Book review: "Double Down: Game Change 2012"

New York TimesNovember 16, 2013 

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    Nonfiction Double Down: Game Change 2012

    Mark Halperin and John Heilemann

    Penguin Press, 499 pages

Barack Obama’s performance in the first presidential debate against Mitt Romney was widely perceived as something between a flop and a disaster. Even supporters complained that the president seemed listless, passive, peevish, disdainful and distracted. The president and his aides promised a comeback in Debate No. 2 – suddenly a must-win showdown, needed to stop the bleeding, reassure the base and stem a migration of independents to Romney.

Veteran political reporters Mark Halperin and John Heilemann report in “Double Down,” their buzzy, behind-the-scenes book on the 2012 election, that on the eve of the second debate, the usually self-possessed president was having doubts about his ability to rise to the occasion.

In their account, Obama confided to advisers that he was bothered about the thinness of his second-term agenda, and that his methodical temperament and training as a lawyer made it difficult for him to deliver the pointed, up-tempo and emotional performance his debate coaches wanted.

In the final rehearsals, the authors report, his debate coach Ron Klain would say “Fast and hammy! Fast and hammy!” whenever the president’s delivery started to flag.

Such provocative scenes – served up with fuzzy sourcing and breezy prose – pepper “Double Down.” The book testifies to its authors’ energetic legwork and insider access, while pointing up their eagerness to emphasize the roles that personality and process (as opposed to pure policy) play in politics.

“Double Down” won’t substantially alter how politically informed readers see Obama or Romney, and it sheds light on the current faceoff between the White House and its Republican critics mainly by indirection, underscoring the pettiness and self-serving spin engaged in by both sides. But those hungry for political news will read “Double Down” for the scooplets and insidery glimpses it serves up about the two campaigns, and the clues it offers about the positioning already going on among Republicans and Democrats for 2016.

The authors recount a September 2011 White House meeting in which they say Obama arrived with legal pages filled with notes and laid out his earnest and unsparing self-assessment: that over the past three years, he had too often trimmed his sails, allowing his more progressive impulses to be overshadowed by the demands of pragmatism. As the book recounts, the president told his advisers that he needed to push harder on vital issues he believed in, like climate change, immigration, poverty and same-sex marriage.

In that same meeting, the authors report, Obama seemed to be thinking about the killing of Osama bin Laden and the United States’ use of drones in the war against al-Qaida. “Turns out I’m really good at killing people,” they quote him as saying. “Didn’t know that was gonna be a strong suit of mine.”

In late 2011, when the president’s approval numbers were sinking, Halperin and Heilemann declare, some of Obama’s top aides considered replacing Vice President Joe Biden with Hillary Rodham Clinton on the ticket, going so far as to conduct polling on the subject.

As for the Republicans, Halperin and Heilemann ratify perceptions of a party riven with divisions and unhappy with its eventual nominee, Romney. In gossipy asides, they write that former Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi considered Romney to be “self-centered, tin-eared and inauthentic”; that Romney thought his fellow candidate Rick Santorum was “sanctimonious, severe and strange”; and that Christie regarded the former House Speaker Newt Gingrich as “the worst human being he had ever met in politics.”

The authors’ taste for highly caffeinated prose can sometimes feel forced, but for the most part they succeed in taking readers interested in the back-stabbing and backstage maneuvering of the 2012 campaign behind the curtains, providing a sense of what it looked like from the inside.

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