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Newsweek's Alter on Today: You Have to 'Respect' Obama for His 'Thoughtfulness'

If Jonathan Alter's interview segment, on Friday's Today show with NBC's Meredith Vieira, is any indication of what to expect from his new book on the Obama presidency, readers should not look forward to an insightful, hard-hitting treatment of the President as the Newsweek columnist praised Obama as not "a phony" who has a "psychological health to him." On to plug his book, The Promise, Alter - after being cued up by Vieira to explain why Obama's approval ratings remain "strong" in a new NBC News poll - boiled it down to his bringing an "authenticity" and "thoughtfulness" to his presidency.

ALTER: He just doesn't seem like a phony and the people who deal with him every day feel this way. He's got a kind of psychological health to him and even if you don't like what he's doing, and I try to assess where he's succeeded and where he's failed, you have to respect the man. He, he brings a thoughtfulness to the process. And he does try to drill down into these decisions.

Alter also cited Obama's pick of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court as an example of him being a "conciliator" that harkens back to his days at Harvard University when he brought "liberals and conservatives together."

The following is the full interview as it was aired on the May 14 Today show:

MEREDITH VIEIRA: That oil slick is just one of the situations that's landed on President Obama's desk. He's also pushing financial reform legislation and shepherding his second Supreme Court nomination through the Senate. Jonathan Alter is a Newsweek columnist and NBC News analyst. He's also the author of the new book, The Promise: President Obama, Year One. Jonathan, good morning to you.

JONATHAN ALTER: Good morning, Meredith.

VIEIRA: Let's start with this nomination to the Supreme Court of Elena Kagan. What do you think drew the President to her?

ALTER: Well, I think they, they share something in common that relates to Harvard University, of all things. When Obama was the president of the Harvard Law Review, he brought liberals and conservatives together. He was a conciliator. And when Elena Kagan was the dean of Harvard Law School, she did the same thing. And he mentioned this, Obama did, when he announced her appointment. So I think they, that also connected in that he wanted somebody who was not already on the bench. Because every other Supreme Court justice has been a judge prior and he wanted somebody with broader experience, which she has.

VIEIRA: Yeah when you were writing this book, he had the task of getting Justice Sotomayor confirmed.

ALTER: Yeah.

VIEIRA: And so you learned a lot about the process and the President's role in it.

ALTER: Right.

VIEIRA: What can you tell us about that?

ALTER: Well, first of all, he has a very rigorous disciplined process, whereas President Clinton took three months, was going back and forth, this nominee, that nominee. And President Bush operated on instinct-

VIEIRA: Right.

ALTER: With Obama it's almost corporate, very structured. But he also was, would be sort of wry in the middle of it. So at one point when they were talking about another possible nominee, he said, "You know, I couldn't get confirmed for the Supreme Court nowadays. I have too much of a paper trail. So, you know, we've got to nominate somebody who would have a better chance of Senate confirmation than I would." So he's always trying to kind of interject a bit of a wry tone amid, amid the discipline, yeah.

VIEIRA: So that lack of a paper trail worked for him with regard to...

ALTER: Yeah! Yeah that, that helped. You know what I tried to do in this book, Meredith. This is the first book about the Obama presidency. There have been a lot about his campaign, his background and so forth. I wanted to take people behind the closed doors of the Oval Office, into the Situation Room, really give them a sense of what's this guy like when he's operating, not just what's he like on the basketball court, or the, in playing poker. But what's he like making decisions? How does he reach out, call on the person who is sitting in the back row, doesn't think they're going to get called on and suddenly the President is saying, "What do you think, Meredith?" And if you're not prepared, you might not be invited back to the next meeting.

VIEIRA: Yeah Jonathan, why do you think based on the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll his number approval rating is hovering around 50 percent, which is where it's been since last summer, given the amount of anger that is out there in terms of elected officials in general?

ALTER: Why is he staying strong?

VIEIRA: Why is he, that's exactly right.

ALTER: It this fascinating gap that we also saw with Ronald Reagan where the policies are not tremendously popular, but the President remains well respected. And I think for Obama, the key is authenticity. He just doesn't seem like a phony and the people who deal with him every day feel this way. He's got a kind of psychological health to him and even if you don't like what he's doing, and I try to assess where he's succeeded and where he's failed, you have to respect the man. He, he brings a thoughtfulness to the process. And he does try to drill down into these decisions. So even on Afghanistan, which is not working very well right now, but they really examined the policy. They didn't want to just stumble into this. And they had the most thorough policy review since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 of what to do. And of course there's always a back story, Meredith! What happened that we don't know about.

VIEIRA: Right.

ALTER: And that's where I tried to get at in this book.

VIEIRA: But for all your analysis of the President it's Mrs. Obama and that story involving her and the First Lady of France-

ALTER: Yeah.

VIEIRA: -that's getting the most buzz right now.

ALTER: Well, you know, when they first met, Carla Bruni, the First Lady of France, said, "My, my husband and I do not have sexual relations as much as we would like because of the duties of office. But we did keep a foreign leader once waiting for one hour while we finished making love. Did you ever do that with the President?" And Michelle Obama, kind of embarrassed, said "No." And so, but she, she's a fascinating figure, I found, as I was researching this book. Some people on the, the White House staff call her "The Supreme Leader," because even though she doesn't sit in on policy meetings-

VIEIRA: The way Clinton would have, Mrs. Clinton, right.

ALTER: -yeah the way Hillary Clinton did. She's very influential behind the scenes, and she, she's focused on some of these new issues, obesity and so forth, and is a formidable figure.

VIEIRA: Alright Jonathan Alter, thank you so much.

ALTER: Thanks a lot Meredith.

VIEIRA: And by the way, The Promise comes out on Tuesday.

-Geoffrey Dickens is the Senior News Analyst at the Media Research Center. You can follow him on Twitter here