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Book Review: The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies

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A headline on the cover of the Nov. 3, 2011, edition of The New York Times Magazine asked, "Is Obama Toast?" Almost exactly one year later, President Barack Obama won reelection by a wide margin. The path he took from being nearly irrelevant to the first president since Dwight Eisenhower to receive 51 percent of the vote twice is the subject of Jonathan Alter's brilliant 2013 book The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies.

The book opens on Election Night 2010, a torturous evening for the Democrats. Republicans took 63 House seats that night, won 11 governor races to increase their total to 29 and captured 680 state legislature seats. Making things even worse, the Republican blowout had occurred during a census year. Gaining 20 state legislative chambers meant that the new congressional maps would almost definitely guarantee Republican control of the House for years to come. If the Republicans could the Senate and the presidency in 2012, the party's conservative base would control all three branches of the federal government.

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell made headlines days before the 2010 elections by telling the National Journal, "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." The election results suggested McConnell would get his wish. Obama had taken office in January 2009 with America fighting in two wars and in the midst of economic catastrophe. Revised estimates revealed that the gross domestic product had declined 8.9 percent in 2008's fourth quarter, a bigger drop than had occurred in any quarter of the Great Depression. Despite Obama's pushing more major legislation through Congress during his first two years than any president since Lyndon Johnson, the unemployment rate was 10.2 percent in October 2010, a 2.5 percent increase from the day he took office. The last president to be reelected with an unemployment rate higher than 7.2 percent had been Franklin Roosevelt in 1936, and the rate had already dropped a quarter by then. 

For all his intelligence, Obama is portrayed here as surprisingly ignorant at times about seemingly basic elements of building relationships. He fails to understand, for example, why someone would be grateful to receive a letter or phone call from him. This was one of several communication problems in the early years of the Obama administration. Obama would later admit that his biggest presidential regret was failing to create a constant message in his first two years.

As the book's title suggests, plenty of attention is given to Obama's adversaries. Alter explores the "Obama Derangement Syndrome" that afflicted Internet bloggers and politicians alike. He writes about the ugly vitriol directed at the Obamas and the insanity of the "birther" movement, which continued even after the president released his long-form birth certificate. Most importantly, he dissects the effort by politicians to limit Obama's effectiveness through obstruction. It was an effort that began on the night of Obama's inauguration, when nearly all the Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill met at a Washington steak house and agreed to oppose everything Obama did. This meant that Obama initiatives that had previously been supported and even created by Republicans were suddenly being rejected.

A genuine sense of anger is inspired while reading about these tactics, as there is when reading about Republican lawmakers' efforts to suppress the vote. Their motives for doing so were purely partisan: by keeping the young people and minorities who typically leaned Democratic away from the polls, the GOP had a better chance to win elections. Certainly there was no legal reason to do so: five years of investigations and prosecutions by the Bush Justice Department had found nothing suggesting a large voter fraud problem. Nevertheless, by the middle of 2012 19 states - including seven of the general election's nine battleground states - had approved new legislation limiting voting. These laws had the potential to effect more than 75 percent of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the election.

How did Obama fight back? Like Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy before him, Obama took advantage of a new medium - in his case, digital technology. The sections devoted to the Obama campaign team's use of data are among the book's most interesting. It's perhaps not surprising that Mitt Romney's campaign team lagged far behind in technological savvy, but it's almost astonishing to realize that data helped thwart the efforts of right-wing billionaires to buy the election. But the technology's effectiveness would've been limited without the commitment of people, and Obama's reelection effort included the biggest political mobilization in American history. It's inspiring to read about voters fighting back against the laws blatantly intended to disenfranchise them.

One of the book's strengths is its fairness. Alter acknowledges that private equity firms like Romney's Bain Capital aren't necessarily bad, and he does a better job of humanizing Romney than Romney himself did on the campaign trail. Yet the image of Romney that dogged him during the campaign - a flip-flopper and a heartless plutocrat - is also on display here, most notably when he delivers his infamous remarks at a fundraiser deriding the 47 percent of Americans he claimed would automatically vote for Obama and considered themselves victims dependent on government. Alter offers a devastating critique of these remarks, pointing out that they were not only cruel but factually incorrect. 

The Center Holds is an outstanding account of one of the most important elections in recent American history. It's a must-read for political junkies and aspiring campaign managers. 



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