Reading and re-reading Obama

Steven RattnerJonathan AlterEarlier this week, President Barack Obama delivered a farewell address from the same stage where he celebrated his election victory in 2008. As the world reflects on the Obama presidency, Beyond the Book takes another listen to a podcast from 2010, recorded at BookExpo America, with Jonathan Alter, then a Newsweek columnist and today at The Daily Beast, and Steven Rattner, a journalist and investment advisor who had led the rescue of the American automobile industry in 2009.

Eighteen months after his inauguration as U.S. president, Barack Obama remained a figure of promise and someone not yet entirely fixed in the public mind. Alter and Rattner, along with a growing number of journalists and White House insiders, were already chipping away to find the man within the myth. In book after book, they revealed Obama. Over two terms in the White House, a familiar likeness has emerged to take its place in history.

Both men saw Obama as we now know him only too well – cool, deliberate, detached. Curiously, those were the very qualities that had earlier helped make him a bestselling memoirist.

“I think the key thing with Obama as an author is he has a sense of almost novelistic detachment about what’s going on around him. And this is very helpful – it gives him an emotional neutrality. In fact, he strips emotion out of his analysis of things and sentiment out of his analysis,” said Jonathan Alter.

“It helps [Obama] as a decision-maker to be able to step back and see the whole playing field, be detached and observant the way a good novelist, a good writer is. But that detachment can also be potentially a problem, politically, if people think he’s standing too far above them,” Alter told CCC’s Chris Kenneally.

As a White House advisor, Steven Rattner observed Obama at close quarters, though the picture he gave in 2010 was of someone viewed as if through a telescope.

“The ‘no-drama Obama’ that you read about was very much what I saw. We were dealing with these massive things, and I had one little piece of it. And he would go from my issue to banks to Afghanistan to health care to all this other stuff. I was pretty stressed out about this one thing, and he had seven of them to worry about.

“But he also has what Jon referred to – and again, I don’t know if it’s by virtue of being a writer or not – but he does have that sense of detachment and a sort of self-protective wall. He’s been in politics long enough that he knows everybody’s out for something. He trusts the people he trusts, and the rest of us are a little bit on the other side of that wall that contains him. And so, I think he has a perspective and a detachment from it all that is exactly what Jon said. It’s very helpful in making very analytical, dispassionate decisions. But whether it allows him to connect with the average American is, I think, one of the questions that people are currently debating.”

That debate from 2010 continues today, in the final days and hours of the Obama administration.

We hope you enjoy this special re-release of that BookExpo 2010 program with Jonathan Alter, author of THE PROMISE: President Obama, Year One, and Steven Rattner, author of OVERHAUL: Inside the Obama Administration’s Mission to Save The American Automotive Industry.

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