More than a year into Barack Obama’s presidency, many people still seem unsure what to make of him.
For most Americans, their first exposure to Obama was on the 2008 campaign trail, where he became known for the soaring rhetoric and oratory flourishes that inspired a nation to believe, yes, we can.
Obama came across as intelligent, bold and decisive, and he exuded a confidence that suggested he was always in control.
Surely someone of Obama’s temperament would get things done as president, especially with Democratic majorities in Congress.
But now, his term more than one-fourth over, the nation’s general perception seems to have shifted.
What happened to all the grand speeches? Why has he struggled to overcome defiance from Republicans who are in the minority in Congress? And why, with the Gulf of Mexico oil spill more than two months old, has he still not stepped up with a bold plan and convincing reassurances?
Jonathan Alter provides thoughtful insight in "The Promise: President Obama, Year One" (Simon & Schuster, $28), an in-depth account with plenty of details — sometimes too many.
In summarizing Obama’s first year, the Newsweek columnist interviewed more than 200 people, including Obama and high-ranking White House officials. He also studied public meeting minutes and spoke with unnamed sources from internal meetings.
What emerges is a view of Obama that’s thorough and insightful but ultimately enigmatic.
Alter begins by recounting the late stages of the campaign, then tracks Obama through the inauguration and his early meetings regarding the banking crisis. Alter reveals an Obama who is as focused and confident as his early reputation suggested.
Then we see how Obama continues to focus on the substance of his new job — but to the exclusion of the equally important style points that help define a presidency.
For example, he rejects artificial photo opportunities and intentionally avoids speaking in sound bites. His attitude seems to be, if I just do my job competently, people will notice and appreciate it.
That didn’t always work. Obama and his staff frequently grew frustrated when the administration didn’t seem to get full credit for its accomplishments.
Alter’s view of Obama seems consistent with the Obama we’ve seen dealing with the oil spill in the Gulf.
People have criticized the president for not showing more anger at BP, and for talking about the mundane business of creating commissions and tightening regulations rather than connecting with the country at the same emotional level he achieved during the campaign.
"The Promise" was written before the Gulf of Mexico crisis but it may help readers understand why Obama is reacting the way he is.
The book also sheds light on a number of other aspects of Obama’s personality that people will recognize. But after enough chapters, it’s hard to put all the aspects together, especially the seemingly contradictory ones.
In some chapters we see Obama as someone who takes his time to be thoughtful and reasoning, while in others he demands immediate action.
Sometimes he’s concerned with the way the public will view a certain act, such as a specific Cabinet nomination, and in others he disdains perception in favor of tangible results.
And he often shows what Alter calls a "Zen temperament," yet behind closed doors he can also be demanding and impatient.
Reconciling these aspects can feel like the exercise of the fabled seven blind men who each felt a different part of an elephant and conjured up different images of how the entire animal looks.
"The Promise" is by no means a quick read. There are dense details and scores of names that may be hard to keep in mind. In that sense, the book will likely appeal more to political junkies than to casual readers.
But there’s also enough here to give all Americans a better understanding of the enigmatic man in the White House. Readers may not come away with a clearer idea of Obama, but it will be easier for them to make sense of the Obama they see on TV.