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Book Review: The Center Holds - Obama and His Enemies by Jonathan Alter

In the author's note at the beginning of his book The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies, 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.
Tags: author: a, genre: non-fiction, review, subject: history

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