Books

The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies

David Lauter
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

Jonathan Alter argues that Obama’s 2012 reelection was never really in doubt.


The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies

Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Length: 448 pages
Author: Jonathan Alter
Price: $30.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2013-06
Amazon

Among several persistently wrongheaded beliefs about the 2012 election, none beats the claim, heard even in the campaign’s closing weeks, that President Obama faced a desperately bad situation and had a high probability of losing.

That zombie idea kept walking even after multiple attempts by political science experts to kill it.

Republican operatives had the most straightforward excuse to keep it alive — no one wants to give potential donors, volunteers and voters a message of pessimism; candidates usually inflate their chances of success.

Many other people got a false impression of a close contest because of badly done surveys by some prominent polling organizations, most notably Gallup. Misunderstanding of the economy blinded many political writers and talking heads, who routinely seemed to mistake a slow-growing economy for a recessionary one.

A highly visible example came in November 2011, when Nate Silver, the explicator of polls and political forecasts for the New York Times, wrote an obviously true but widely misinterpreted article in the paper’s Sunday magazine. Obama would have only a 17 percent chance of winning if the economy failed to grow at all during the coming year, he forecast.

Silver also noted that the odds would strongly favor Obama with even modest economic growth. But the magazine’s editors provocatively splashed on their cover the forecast favoring the challenger. Wails of despair from gullible liberals nearly drowned out the fact that zero growth was highly unlikely. Indeed, economic growth hit four percent that quarter.

As Jonathan Alter writes in his new book on the 2012 campaign, The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies, the president’s campaign manager, Jim Messina, vowed Obama would win and that he would get the president to sign a copy of that magazine cover and then would frame it and hang it as a campaign trophy. In November, he achieved both goals.

Alter’s book abounds in such peeks inside the campaigns. But for all his excellent reporting, he cannot provide what the campaign itself lacked — actual suspense.

Yes, he reports that Bill Clinton told Romney after the election that until Superstorm Sandy he thought the Republican would win. I trust that Clinton said it. Maybe he even meant it. If so, however, the former president’s analytical ability had suffered a rare lapse; the election’s outcome had not truly been in doubt for months.

Writing a book about an intensively covered campaign that ended pretty much the way it began challenges any author. The absence of a surprise ending to explain robs insider accounts of most of their power. To fill that void, Alter seeks to impose a different kind of thematic unity on his book’s disparate chapters, one reflected in his book’s title.

The “center” in Alter’s portrayal is the administration itself, which he depicts as besieged by a radical right-wing cabal determined to repeal not just Obamacare but the entire structure of post-New Deal government.

That analysis frames the contest largely the way Obama and his aides saw it — no surprise, since Alter admires the president, whose first year in office formed the subject of his previous book, The Promise. Indeed, Alter, a former Newsweek reporter raised in Chicago, played a role in Obama’s rapid rise, having written a 2004 cover story for the magazine which helped bring then-state Sen. Obama to national attention.

The 2012 election, he declares, formed nothing less than “a hinge of history.”

Perhaps so. Copious evidence shows that the GOP has moved rightward. That has allowed space for Obama, a fairly conventional liberal, to control the political center. Romney, whether “severely conservative” or a “Massachusetts moderate”, would have faced huge demands for change from a newly empowered Republican Congress.

But a book that truly sought to mine the election’s historical context would need to get beyond the campaign. Above all, it would have to examine the phenomenon of heightened partisanship that since Clinton’s tenure has come to define the nation’s politics.

That’s not the book Alter set out to report or write. Instead, in the tradition of Theodore White, whose The Making of the President books gave birth to a genre that nonstop campaign coverage has nearly killed, Alter has focused on “detailing the backstory of the big events of 2011 and 2012.” Unfortunately, most of those events appeared small even at the time — polling blips whipped into a soufflé of pseudo-significance to fill cable news airtime.

Alter proves that point in a nicely detailed chapter on Obama’s terrible first debate. In the 48 hours after that event, the Obama campaign’s separate polling efforts surveyed thousands of voters. The campaign’s analytics branch increased the size of a short daily survey it ran to 12,000 voters a night, an astounding number, while campaign pollster Joel Benenson conducted more detailed surveys in battleground states.

The surveys all reinforced one another’s conclusions: Obama had lost ground among Republicans and independents who had flirted with him after a videotape came to light in which Romney disparaged 47 percent of Americans as “takers.” But the debate and the videotape mostly just canceled each other out, the polls found. Nothing fundamental had changed.

To defeat a president who seeks reelection, a challenger needs circumstances far larger than a blown debate performance. Ronald Reagan needed a recession, a long-drawn and humiliating international crisis and a rising political tide to beat the hapless Jimmy Carter. Clinton required a recession, a divided Republican Party, a strong third-party candidate and extraordinary political skills to unseat George H.W. Bush.

Despite the grumblings on the right that Romney lost a campaign he “should have won”, he had no such advantages.

Obama won for the simplest of reasons: In presidential election years, the country now has more Democrats than Republicans. Romney needed to give a significant number of those Democrats reason to defect. He didn’t. For all the campaign virtuosity that Alter carefully chronicles, in the end, nothing else really mattered.

David Lauter is the Los Angeles Times’ Washington bureau chief.

6

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image