The morning after President Obama’s listless performance in his first debate with Mitt Romney, a wealthy supporter of the beleaguered GOP nominee appeared on MSNBC to express relief that, at last, “the universe will unfold the way it should.” Rather than unfold, however, it imploded. Last November, this overcompensated CEO watched helplessly as his dream of a leaner, meaner America spiraled into a black hole. Now, in his new book, Jonathan Alter provides some insight into how Obama won reelection despite a wounded economy, an energized right-wing and his own failings.
This is a sequel to The Promise, Alter’s bestselling account of Obama’s early days in office, a heady moment when he struggled to throw a leash around the two-headed monster (war and recession) George W. Bush bequeathed him. The Center Holds opens after the 2010 midterms, an historic “shellacking,” as Obama labeled it. Alter is a self-professed liberal, but he lays the bulk of the blame for this defeat on the president, a great orator surprisingly inept at defending his achievements, such as the stimulus and the health care law. This accomplished memoirist had no sense of narrative about his administration, a dereliction of duty that left him open to being defined by his enemies.
Luckily for him, they lacked discipline. Since their excesses revived the president’s fortunes, Alter gives them equal time. Whenever they had Obama on the ropes, they would do or say something — birtherism, voter suppression, “You lie!” — that turned off fair-minded citizens, allowing him to claim the mantle of reasonableness. The bumper sticker on ex-Congressman Barney Frank’s car put it best: “We’re Not Perfect, But They’re Nuts.”
But even Fox News could not always save the president from himself. During the 2011 debt ceiling crisis, the nation learned that the three scariest words in the English language are not “I love you” but “Obama seeks compromise.” In what Alter correctly calls the low point of Obama’s first term, the last vestige of mystique about him was stripped away by his naïve dealings with the new House Republican majority. “They’re arsonists,” was how Treasury Secretary Geithner characterized these default-happy radicals. And yet Obama thought he could persuade them to put down their gas cans. Instead he alienated his base, emboldened his opponents and befuddled independents. Comparisons to Jimmy Carter became less dismissible.
Much of this will be familiar to informed readers. Alter’s detailed reporting on Obama’s not-so-secret weapon, however, may generate a headline or two. He leads us into “the Cave,” the holy of holies where three teams of computer experts worked grueling hours to establish an insurmountable technological advantage over Romney. With pinpoint accuracy, they told the campaign what voters to target and where to allocate resources. Every day they called up to a million data-mined souls in battleground states, to gauge the temperature of the race. The other side had nothing like it. Despite being warned about a “geek gap,” the Republicans rejected this 21st century approach, preferring to go with an antiquated, Mad Men-style strategy.
Of all the mistakes the Romney staff made, perhaps the worst was underestimating the importance of their candidate’s unlikable personality. Obama was criticized by pundits and corporatist Democrats for pouring millions into summer attack ads emphasizing Romney’s controversial ties to Bain Capital. But this bold stroke proved decisive in the end, with its victim’s unwitting assistance.
Alter’s chapter on the “47 percent” debacle reads like a modernization of the parable of the rich fool. Scott Prouty, the intrepid bartender who recorded the infamous remarks at a Boca Raton fundraiser, was offended by Romney’s lordly attitude toward him and his fellow minions. But Prouty decided to bring his camera after hearing this self-made son of a multimillionaire praise the terrible living conditions at a Chinese slave labor factory.
The fork was ready to be stuck in Romney when Obama “almost threw his presidency away,” as Alter puts it, at the first debate. Alter’s portrait of Obama is not flattering; he writes that the president was complacent and cocky. “They’re making me do my homework,” Obama whined. He prepared by debating John Kerry six times — and got clobbered each time. Meanwhile the “severely conservative” Romney misrepresented himself as a moderate, throwing Obama off his game.
Of course, that is now merely a footnote. Obama is still in the White House and Romney is enjoying “open space areas” (parks) with his family. The anti-New Deal agenda the Republicans wanted to impose has been stopped — for the moment.
Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.