on June 5, 2013
The Center Holds begins with the mid-term elections in 2010 and ends shortly after Obama's reelection in November 2012. Although Obama's policy decisions obviously come up, this is largely the story of the chess match between Obama and his allies against the newly emboldened Republicans/Tea Party after the 2010 election and into the 2012 election.
Alter obviously had wonderful sources in putting together this book. Having followed the politics day by day, I think he did a masterful job of capturing the chaotic dealings on the past few years. Although the general strokes of the battles are well known, Alter tells the story based on insider knowledge that didn't always exist at the time these events were playing out.
I especially enjoyed the chapters dealing with the 2012 election and Obama's campaign machine. Obama set out with a highly analytical campaign that Romney ultimately could not compete with. Alter establishes that Obama was not running the "hopey changey" campaign that he was accused of relying on. Instead, his campaign was data-driven and precisely managed to ensure a victory. I am convinced that no one that reads with book can remained skeptical of Obama's intelligence or his management skills. Against this, the Republicans relied on a strategy that has always worked for them with great results: win by any means necessary, calling on every resource available. As Alter acknowledges, Republicans scored some big victories, although not the biggest.
Alter doesn't present a strong political slant in relaying the facts of the last two years, although you can tell that he believes the right side "won." He doesn't present Obama as a radical left-wing socialist, but rather a small-c "conservative" that is seeking to hold the center to maintain the current state of the U.S. government. That he managed to do this in the midst of the conservative tempest that has been whipping around the nation for the past few years is an amazing feat. And, as Alter recognizes, his victories since 2010 will likely influence the shape of the U.S. for many years to come. If Clinton is elected in 2016 to continue Obama's policies, the right's dream of radically changing the U.S. really bears no hope in the near term. On the other side, I think Alter acknowledges that the Republicans have been successful in stopping Obama's agenda in many ways and will likely thwart future change for many years as they continue to hold the House. Alter is obviously in favor of the liberal side, but I didn't think he was avoiding inconvenient truths or grossly mischaracterizing the Republicans.
In short, if you're a political junkie, you'll love this book. Of course, this is a story about Obama and, ultimately, his reelection. If you can't believe that happened, you probably won't enjoy this book. But at the same time, it may be a worthwhile read in a "know your enemy" sense.
Setting aside politics, this is a well written book. It is dense with information but Alter manages to write the narrative in a gripping fashion that will keep you turning the pages (even though you already know the conclusion). Alter is publishing this book in a unique window of time by reporting on the recent history: not exactly contemporaneously in a day-by-day fashion, but also not through the long lens of history. I believe that these last few years will be viewed with great importance and I think Alter's book will stand the test of time for capturing this chess match. I look forward to revisiting this book in a decade or so to see how important these battles were to the war over the direction of the United States.
on June 10, 2013
If you follow politics closely or just watched a couple of clips about the 2012 presidential campaign this is a MUST book. Alter takes us inside both the campaign headquarters and on the road with Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama.
He doesn't make either man a saint. He presents incredible insight to each person and the author was privy to both men including emails they sent him. It's a story how high tech campaigns became THE way to campaign...how SuperPacs spent tens of millions of dollars on ads that ended up being worthless.
And the author just writes so well! I found myself re-reading lines that just caught a moment perfectly.
Alter has a chapter revealing the man who secretly videotaped Mitt Romney at the $50,000 a person fundraiser in Boca Raton...The 47% speech to his buddies..other multi-milllioniares...comfortable within his peer group he showed a true side.
But even better, the author brings up Romney's great qualities as an analytical, professional but loving man as father and husband who was a bishop in his church. The campaign had produced a beautiful film showing Mitt at his best...BUT THEY DIDN'T SHOW THAT ON PRIME TIME AT THE REPUBLICAN NATIONAL CONVENTION IN TAMPA! Instead we got an out-of-control 82 year old Clint Eastwood talking to an empty chair. How no one had bothered to get Eastwood's written speech and put it on a teleprompter before he started talking as they were so awed by his celebrity status.
But he doesn't let Obama off the hook either. The author really honed in on the prep for the debates...How Obama simply hated debating and felt it was somehow beneath the president of the United States to have to share a stage "as equals" with an "empty suit."
The chapter "The Clown Car" was superb. He put in the gaffes that the Republican candidates made in their TWENTY-TWO primary debates. But he explained what led up to many of this seemingly inappropriate or idiotic remarks. Rick Perry was mocked for his not remembering the third federal agency he wanted to get rid of (the famous "oops" moment). But the author explained that Governor Perry had had recent spinal fusion surgery and pain had kept him awake the night before the debate..He was exhausted. But the rest of the gaffes came from each Republican candidate who tried to be the most fringe right wing person possible in an effort to appease the Tea Party component of the Republican Party. The 2010 mid-term elections had sent so many Tea Party candidates to Congress, that these candidates felt they had to GET THAT TEA PARTY VOTE! But actually by 2012, the Tea Party really had no power. So the candidates were appealing to a base that simply didn't exist anymore. The basic idea of the Republican party was that after the primary only then could the candidates come back to some moderate or centrist position.
The whole election wasn't about the Republican vs the Democratic party. Instead it was a vote for keeping America's best values...a social safety net for every American...not handouts, not welfare... but taking into account that 95% of Americans had used some sort of federal support in their lives. We couldn't lose that central idea.
Superb book..Recommend highly. It's a book I'm going to send to friends and keep to read again and I ONLY have kept about three books that I have bought. I usually give it to another person or give it to a library for others to read. But this book I will re-read.
As Barney Frank's bumper sticker so aptly put it, "We're not perfect; but they're crazy." Alter describes President Obama's mistakes, but also the organized intransigence of Obama's conservative enemies, who were (and are) determined to bring down him and his policies, regardless of the cost to the nation. Their ideological rigidity and crazy, counter-factual economic theories, as well as the racist sentiments that they exploited through "dog whistles" and other coded messages, have produced the gridlock we are experiencing today. Alter documents all this with interviews, written statements and the public record, showing how the coalition between deficit hawks, war hawks, libertarians, the Christian Right and the conservative media was drawn further to the extreme right by so-called Tea Party activists.
This book is readable, smart and well-documented. The "socialist" blah, blah, blah comments of the one-star reviewers here should tip you off as to whose excesses Alter systematically exposes. Are these the people whom we want running our economy? Our nation? Even conservatives - the ones who are not crazy - would do well to read Alter's book. You deal with the devil, and you become the devil's business partner. The Republican Party, Alter shows his readers, has been overrun by the people whom it thought it was using - and the nation is far the worse for the bargain.
on June 29, 2013
In the author's note at the beginning of this book, Jonathan Alter concedes his own personal liberal bias, but undertakes to the reader that he will use his best efforts to overcome this and to provide an accurate chronicle and analysis of the 2012 US Presidential Election. Sometimes the historian in him wins out and sometimes it is his partisan half that is victorious. It is clear throughout the book that Alter has a strong admiration for President Barack Obama, while only occasionally tossing in a good word about Republican candidate Mitt Romney. Accordingly, the reader's enjoyment of or contempt for this book will be influenced by the reader's personal political leanings. It is unfortunate that contemporary history seems difficult to report without losing some objectivity in today's polarized political climate, but at least Alter fesses up to his leanings right from the start.
Alter takes as a given many notions that those on the political right will take strong issue with and offense to. For example, he characterizes the Tea Party as a racially biased reaction against an African-American president (as opposed to people who are simply fed up with dysfunctional government). He believes that those on the right are motivated not by any principles, but by something he calls "Obama Derangement Syndrome" in which extremely offensive criticism of the president (e.g. comparison to Hitler) is not restricted to those on the fringes on the right, but is more endemic among Republicans. He presumes that legislation regarding voter eligibility intends to suppress the votes of minorities and those marginalized by society and that it is not intended to prevent voter fraud. Not all readers will concur with him on these and other base assumptions that Alter makes throughout the book.
In spite of these author-centric foundations of non-universal approval, the book is a comprehensive replay of the 2012 election, its issues and events. Alter gives a detailed and educational description of the inner workings of the campaigns, especially Obama's and its novel approach to fund-raising, voter identification, effective use of social media and getting out the vote. Specific events during the course of the campaign are given thoughtful analysis, including the killing of Osama Bin Laden, attacks on Obamacare, and the debt ceiling crisis. Alter also examines the changing demographics of voters in America and how the Obama campaign was successful in appealing to Latino voters, women, youth and in keeping African-American voters onside. His explanation of the workings of the "Super-Pacs" and how they were effectively and ineffectively managed during the campaign is also very insightful.
Alter expounds upon some key campaign decisions that impacted the outcome of the election. For example it was not only the Obama campaign's decision to attack Mitt Romney on his strength (as someone seen as capable of fixing a bad economy) by portraying Romney as a vulture capitalist that was a significant campaign strategy. It was also the timing of that attack, which was strongest after Romney had wrapped up the nomination but before the convention, at a time when Romney was unable to access campaign funds to fight back. This strategy framed the debate going into the final months of the election and left Romney on the defensive. The infliction of wounds from the contested Republican nomination coupled with the Romney campaign's decision not to answer the attacks is examined. Alter writes in detail about how Scott Prouty came to record Romney's famous 47% comment, as well as why Obama lost the first debate and how he rebounded in subsequent debates. Alter's post-election analysis and his examination of exit polling data is also very interesting and it leads to a fascinating discussion of the future of the Republican Party and whether the moderates like Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (who famously said that Republicans had become "the stupid party") or the more conservative faction will drive the party bus in the next election.
As a record of what happened in the 2012 election, this is a very good accounting and analysis. It is unfortunate that this information could not be conveyed in such a way that all readers could receive it without cheering or jeering, depending on the reader's personal political slant. Alter the historian is a much more enjoyable author than Alter the partisan.
Something startling happened in the 2012 election: President Obama won re-election by a healthy margin despite a slowly recovering economy, an incredible infusion of money into electoral politics, a concerted effort by the opposition to suppress voter turnout, and an opponent whose party members went overboard with insults and invective. Jonathan Alter tells the story of that unexpected victory in detail in a very well-written chronicle, starting from the disastrous losses in the midterm election of 2010 and ending with the election and its immediate aftermath. Politics is still adjusting to the surprising outcome.
It is a story worth telling because it serves as an informative background to much going on right now. Alter never conceals his own preferences, but this is far from a partisan screed--instead it is a balanced and useful recounting of what happened in the election of 2012. We are confronted with so many news stories during a campaign, that a review giving perspective-- and bringing out details obscured by all the noise-- is a necessary and valuable addition.
on March 28, 2014
Alter gives the reader a brief look at U.S. politics in the year-and-half prior to the 2012 election. This setup is to give the reader context, partially, as to why the election turned out the way it did.
Alter's more detailed account of the election itself is really unbiased; pointing flaws by both Obama and Romney. However, Romney, partially due to a long primary fight, ended up making more gaffes, flip-flops, and amateurish mistakes. On top of that, Romney clearly showed he was out of touch with middle class America. While Romney was caring and empathetic in private, for, whatever reasons, he and his campaign never showed that on the trail.
Romney's running of his campaign more as a business hurt his chances as well. Instead of adopting innovative analytics, like the Obama campaign did in both 2008 and 2012, he greatly hurt his chances of developing messages that resonated with voters. But his 47 percent remark did show a darker side to the man. The man responsible for shooting the video, Prouty, remembered how Romney was amazed at how, during the same speech Romney made the 47 percent remark, a fence was designed to keep people on the outside from coming into a sweatshop in China. Prouty remembered how Romney showed no sadness or empathy and was willing to pan to the Republican base after wrapping up the nomination instead of continuing to run a centrist campaign like he usually did during the primaries.
Obama made mistakes along the way, too. Obama was slow at making certain decisions at critical points in the campaign, which tended to hurt him at particular moments. Not to mention, in his first two years in office, he was so focused on learning the political game inside D.C. that he completely forgot that his greatest asset was the American people. When pushing Obamacare through, he regrets not stump-speeching more on the issue and this, unfortunately, led to Republicans spinning Obamacare successfully as "death panels."
Obama wasn't into schmoozing in the political arena either. He preferred to govern and get things done. Sadly, this led to many people, who were used to presidents schmoozing as part of their job, believing Obama to be arrogant and out of touch. This developed some heated, and in some cases broken, relationships Obama had created during his initial run for president in 2008. Obama was no fan of Romney either. In fact, he despised him. Obama thought Romney to be an empty suit who was out of touch with the poor and middle class and had a lot handed to him in life; to which there is a lot of truth in.
Obama admits to his first debate as being, not only his fault, but a complete failure. While he hated debates, he made sure he got his punches in the final two and took a couple of big ones at Romney in the final debate.
"The Center Holds" is a wonderful book that does a wonderful job at painting both candidates, and campaigns, in a humanizing and unbiased way. For those who love politics, and want to know a little bit more about the inner workings of the 2012 election, this book is worth your time!
on September 2, 2013
Several 5 star reviewers have stated that the book was well sourced and well written, therefore his conclusions on how Barack Obama is a centrist democrat fighting the good fight for the beleaguered American citizenry must be correct. If you think that this is the criteria for a truthful tome, then you will simply LOVE, Ann Coulter's recent book, "Mugged: Racial Demagoguery from the Seventies to Obama". It too is well sourced and well written and is even read by the author.
I gave the book 4 stars because it was, indeed, well sourced and well written. I found myself rolling my eyes as I read it, that a seemingly objective journalist could find little fault in anything Obama did other than not prepare for the first debate.
My takeaway from the book: If not for the Herculean effort of the Chicago operations, especially the inhabitants of "The Cave", the group that parsed the data, Obama might not have won re-election and the country would have been hurled backwards 100 years to a Cro-Magnon presidency where all the Republicans would do is take money from poor people and carve the spoils up in the form of massive tax cuts to billionaires. While many whites are accused of being racist by NOT voting for a black candidate (who's policy, coincidentally, they oppose to their core), Alter lionizes the efforts of black pastors whose "Souls to the Polls" effort drove busloads of church members to early voting. The fact that 93% of African-Americans voted monolithically for the African-American candidate is seen by Alter as a natural occurrence and no big deal.
Another theme, central to this book, is Alter's "voter suppression" rap against Republicans. The numerous ways to vote beyond the traditional register-in-advance-and-vote-on-election-day way that voting has been done for two centuries are a very recent invention. The fact that Republicans see that Democrats have taken these new ways to vote and leveraged them to benefit primarily their own party seems lost upon him. He sees Republican efforts to curtail these new features as a mean and vindictive way of "suppressing" people's constitutional right to vote for Democrats. If these methods of voting are so egalitarian, why not allow voting one year in advance? Especially for people who know who they are going to vote for regardless of the issues? And why check ID? No one would cheat, right?
I learned a lot about the opposition by reading this book. I also learned that the chances of a Republican victory in the future are limited. The only saving grace is that when the payment for Obama's policies (which would be legion had the Republican not 'obstructed' the President and the people) come due in the future, the very folks who are voting for Obama today will be the ones to pick up the tab tomorrow.
While casting Team Romney as totally out of touch, this book leaves me with the impression that the Obama re-election team was not as much "in touch with the people" as they were "on their game".
on August 16, 2013
My stepfather, a Democrat and political junkie, gave me this book. I expected it to be heavily biased, and was pleasantly surprised to find the author's restraint.
It is definitely biased towards President Obama, the author exposes faults as well as virtues. He describes many of the failings of the first term, then goes into detail about the 2012 campaign, which he portrays less as a Democrat victory than a Republican failure of marketing. The Republicans had an almost perfect setup for victory, but a series of missteps on their part, and some game-changing plays from the Democrats resulted in President Obama's reelection, and an opportunity to address some of the failings of his first term.
on July 20, 2013
Luck has nothing to do with Obama's winning. It had everything to do with wisdom, sensitivity to people and their needs, reading the signs of the times and interpreting them in the light of the mission of leadership. Now Jonathan Alter narrates that story in a way that makes it possible for you to be there yourself!
on December 1, 2013
“The Center Holds” packs a lot of insight into one volume. Alter is a seasoned journalist who admits his own passions and biases. This election account is essentially told from the Democratic perspective, but he diligently chides Obama for the president’s obvious and numerous first-term failures: message bungling prior to the 2010 election, staff upheaval and cronyism/musical-chairs, a disastrous first debate against Romney. A good share of the book’s first half will be hard for diehard lefties to absorb. On the other hand, Alter definitely skewers the far-right media groups and the emerging never-compromise Tea Party forces even McCain derides as “wacko-birds.” The book skimps on the colorful Republican primary season; very quickly, the match settles in between the two main players. I enjoyed the analysis, but am hoping that Dan Balz’s book and "Double Down" will have more of the day-to-day drama of what both sides concede was an important choice election for America.