The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies by Jonathan Alter
If you want an extremely detailed account of the 2012 Presidential election, including the context of political news from 2011, from the slight slant of an Obama supporter, this is your book. I tackled this book after David Axelrod's Believer, so this review should be read in the context of the review of both books. This book offers more details than Axelrod's highly-praised work; it's hard to believe his book was about the same period and campaign at times. (I am an American who lived overseas for the entirety of 2012 and was pretty disengaged from the campaign.)
Part 1: 2010-early 2011
Alter begins in 2010, with the Tea Party putting Congress in conservative hands and derailing the Obama agenda. His purpose is to show the last two years of Obama's first term including the epic campaign. "History has a point of view," he writes and his is from the Left. I suppose this book repeats much of his 2010 book The Promise, which I have not read. With these books, it is hard to tell what is actual detective-style reporting (interviewing people and getting inside sources) and what is just painstakingly compiling every major news story, article, and media interview over the course of two years. As such, this deadpan NY Times review from 2013 is probably worth reading over my own if you want the gist of the book.
One political interest of Alter's is the campaign of Republican-led governments in various states to gerrymander districts and pass more restrictve voter ID laws, ostensibly to ensure victory in the 2012 election. Alter quotes one estimate that efforts could possibly have "subtracted five million votes nationwide," enough to have an electoral college impact. Alter revisits these laws and their court challenges throughout the book, including the final critical days of 2012. That is one particularly useful aspect of this book. Ohio is a particularly critical battleground for voter suppression. States pass laws that make it harder for voter registration groups to exist, massive (possibly unconstitutional) penalties for consequences if a voter they registered later commits fraud, unconstitutional laws forbidding taking groups of people to polls, etc. In many cases, courts overtuned the restrictions, polls were allowed to remain open during early voting periods in which there were long lines, etc. But this was still a great concern in the post-2012 era. Alter points out that many of the efforts actually hurt Republican voters more than Democratic. White elderly people in Pennsylvania suburbs were just as unlikely to have drivers licenses or other ID as an inner-city minority might.
While the Left blames the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision as a threat to democracy, Alter points out that the decision did not actually change much (and I would add that elections since have illustrated that the amount of money spent on a campaign does not correlate well with outcome.) Super PACs were already legal. Other legal tools for partisans just grew as people worked the system, even without a Citizens United case. Advertising dollars for cable news outlets and websites already mattered as much as any corporate donation. For example, Alter writes that an angry Steve Jobs personally ordered the company that handles their advertising placement to remove all ads from Fox News "immediately," over the course of a weekend and other advertisers followed suit as Sean Hannity and other Fox hosts pushed right-wing myths on-air. Networks' decisions of what news to show and what headlines to promote are driven by advertising dollars. (Jobs' decision came to mind when Kelloggs pulled advertising from Fox News in 2016 and got a Breitbart-led boycott movement).
Alter gives a pretty fair analysis of the roots and forms of psychology of the Tea Party movement. He rightly compares it to the same loosely-affiliated, internet-connected movement that helped raise money and bring Obama to power. The message was roughly the same: "We're angry at the government and we want change!" While the Left liked to cry "astroturf," some of it was truly grass roots. Voter dissafection in 2010 was similar to that of 2008 (and repeated again in 2016).
The point of interest most directly relevant to the 2016 race is the growth of "Obama derangement syndrome." Donald Trump makes appearances in the book spreading theories about Obama's birth certificate, and taking full credit when it is completely released. Alter points out all the stories that floated in the 2010-2012 period: A large number of Republican voters believe that Obama was born in Kenya, that neither of his parents were Americans, that he's a Communist, part of a left-wing plot, etc. Alter points out passion and rhetoric are not new to American politics. FDR was a "Jewish bloodsucker" in his day. JFK, LBJ were "Commies," Bill Clinton was signing US sovereignty over to the UN, etc. Some voters truly believe that Homeland Security was stockpiling enough ammo to kill Americans in mass gun-confiscation efforts under Obama. By the time you get through the "clown car" of the GOP primary, the seeds of the "post-truth election" of 2016 are sown. Alter is fair in pointing out that much of the criticism was not racist, but the "birther" movement had unmistakeable overtones (that would echo into 2016).
The 2010-2011 period of Obama failing to negotiate with House Republicans is interesting. While GOP loyalists scoff at the notion even today, Obama saw himself as a centrist and constantly returned to what he believed got him elected in 2008-- being a candidate that was above and against the partisan gridlock in Washington. (I remember the liberal critique of Obama around this period from leftish wonks like Paul Krugman was that he should have used the same no-holds-barred approach that Republicans don't hesitate to use when they're in charge, rather than try to negotiate and compromise with them.) In 2011, Obama proposed "centrist" packages that were too unpopular to be tried: an infrastructure package "to help the middle class," more housing relief, etc. Obama's faith in maintaining centrist unity and working for bipartisan cooperation was held to his detriment, David Axelrod's memoir also leans toward this. As I write this in December 2016, Obama maintains that he could have beaten Trump by maintaining the broad unified American appeal that won 2012, and Ta-Nehisi Coates has written an article on Obama's misplaced faith in the optimistic, centrist nature of the American electorate.
Obama's Simpson-Bowles commission on tax reform is illustrative of Obama's faith in centrist policy and also his shortcomings as a politician:
The original bipartisan commission was designed to draft legislation that would balance the budget in the long-term and be subject to a yea/nay vote in Congress. But several Republican Senators who publicly endorsed creation of the commission later voted against its creation ine arly 2010. President Obama then created it by executive order, which would not require Congress to do anything. There were public meetings through 2010 and a bipartisan mixture of proposals, but as the midterm election approached pressure on Republicans got more conservative and Commission members like Paul Ryan would not support it. Grover Norquist's groups' pledge to never raise taxes, that Republicans sign to get a major endorsement and money, holds many in its grips to the frustration of many. Simpson-Bowles included some ideas that are criticized on the Left, like lowering corporate tax rates and adjusting the COLA adjustment on entitlements and tax rates by using chained CPI. Obama himself did not campaign loudly for Simpson-Bowles, and Alter reports that after the Commission published its final report in December, after the Tea Party took Congress and swept centrist Republicans from their seats, Obama did not even bother to call Simpson or Bowles to thank them for their work-- a perceived snub apparently not forgotten.
There are many details on the 2010-2011 battles over the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, the debt ceiling debacle, Republican "hostage-taking" and the fiscal cliff are relived in detail in this book. Axelrod makes the point better in his memoir-- Reagan had Tip O'Neill to negotiate with, Obama had Boehner and an increasingly-conservative GOP that saw negotiation on any issue as an anathema "compromise." The President's disappointment with the 2010 election comes through clearly as he moves up David Axelrod's departure back to Chicago and basically dismisses other staff like Larry Summers (who Axelrod wrote had been promised to be appointed Fed Chair) as a disappointment. Obama's shakeup included hiring Bill Daley as the new Chief of Staff, over strong objections from Valerie Jarrett. Alter details the Obamas' "cold relationship" with the Daley family in Chicago and how this move was unlikely to work, Daley departed a year later.
Jarrett is an interesting character that Alter spends a few paragraphs criticizing before pointing out her possible virtues. She has a power behind the throne that no one completely understands and is almost universally disliked. The first problem is that having Jarrett at tables on critical policy discussions takes a seat away from experts on that policy. Second, she allegedly says nothing at those meetings, only listens, and then says things to Obama later, and only privately. That infuriates many who dislike not knowing her opinions and her often having the last word on the matter with the President. When corporate CEOs complained that Obama did not understand business and did not have any advisers who had business experience, Obama often points to Jarrett's experience as CEO of the Chicago Habitat Company. Alter notes her experience was limited in time and scope, and either dismisses or downplays her chairmanship of the Chicago Stock Exchange. Her relationship with Obama did not help his own with anyone outside his own family. Jarrett's positives are the fact that she insisted on keeping to his personal schedule, which includes a 6:30pm dinner with his family every night. She was essentially his enforcer and had the ability to remind him where he came from, as did his wife.
Jarrett was part of an inner-circle of Chicago friends that Obama kept close. Alter writes that one of Obama's failings as a politician was his inability to make friends outside that circle, his dislike of picking up a telephone, and flat rejection of the butt-kissing that goes with politics. He lacked the "schmooze gene," as Alter puts it. Republicans used such complaints against him painting him as a partisan uninterested in talking, but many Democrats had the same complaint-- Obama just wouldn't pick up the phone and reach out. It strikes me as admirable that much of this stemmed around Obama's desire for family and personal time with his teenage daughters-- attending their school events and insisting on evening dinners together as a family. (This is part of why Romney's character credentials weren't remarkable to me next to Obama-- we already had a super family man in the White House.) Disturbingly, however, Alter writes that Obama did not communicate at all with some members of his cabinet for YEARS, and never had Bill and Hillary Clinton over for dinner in his first four years. Obama made a few friends in Washington that he regularly played golf with, and he hated mixing politics with golf-- hence rounds with Boehner would be useless. (Alter writes that one round with Clinton ended up making Clinton angry because Obama was beating him and refused to allow mulligans.)
Obama preferred to spend his free time reading, Alter cites his love of novels, and a desire to write a book with Elie Wiesel, who had inspired him in college.
Obama was likewise "allergic" to "soundbyte politics," preferring deep policy discussions to pithy phrases. Many of his "schmoozing" efforts, like spending hours on the phone with people like Olympia Snow on the ACA, who eventually voted "no" turned him off. He hated greasing the wheels of government. This led to an embarrassing moment in December 2010 where Obama and Bill Clinton held a joint press conference, and Obama left early. Clinton proceeded to explain Obama's policies more cogently than Obama could himself and the media was ecstatic. Obama's dislike for soundbyte politics was evident in his first debate with Romney in which he refused to engage in point-scoring and "lost" the debate, causing much consternation and Democratic "bedwetting."
The BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster soaked up much of the news coverage of mid-2010, and the Obama Administration's determination not to let it be a "Katrina moment" and stay in front of all media coverage diverted efforts that might have been put toward policy, raising funds, or motivating the base for the presidential campaign. Alter bemoans this "wasted time." Alter seems to favor views that the government could have done more economic stimulus and that Obama had settled for a "U-shaped" recovery rather than a V-shaped one. One weakness here was ignoring Obama's delay in appointing members to the Federal Open Market Committee (as well as more Republican hostage-taking here), as the Fed had more to do with the delayed recovery than Obama possibly could have.
Part 2: The 2011-2012 Presidential campaign.
The author gives an inside look at the massive analytics machine the Democratic Party had assembled and its wishful thinking. The laboratory featured advanced econometric modeling by a former U of Chicago economics student who recruited a team of 54 people and spent $15 million. The analytics team was like Facebook or Google, you had to pass a complex 4-hour exam and be willing to work 24-hour days. They called their dream product "Narwhal" and basically wanted to connect every social media post and email with a voter ID-- a profile of every person in America's likelihood to vote, donate, volunteer, or share information. The best they were probably able to do on that front was design algorithms to direct advertising. The analytics team had huge data-driven projects that were costly, behind schedule, suffered from many crashes, and not that effective. Eventually, by the end of the campaign the campaign techies had designed a Dashboard that gave people going door-to-door on the ground real-time ability to profile voters, see donation histories, see which volunteer was garnering the most donations, etc. Obama would basically "win" Twitter and Facebook in terms of retweets and shares. The RNC would later try to copy the "Narwhal" project's grand ambition with tragic results.
Here's a Slate piece from 2012 on Narwhal's promise:
The major weakness the Democrats had in 2012 was similar to 2016--a candidate that was more comfortable talking details of policies than making pithy soundbytes. Alter writes of the Democrats' problem with "jargon filled with programs and policies" whereas Republicans use words that appeal to emotions and stick in the mind of voters: "Death panels," "Obamacare," "Drill Baby Drill," ("Make America Great Again"). Alter retells decision to kill/capture Bin Laden in Pakistan and Obama's stated belief that it was the most important thing he'd done in his first term-- he felt it neutralized the GOP's usually strong foreign policy credentials. While Dick Cheney had said it was an "easy call," Alter notes the Bush Administration made no serious effort to go after him, and Republican Bob Gates had called it one of the "gutsiest decisions" he'd ever seen a President make.
The GOP primary circus is detailed. There was a period where Romney did not look like he'd emerge the winner, and Alter recounts how his chief donors and strategists got things in gear to take the nomination. Alter is highly critical of the "clown car," highlighting times like when all candidates on stage would not agree to even a 10:1 spending-to-tax-hike reduction. One thing I learned was that Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate who has backed various GOP candidates is pretty socially liberal. Obama apparently respected John McCain in 2008 as a person more so than he did Mitt Romney, who he saw as simply the 1%. (Axelrod's memoir shows that Axelrod felt even more contempt for Candidate Romney.) Romney's history with Bain Capital Management was easy to turn into to the anti-trade rhetoric that Axelrod favored and his bank accounts in the Cayman Islands made him look like one of the Wall Street bankers that took us into the 2007 financial crisis.
While Obama basically thought it would be an easy-enough ride with the GOP no longer being a "serious party," there was enough Democratic infighting to make it challenging. Some members of the African-American community, like Cornell West, attacked Obama for not doing enough for black people; which led to a stinging public confrontation between West and Obama. George Soros was invited to a meeting of fundraisers and strategists and gave Obama advice on policy, which Obama rebuked with basically "I know policy just fine, thanks." Alter writes that Soros was deeply offended, this was another demonstration of Obama's inability to "schmooze."
The June, 2012 Supreme Court ruling on the ACA may have saved the Obama campaign because it cemented Obama's biggest legislative achievement and gave voters and major corporations the sense that health care reform was here to stay. That health care reform and Medicaid expansion showed up in Romney's worst moment-- the 47% fundraiser speech-- as an entitlement that Americans liked and would not want taken away. Romney's campaign rhetoric of being able to "fix" Obamacare based on his experiment with Romneycare in Massachusetts confused or fell flat. Romney was also too nice a candidate to attack Obama as a Socialist, or appeal to the right-wing conspiracy theories that Trump would use to motivate his base in 2016. Romney's choice of libertarian-leaning and Ayn Rand-influenced Paul Ryan made it easy to characterize the campaign as ultra-conservative. Alter writes that both Romney and Ryan shared a "maker versus taker" mentality that angered the Left, with Ryan characterizing government programs as a safety "hammock" rather than a "net."
Down the stretch, the polling showed it as close and Romney had beaten Obama soundly in the first debate by all accounts. It's interesting in light of the sainthood status given to Nate Silver in 2015-2016, and his (and others') epic failure to both predict Trump's nomination and eventual win, but Silver had basically predicted a close Romney win, and Romney's strategist Stuart Stevens put great faith in that.
Alter chronicles the major events that supposedly doomed the party:
1. The RNC had weaker technology than the DNC. Their attempt to create "Orca" to rival "Narwhal" failed, particularly when their Dashboard crashed nationwide on election day and Republicans were left "flying blind" as to voter turnout, exit polling, etc. For the Narwhal's failures, the DNC still won the technology and social media war handily.
2. Romney's 47% moment. Alter chronicles the life of that video's maker and in hindsight Romney's comments really do look careless. (I'm reminded of Hillary Clinton's leaked speeches about favoring free trade publicly to Wall Street donors and reminding them that she has to take a different stance publicly in the late days of 2016.) Still, Obama missed chances at the second debate to attack Romney on this point.
3. The failure at the Republican Convention. First, a hurricane cancels two days of airtime. Then, the deeply moving personal segment of Romney helping church members and friends deal with great tragedies was not shown on prime-time TV whereas Clint Eastwood was given a disastrous, unvetted prime-time slot which led Romney's strategist to go back stage and vomit (Alter omits this detail, I will have to read Halperin and Heilemann's account on the election for the GOP side, I guess).
4. Obama accepted coaching and got better at debating. He learned to speed up his answers and land punches, improving his favorability among the millions who watched.
5. Hurricane Sandy. One thing I did not know about Chris Christie before this book was that he was chronically late to meetings, even showing up late to a major fundraiser for Romney in which he was supposed to introduce the candidate and instead got introduced by Romney. This lack of reliability had ruled him out of a VP nod (and probably also explains his apparent exile after supporting Trump's election). Chris Christie's embrace of Obama visiting the NJ disaster area in late 2012 solidified in many voters' minds Obama's capability and dependability.
6. Obama's ability to motivate the Democratic base, particularly ethnic minorities and gays. The 2016 results bear this out-- these groups voted in larger numbers for Obama in 2012 than Clinton in 2016. Alter writes that almost 20% of Obama's fundraising game from the LGBTQ community. Hispanics liked Obama's ads recorded with him speaking Spanish rather than Romney's which were translated.
Certainly, there were other contributors (beyond randomness) . Alter writes of GOP "dirty tricks" and voter suppression efforts that were overtuned by courts in the closing days. The Benghazi attacks that killed Ambassador Stephens happened in September, and it was too late in the campaign to get the full facts out in time to attack Obama (hence Clinton became the target afterward). The economy also continued its slow upward trend; the Republicans notoriously accused the Bureau of Labor Statistics of "cooking the books" for showing job growth and a drop in unemployment.
Alter warns of the implications of the "Obama derangement syndrome" on the future of the Republican party. He notes the official GOP "autopsy" of the 2012 campaign was critical of the GOP to adjust demographically and its alienation of minority voters. But I note that attempts to woo minorities and pass immigration reform in the 2012-2015 period led to a GOP-base backlash that nominated the most overtly anti-immigrant candidate. I suspect Alter would see the greater credence given to right-wing conspiracy theories and the alt-right as a natural trajectory from 2012.
As I said in the opening, it's hard to tell how much of this book is the reporter's own work or the compilation of others, and enough points are omitted to necessitate reading other memoirs of the 2012 campaign, but this one is essential history to the 2010-2012 season. 4 stars.