Customer Review

153 of 211 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Biased account, but with inside access, May 19, 2010
This review is from: The Promise: President Obama, Year One (Hardcover)
I am an independent who voted for Obama in 2008 and don't regret it (although I am somewhat disappointed in his first year). However, in writing books about politicians, the political scientist in me believes it is crucial to remain objective and try to separate the spin from the reality. For whatever reason, all too often the journalists with the best access in political circles also tend to be the most biased or least analytical. Unfortunately, Jonathan Alter's The Promise: President Obama, Year One is no exception. This book is, to put it kindly, very sympathetic toward the administration.

What do I mean by "sympathetic"? I don't certainly mind if an author admires his subject or favors his policy choices. However, Alter seems determined to find no fault with Obama and dismiss all of his failures as the fault of others. In the introduction, Alter seems to blame Obama's first-year woes on the president's overconfidence in the - get this - the American people. Too often, voters are portrayed as dumb, Republicans as devious, and Obama's policy choices as all brilliant, if misunderstood. However, let's be honest - there are many people who have honest concerns about Obama's policies. I myself agree with some (foreign policy), but not others (healthcare). Sometimes, I got the sense Alter simply repeated spin from the administration. This sort of bias in The Promise: President Obama, Year One is simply unacceptable in real a history.

This type of "journalistic history" book is really built around a few revealing anecdotes, without much substance or depth. Probably the biggest reveal is that Greg Craig was offered a judgeship in an attempt to get him to leave the White House quietly. Of course, if you live outside the Beltway, you probably don't know who Greg Craig even is. There are also some interesting comparisons between Obama and Bill Clinton by staffers who worked for both. However, frankly, you could probably read about the most interesting tidbits on Politico's or other political blogs. I wouldn't recommend buying the book unless you're a political junkie.

Overall, this is a 3-star book - with that third star added in recognition of Alter's hard work getting access and anecdotes. As a study of Obama's first year, it falls short.

A note on the audiobook: Jonathan Alter reads it himself, which is a nice touch.
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Tracked by 2 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 19 posts in this discussion
Initial post: May 20, 2010 6:02:22 AM PDT
CaryMan says:
Finally... An Honest review of how "it" is.

Posted on May 21, 2010 9:27:02 PM PDT
I am also an independent who voted for Obama, not too thrilled or disappointed with first year, and a political scientist (in training). I am only half way through the book but I wanted to check the reviews if anyone else felt that Alter was too quick to justify the faults of the President so I was glad to see this. I'd still give the book more stars but I think this is an absolutely honest review, which is refreshing to see.

Posted on May 30, 2010 6:26:40 PM PDT
R. Gerwin says:
This is a classic case of someone claiming "bias", not based on any facts or evidence, but merely because the author's opinions are not the same as hers. When only positive details are considered "bias", and negative details are the primary criterion for proof of "objectivity", I'd say you have a serious bias problem of your own. Alter was very consistent in outlining what he thought were Obama's victories, his failures, the strengths of his personality and management style and also the weaknesses. For a quick account of the "first year", it is a reasonably decent effort. Alter is not a historian, and this reads more like a long magazine article. However, it you read his other book on Franklin D Roosevelt, the style of writing is exactly the same. I guess that means Alter is "biased" in favor of Roosevelt as well.

Posted on May 30, 2010 7:54:39 PM PDT
I agree a great deal with your review. I also agree that one should be recognized for "hard work" but not with a star for what is not truly the work of a "journalist." One would achieve a grade point for such work, but it does not make it the work of a true journalist which is reserved for a completely different class. This book is a biased as any of the television programs which air propaganda daily.

In reply to an earlier post on May 30, 2010 7:58:23 PM PDT
Here, argue with the New York Times.... which book review I quote, "Alter's evident sympathy for Obama and his policies scarcely means that he functions as a credulous court stenographer." Evident sympathy plus biased feelings does not equal journalism.....biased book of propaganda for profit period.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 2, 2010 2:42:56 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 2, 2010 2:43:27 PM PDT
Richard says: "Here, argue with the New York Times.... which book review I quote, 'Alter's evident sympathy for Obama and his policies scarcely means that he functions as a credulous court stenographer.'"

Oh, Richard. You still believe that sentence says the book is biased, don't you?

You narrowly escape being sad by being comical.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 3, 2010 2:15:05 AM PDT
Enjolras says:
It sounds like you didn't read the same book I did. The only criticisms of Obama in this book are that he didn't crack down on corporate freeloaders in TARP fast enough and that he mishandled the firing of Greg Craig (the first is somewhat valid, the second I would even disagree and say Craig got what he deserved).

Two things that really disturbed me about Alter's were:

1) He never even seems to consider the possibility that some people might oppose healthcare reform on genuinely-motived policy grounds. This is important - it the whole HCR debate, and Obama's decision to place it first, suggests something about his style of management and prioritization. There have been other times where I felt he has prioritized some issues over others in a completely irrational way, even if I agree with his policy decisions (for example, despite what Alter says, he seems to be sacrificing the green agenda in favor of HCR and immigration).

2) Some of the quotes in Alter's book used to describe the Obama administration seem to come directly from interviews with officials. In other words, it seems Alter is repeating spin. Some of this is conjecture, but I was disturbed when I was listening to Alter's interview with Obama on the audiobook (not sure if it's included in the print version) in which Obama says his administration basically had a "flawless execution of foreign policy." Earlier in the book, Alter used that same term to describe Obama's foreign policy successes. Really? That's just unprofessional. Moreover, I don't think anybody could agree - to name just one example from my part of the world, Obama stiffed Indonesia at least three times by postponing his much-anticipated visit.

By the way, yes, it's entirely possible that Alter could be "biased" in favor of FDR, even though he's a historical figure. Bias means rejecting negative evidence because it conflicts with one's policy or personal preferences. That being said, I didn't think "100 Days" was quite as biased, although it certainly was sympathetic.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 8, 2010 7:45:16 PM PDT
Softbluejazz says:

But so true!

Posted on Jun 30, 2010 2:29:45 PM PDT
I wish that I had read this review before I purchased to book. The author seems determined to make an unkind remark about everyone who is no Obama - George W. Bush, naturally, Bill Clinton, repeatedly, less well known persons always.

Only Obama is intelligent, organized, well-read, efficient and an astute politician. The author describes his selection of Hillary Clinton as brillant, keeping her in his tent, not really believing that she could be bringing a skill set to the administration.

The book covers the first year of the Obama administration which was not enough time for the author to see the Obama character flaws which have now brought so much trouble to our country. The light from Obama was impairing his vision.

Posted on Jul 6, 2010 12:27:46 AM PDT
Mattelfesso says:
I'm not a political scientist, but nor was I expecting a cold, dispassionate political science treatise from this book. You simply need to read the introduction to get the idea that the author is sympathetic to Obama. Big deal. Do you think someone who despised him would have the patience and the moxy to follow his team around for a year and get close enough for such detailed pictures?

I suppose if you are a die hard Bush or Clinton fan you might find some personality portrayals annoying. However, I disagree with the statements that this book provides just a few anecdotes or that it is an unflaggingly flattering portrayal of Obama. What we makes this book interesting are the detailed portrait of both Obama and the people who surround him. It is also packed full of information about the behind the scenes machinations that went on both on the campaign trail and in his first years of office. The author obtained this information with first person interviews. So yes, you might call this 'spin', but whose spin is it? He paints an unflattering portrayal of many people inside the administration even when he admires their strengths. Obama himself is not spared and, among other flaws, is described by as being emotionally detached to all but his closest family.

This is by no means the final word, or the definitive political analysis of Obama's first year in office. But the author succeeds in what he has set out to do, which is to gain first person accounts of what was said and done while the events were still fresh in the minds of those involved.
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