q In your view, what in Barack Obama’s first year in office got the least amount of attention, and deserves a lot more?

A The story that got the least attention would be how hard Obama and his people worked to prevent another Great Depression. At the time Obama took office in January of 2009, we were losing 750,000 jobs a month. If we stayed on that pace, by the end of 2009 we would have had another Great Depression. … So this was a scary time. And they didn’t do everything right, but they did enough right to prevent a depression, and I don’t think that’s been properly recognized.

Q Is part of the problem that in saying, “I prevented a depression,” you’re kind of proving a negative, that you prevented something from happening?

A It’s an abstraction. When I interviewed him, (Obama) described it as a “counterfactual,” which is a historian’s term for what could have happened but didn’t. It was in some ways easier for Franklin Roosevelt, because you get more credit for getting us out of a depression than you get for preventing us from falling into a depression. One is the reality, and the other is an abstraction.

Q Nor did we as daily reporters have a good grip on just how much Obama stared down the Pentagon over troop levels in Afghanistan.

A It had gotten very tense in mid to late 2009 between the president and the Pentagon, and at one point when I interviewed him, I asked him, “Mr. President, were you jammed by the Pentagon?” and his response was, “I will neither confirm nor deny that I was jammed by the Pentagon.” Which, in the news business, is a very honest statement. Most politicians would say, “Oh, of course, I wasn’t jammed by the pentagon.” And he was essentially saying, you’re right, I was.

And his people proceeded to tell me a previously untold story about how he fought back and tongue-lashed the senior military commanders and … basically put the Pentagon on notice that they had to stop trying to manipulate him. I think he found out that it was more confusing than that, and the chairman of the joint chiefs, Adm. (Mike) Mullen, who he later became pretty close to, convinced him that there was no intention there to test him or make his life miserable. But as you know, the bureaucratic knife-fighting in Washington can get very intense.

Q And as you rightly point out, Mullen and (Gen. David) Petraeus are two of the more adept military commanders at working the media.

A I think they thought that Mullen had green-lighted (Gen.) Stanley McChrystal to essentially be insubordinate, and it turned out that’s not really what happened. And later, of course, we found out that McChrystal was being indiscreet and insubordinate all on his own. (McChrystal was fired after he was quoted criticizing the administration in Rolling Stone magazine.) It wasn’t as much of a coordinated effort as it seemed to some people in the White House at the time.

Q Health care is another example where the president has struggled getting the message out. Why?

A I think the big surprise about Barack Obama was we expected him to be this silver-tongued orator, and to struggle in executive leadership because he had so little experience. It turned out he got a lot done but he struggled to communicate. Health care was the big example of that. As (Obama adviser) Valerie Jarrett put it, he never found the right vocabulary to sell that policy, and I think that was one of his great failures in his first year. He got so bound up in the sausage-making of Congress that he lost his connection to the American middle class and never really explained what was at stake.

… This is a big, important piece of legislation, and it was distorted by liberal critics who made it sound that because it doesn’t have a public option, it somehow wasn’t worth doing, which is preposterous. There’s a lot in it, and it’s historic. And no one can take that away from Obama except the Supreme Court, and we’ll see if they do.

Q Is this another one of those things that’s difficult to prove, because the people who will be most affected by it, we haven’t gotten to the point where they feel an impact?

A It’s another abstraction, it’s something that will happen. It’s going to take a while to phase in. There are some things that are going to be felt right away, like parents can keep kids under their health insurance until age 26, and that’s already effective. So that’s a big change for people who have kids in their 20s. But it’s going to take awhile before the whole thing is implemented.

Q There’s a feeling that the president may well be vulnerable because of the economy. What’s your sense of how the White House is viewing the upcoming campaign?

A I think they think it’s going to be potentially a very close campaign. Nobody knows where the economy’s going, and that’s what voters care about. So if the economy is seen as getting worse, the president’s in a world of hurt politically. If the economy is seen as getting better, and people can feel that looking ahead to 2013 it’s going to be a good year and things are looking up, then he’s likely to be re-elected.

Most Americans vote their pocketbooks or at least their economic expectations. They’re looking not for a particular level of unemployment, but for a trend line and a feeling about things. That doesn’t mean they’re going to demand a roaring recovery. They’re going for a sense of whether things are moving in the right direction, and the election will turn on whether they get that sense or not.

Q One of the things you delve into in the book is the bold choices Obama made, pushing for health care against Rahm (Emanuel’s) advice. He gets that through, the Democrats take a thumping in 2010 in the midterms, and it seems that now he’s tempered his policy ambitions somewhat. Do you think this has stabilized Obama politically, and is it coming at the expense of other promises he’s made?

A I think that most of the initiatives that he would be interested in pursuing would have to wait until the results of the 2012 election. … It’s very hard to do anything when everybody’s running and you have a minority leader (Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky) who says his highest priority is defeating you, and an entire chamber of the Congress, the House, which does everything it can to harass your people and make your life difficult.

Having said that, both sides have an incentive to do some long-term deficit reduction, and that’s one area where there actually might be some progress made between now and the election. With the exception of maybe some education legislation and some trade legislation, it’s going to be very tough to see how much gets done.

I think (Obama) stabilized some in late 2010 by tacking to the middle. He recognized that the independents who had been for him in 2008 went Republican in 2010, and if he’s going to win the election, he needs to get a certain percentage of those independents back. That, and the political reality of congressional control, explain why he has modified some of his ambitions. But if you actually look at the record and you look very specifically at what he promised in 2008, he has already fulfilled an astonishing percentage of those promises.

Q So you think he’s still the guy who would roll the dice?

A The same guy who rolled the dice on getting (Osama) bin Laden and pursuing health care over the objections of his advisers will roll the dice on other issues if he sees the opportunity. … He’s not going to turn into a brawler, and nobody should expect him to, that’s not who he is. But a few well-chosen fights might help him politically and would be the right thing to do.

Q How will Rahm Emanuel adjust to being a chief executive for the first time?

A I think so far Rahm is showing signs of being disciplined enough to make the transition to being an effective executive. The challenge for him is he has ingrained habits of tactical thinking. People who worked for him, even those who loved him, complained that he was too reactive to what was in that morning’s newspapers. … To be successful to the degree that he will be, he’s going to have to be a real strategic thinker and not just govern based on what was in that morning’s Chicago Tribune.