‘The Center Holds’ looks at 2 Obamas

Associated PressAugust 3, 2013 

  • Nonfiction The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies Jonathan Alter Simon & Schuster 448 pages

After sailing through two presidential elections by comfortable margins, President Barack Obama finds himself bogged down just six months into his second term.

His administration is fending off attacks on multiple fronts, including delays rolling out his signature health care plan, Internal Revenue Service practices, efforts to overhaul the immigration system and the National Security Agency’s intelligence-gathering techniques.

Jonathan Alter’s book, “The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies,” about the 2012 election, offers some valuable insights into why this master campaigner finds the job of president more challenging than running for office. And he casts the 2012 election as more than a choice between two candidates; it’s a choice about what kind of nation voters prefer.

Alter’s viewpoint is sympathetic. He clearly identifies Obama’s mix of shortcomings and skills as president while writing about his brilliant campaigning and the cutting-edge campaign team he put together.

He writes about his fascination with “the paradox of a man who succeeds so spectacularly at a profession he often dislikes. He is missing the schmooze gene that is standard equipment for people in politics.” And he notes Obama’s missed opportunities, including his failure to respond quickly enough to developing problems and his failure to pivot quickly back to the economy after his health care plan passed.Alter looks at the long list of Obama’s “enemies.”

He examines the rise of the tea party, which he says is “best understood as a loosely organized collection of several hundred tiny groups connected mostly by websites and social media.” That group developed into a powerful political force that successfully blocked much of Obama’s strategy for the early part of his presidency.

With an array of dedicated and powerful foes and a limping economy, Obama and his team were able to return in 2012 to the field they know best – campaigning.

And the Obama team understood the potential of a new element of campaigning, first introduced on a large scale by Howard Dean in 2004 and used with some effectiveness by Obama in 2008 – digital campaigning, Alter writes. The Obama team “was loaded with geeks who knew what Facebook could do before Facebook did.”

The skillful wooing of a key demographic group – Hispanics – proved pivotal. The Obama campaign combined shrewd policy decisions like a decision to give young Hispanics a chance to avoid deportation with careful targeting of Hispanic voters through a media campaign that was largely off the radar, Alter writes.

He recounts the GOP struggles such as the Republican National Convention with its messaging problems and the unauthorized video of Mitt Romney’s speech at a fundraising dinner, where he mentions “the 47 percent who will vote for the president no matter what,” who believe they are victims. Alter wrote that the bartender who made the video was prompted to take it public after being offended by Romney’s treatment of the caterers and the candidate’s comments about a Chinese sweatshop.

Alter cites the combination of a skilled campaign team, effective use of digital technology, targeting of Hispanic voters and strokes of good fortune – including an uptick in the employment numbers and a Supreme Court decision upholding the Affordable Care Act – as leading Obama to a convincing election win.

Obama’s re-election assured that “a set of values” embodied by the American New Deal would remain in place, Alter writes.

“The country’s defense of that social contract had been tested and it held, and the consequences of the voters’ decision would play out for years.”

Will Lester is an editor in the AP’s Washington bureau.

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