Monday, June 18, 2018
Books

Review: 'The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies' by Jonathan Alter

Can events that happened just last year be properly regarded as "history"? Ordinarily, I would answer that with an emphatic no. History requires perspective, and perspective requires time. There are no shortcuts.

But when it comes to the world of politics, the 24-hour news cycle spins so much faster than the cycles of history that it almost feels like a relief to start trying to gain perspective as soon as possible. Book-length examinations of relatively recent political events can be the resting point we need to make sense of current events.

That's where Jonathan Alter's new book on the 2012 campaign comes in. The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies begins in late 2010 with the rise of the tea party and the defeat of congressional Democrats around the country. It continues through President Barack Obama's re-election victory two years later.

Alter is a journalist with a historian's bent. He wrote about President Franklin D. Roosevelt's first 100 days in office in the 2006 book The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope. A Chicago native, Alter met Barack Obama when the latter was a state senator in Illinois. Years later, Alter gained special access to the administration for a book on Obama's first year in office, The Promise.

Alter too is trying to gain perspective. Again and again, he compares today's political moments to moments in presidential history. When he writes about Obama's most extreme detractors — those who falsely said Obama was a radical Muslim born in Kenya — Alter reminds us that other presidents got much the same treatment. John Adams was called a "hideous hermaphroditical character," Abraham Lincoln was depicted as a hairy baboon, and Roosevelt was deemed a Jewish bloodsucker.

Alternatively, when critics say Obama should tap his inner LBJ and force Congress to do his will, Alter reminds us that President Lyndon B. Johnson had earmarks to dole out and a majority in the Senate that was usually filibuster-proof.

Alter opens his book with the premise that Obama's detractors actually ended up helping the president in the 2012 election, with their irrational conspiracy theories and over-the-top criticism driving a small number of moderate independents into the president's corner. But Alter also makes the case that Obama has several critical faults as a leader that have led to a string of tactical losses.

One chapter is devoted to Obama's missing "schmooze gene," an almost innate trait that most pols have to court opponents and soothe the egos of powerful supporters. Obama just isn't like that, Alter reports, and has a tendency to detach from the nuts and bolts of the legislative process. Obama also hates the political culture of sound bites and zingers, which led to his droning, listless performance in the first presidential debate. Overall, Alter is sympathetic to Obama's presidency, but he also provides strong doses of skepticism.

However, even with its moments of historical reflection, The Center Holds is primarily a work of political journalism. Alter, a regular guest on MSNBC, won access to the interior workings of Obama's re-election campaign, and he pulls back the curtain to reveal its sheer relentlessness.

To get a sense of exactly where the campaign stood at any given moment, the campaign's analytics team used nightly polling of thousands of voters — between 4,000 and 9,000 people, many more than found in routine public polling. To corral additional votes, the team used demographic information and public records to find people who were unlikely to vote, then arranged personal contacts from Obama's committed volunteers.

And the campaign pioneered new ways to stoke fundraising. For its cadre of regular small donors, it created a mobile app for one-click donations. "The mobile app led to what the campaign called 'drunk donating,' where Obama supporters agitated by polls showing Romney gains impulsively kicked in before they thought better of it," Alter writes.

In other chapters, Alter goes inside the Romney campaign to reveal its strategic missteps and how the Republican team thought they were winning well into election night. He looks at Obama's relationship with black political leaders, including a falling-out with university professor Cornel West.

In an extended section, Alter interviews the South Florida bartender who made the "47 percent" video and reveals his motivations for getting the video out: The bartender was infuriated with Romney's glowingly positive descriptions of working conditions in Chinese factories.

Alter's book is among the first of several to be published this year that are supposed to take us behind the scenes of the 2012 campaign. For people who followed the campaign closely and who love politics, these retellings are slightly addictive, a way to relive the high drama of a presidential campaign and start to suss out what we'll remember decades from now.

Still, we need more time to make sweeping judgments about the events of 2012 and what they mean for the future. Daily journalism, it's said, is the first draft of history. Let's consider book-length journalism of recent events a second draft that's still in the process of revision.

Angie Drobnic Holan is the deputy editor of PolitiFact, the Times' national politics fact-checking website. She can be reached at [email protected]

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