The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies
By Jonathan Alter
Simon & Schuster, 448 pages
Advertised as “a narrative thriller about the battle royale surrounding Barack Obama’s quest for a second term,” Jonathan Alter’s The Center Holds is the second installment of a likely three-volume account of the Obama presidency. Now, if the second of three books about an incumbent politician by an admiring journalist sounds appealing to readers, then The Center Holds might be worth the cost and time. Otherwise, the student of contemporary history might wish to refrain from investing. Strictly speaking, there is nothing to be learned here—almost nothing whatsoever—not known already to the faithful consumer of newspapers and magazines.
The author has been granted various personal interviews, and access to the periphery of the Obama White House, including scenes which seem to have been staged for his benefit. (“The president was feeling liberated and free to express himself a little more now….One of his African American friends, switching to street vernacular, said, ‘Well, I guess that makes it perfectly clear: youse a bad motherf—er.”) But it is no surprise to observe that President Obama and his associates are very careful about what they say to Alter, and the conclusions Alter draws about what he observes are equally unsurprising.
Anyone familiar with Barack Obama, or with Jonathan Alter, can easily guess the theme of The Center Holds. Briefly stated, it is this: Barack Obama is a liberal Democrat of uncommon political skills who, with little preparation or standing for high office, has twice gained election to the presidency. This has been accomplished by a combination of Obama’s innate talents, as well as the ruthless machinery of his staff and associates. It has also been accompanied by a political opposition that is benighted, inept, disorganized, and outmaneuvered. Even a Republican might be willing to concede that, having lost the last two presidential elections, all is not well with the Grand Old Party; and this Republican, certainly, would argue that the field of candidates in 2012 was notably weak.
But it is always dangerous in politics, and perilous in journalism, to assume that the side you don’t approve of has lost its grip on reality, or is “extreme,” which is Alter’s considered judgment of the Republican Party. The same journalistic epithets have been attached to past Republicans—Alter came of age during the Reagan years—and yet they enjoyed electoral success. Did the center not hold in 1984?
Alter is not blind to Obama’s liabilities, and concedes that the president’s strengths—his intelligence, detachment, analytical nature—can be weaknesses as well. No one in his right mind would welcome regular consultation with, say, Senator Harry Reid, but Obama’s aloofness from his party in Congress, his fierce determination to keep his own counsel, has cost him points. And Obama, despite what you may read, is a politician, not purely a man of destiny. He finds himself constrained by facts and events, he is willing to follow rather than lead public sentiment, he travels down paths only as far as he can go.
Alter is caught between admiration for what Obama has achieved and frustration at what he believes Obama might have achieved. In that sense, of course, he is entitled to his opinion, which is nearly indistinguishable from the standard left-wing critique of Obama. But this merely points to the weakness of books such as The Center Holds: They are chronicles of daily politics, told strictly from a partisan standpoint, almost entirely devoid of pertinent detail or historical perspective. You would not guess, for example, that Obama’s principal “enemy,” Mitt Romney, won 47.5 percent of the popular vote in 2012, or that the months-long aftermath of Obama’s victory was consumed with an issue—gun control—that goes unmentioned in The Center Holds.
Similarly, the reader of Theodore H. White’s The Making of the President 1960 (1961) would not have known that the first year of John F. Kennedy’s presidency would reveal his weakness and irresolution, or that Kandy Stroud’s How Jimmy Won (1977) would celebrate a presidency synonymous even in its first year with failure. Obama’s second term has followed this pattern. The revelations of Edward Snowden’s leaks about surveillance, the discovery that IRS bureaucrats have been targeting conservatives, the campaign to obscure the facts about the murder of the United States ambassador to Libya—none of this figures in The Center Holds. The intuitive reader might assume that Obama, like the grand old Duke of York, would march his men up the hill toward Syria, and then march them down again; but having read The Center Holds, he wouldn’t expect it. All he would know for sure is that Jonathan Alter, like most political journalists, yearns to record the chronicle of a hero; and that, in Barack Obama, he has found one.