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.
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.
George H.W. Bush and other presidents were famous for dashing off personal notes of thanks to donors and political allies, but Obama has generally rebuffed that practice. A former top adviser explained, “He fundamentally doesn’t relate to their impact because he wouldn’t particularly care if he got one.” Yet Obama daily pens handwritten letters to average citizens who write to him, believing this to be a valuable use of his time. In assessing this missing “schmooze gene,” Alter concludes that Obama’s strong desire to be a normal person is “a fine quality in an individual but problematic for a president.” He concludes that Obama has squandered a valuable piece of political capital: “His failure to use the trappings of the presidency more often left him with one less tool in his toolbox, one less way to leverage his authority.”
Yet Alter may be jumping the gun in declaring this “normalcy trait” to be a flaw for a political leader. The most common lament about modern presidents and presidential candidates is that they are afflicted with too much hubris (George W. Bush), neediness and self-absorption (Bill Clinton), willingness to switch positions (Mitt Romney) or even megalomania (Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon). It is too early to tell if Obama’s refusal to act like a traditional modern-day politician is a weakness or the start of something refreshingly new.
“The Center Holds” gives readers an intimate look at the inner workings of the 2012 campaign, showing how the high-tech “data campaign” run by Obama’s team in Chicago — relying on codewriters, an analytics geek squad and a system called “the Optimizer” that targeted potential voters with frightening precision — rolled over the Romney operation like a tank, changing the way political campaigns will be run in America for all time.
The campaign chapters are fast-moving as Republicans afflicted with “Obama Derangement Syndrome” convince themselves that this president with a funny name can’t possibly win reelection; as Romney bounds within reach after a masterful first debate in Denver; as he skewers himself with the 47 percent comment; as voter-suppression efforts around the country boomerang; as Hurricane Sandy devastates the East Coast, allowing Obama to return to what he does best — acting presidential; and as, with only days remaining, Obama sprints to the finish line and retains the White House. Alter reveals that Clinton, who had stepped up to rally the troops as the president’s “Secretary of Explaining Stuff,” believed until the final weeks that Obama would lose to Romney. Alter writes, “It wasn’t until the Obama-Christie moment during Hurricane Sandy that he changed his mind.”
In an afterword, Alter seeks to bring the book up to the moment, hitting in rapid-fire succession topics like the Newtown shooting, the fiscal cliff and the prospect of Hillary Clinton running for president. Yet the book could have easily ended 10 pages earlier, with a passage that describes an intimate gathering with friends and family following Obama’s decisive win in November. Obama allows himself an uncommon moment of self-congratulation, noting that he was the first president since Franklin Roosevelt to have won the presidency twice with more than 51 percent of the vote. As Alter relates: “One of his African American friends, switching to street vernacular, said, ‘Well, I guess that makes it perfectly clear: youse a bad [expletive].’ The president replies, without missing a beat, “That’s my point.”
Alter shows Obama as the unconventional president he is, rather than as a glad-handing, veneer-faced, perpetually needy politician who pretends to be a real person after hours. “The Center Holds” captures a chief executive who, thus far, has managed to have it his own way — without surgically implanting a schmooze gene. It may be the start of something new, or perhaps a return to something old.
THE CENTER HOLDS
Obama and His Enemies
By Jonathan Alter
Simon & Schuster. 428 pp. $30