If you’re expecting the salty dialogue and high drama of John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s “Game Change” — dealing with the wild-and-woolly presidential campaign of 2008 — or the historical gravitas of Theodore White’s “The Making of the President” books, this might not be for you. Instead, Jonathan Alter’s “The Center Holds” offers an elegant, intelligent, crisply constructed account of President Obama’s second two years in the White House and his quiet march to a second term. It will be required reading for any serious student of the Obama presidency, present or future.
One of America’s most highly respected political journalists, Alter has covered nine presidential elections. Here he makes a singular contribution by capturing Obama’s famously inscrutable political persona and demystifying it in the context of his daily work as president. Based upon his long-standing ties to the world of Chicago politics, Alter has gained access to key people within the president’s orbit, enabling him to create a rich portrait of a chief executive who is at once a brilliant political leader and someone who recoils from politics as a trade.
(Simon and Schuster) - “The Center Holds: Obama and his Enemies” by Jonathan Alter
Alter is unabashedly pro-Democratic and sympathetic to his subject. Yet he is scrupulous in flagging down missteps and screwups by the Obama administration (and Obama himself), which saves the book from being a one-sided homage to a sitting president. There are plenty of gems here.
We see Obama calmly going about his daily work without tipping off top advisers as he makes the gut-wrenching decision to send Navy SEALs to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, knowing that the odds are only 50-50 that the mission will succeed. When the al-Qaeda leader is killed and Obama reviews gruesome pictures of the corpse, he instructs the military not to release them, declaring: “We don’t trot this stuff out as trophies.”
We also see Obama in a rare display of pique as he climbs down from the stage following a 2010 speech to the National Urban League after spotting black activist and philosopherCornel West seated in the front row. West had dissed Obama for not being a true progressive, declaring that he couldn’t “in good conscience” tell black voters to support this candidate. Obama became visibly angry, saying to West: “I’m not progressive? What kind of [expletive] is this?”
Perhaps the most interesting revelations come in Chapter 10, “Missing the Schmooze Gene,” in which Alter succeeds better than any other writer to date in making sense of the paradox that has come to define Obama: a political figure who loves the real work but becomes impatient with the trivial duties of modern-day political office, where schmoozing, fundraising, “donor maintenance” and false friendships are the grist that keep the machine churning. Alter describes the president complaining to staffers during the 2011 debt-ceiling crisis as he dutifully calls Democratic senators whom Majority Leader Harry Reid has placed on a list for special attention. Obama gripes: “Why do these guys need this? Are they so insecure that they can function only if they get to tell people, ‘Hey, the president called me!’?” One senior aide explains, “It’s not in his DNA.” According to friends, Obama would rather exercise or spend time with Michelle and the girls than chit-chat with needy members of Congress.