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President Obama has become a national Rorschach test. What you make of him largely depends on who you are. Republicans in Congress have been lockstep in opposition, viewing Obama's policies as fiscally irresponsible and socialistic. For the hard-right of the Republican Party (Tea Party types) whose standard-bearer is Sarah Palin, the president remains a cross between Joseph Stalin and Chairman Mao. Progressives inside Obama's own party have developed a growing narrative of disillusionment, portraying the president as the compromiser-in-chief who quixotically seeks bipartisanship while escalating the war in Afghanistan and cozying up to Wall Street bankers. So much has been projected upon Barack Obama that we hardly recognize the man behind the caricatures.
What's clear from Newsweek editor Jonathan Alter's exhaustively researched, nonpartisan and insightful account of Obama's first year in office is that the president is no ideologue, but a pragmatist confident in his lawyer-like ability to analyze data, hear from all sides and make decisions that weigh benefits and costs. Obama is neither bomb-throwing socialist nor crypto-conservative sellout. Alter argues, however, that such a detached and calculating leader can appear disconnected from the millions of struggling Americans confronting unemployment and home foreclosure. As Alter writes: "Obama failed to give voice to public anger" or convince the middle class that he was battling for them.
Alter criticizes Obama for sometimes missing this national mood. After describing the president's efforts to clean up the mess created by our financial system, Alter contends that Obama had been too accommodating with Wall Street: "He failed to attach more conditions to the bank bailouts, which cost him leverage he might have exercised to restructure the financial system" in order to prevent future collapses. Alter is also critical of Obama for continuing President George W. Bush's financial policies and retaining much of Bush's economic team.
Alter meticulously compares Obama's relatively "soft" approach toward bank bailouts with his "get-tough" policies on bailing out automakers. The government compelled automakers to accept higher fuel-efficiency standards and forced out failed management, among other conditions. Alter leaves open the question why Obama has still failed to restructure our broken financial system.
Much like the Obama administration itself, Alter lacks a single underlying theme. He jumps from an in-depth exploration of the health care bill, where Obama's herculean efforts at bipartisanship failed to win a single Republican vote in Congress, to the debate over military escalation in Afghanistan, to economic tensions with China. What's clear is that Obama inherited gargantuan problems and has approached fixing them with pragmatism. Of course, it's still too early to judge Obama's presidency, but Alter gives readers an outstanding overview of his epically challenging first year.
Chuck Leddy is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and reviews books regularly for the Boston Globe and B&N Review.