The Washington Post: Review: ‘The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies’ by Jonathan Alter

June 28th, 2013

The Washington Post
by Ken Gormley
June 28, 2013

If you’re expecting the salty dialogue and high drama of John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s “Game Change” — dealing with the wild-and-woolly presidential campaign of 2008 — or the historical gravitas of Theodore White’s “The Making of the President” books, this might not be for you. Instead, Jonathan Alter’s “The Center Holds” offers an elegant, intelligent, crisply constructed account of President Obama’s second two years in the White House and his quiet march to a second term. It will be required reading for any serious student of the Obama presidency, present or future.

One of America’s most highly respected political journalists, Alter has covered nine presidential elections. Here he makes a singular contribution by capturing Obama’s famously inscrutable political persona and demystifying it in the context of his daily work as president. Based upon his long-standing ties to the world of Chicago politics, Alter has gained access to key people within the president’s orbit, enabling him to create a rich portrait of a chief executive who is at once a brilliant political leader and someone who recoils from politics as a trade.

Alter is unabashedly pro-Democratic and sympathetic to his subject. Yet he is scrupulous in flagging down missteps and screwups by the Obama administration (and Obama himself), which saves the book from being a one-sided homage to a sitting president. There are plenty of gems here.

We see Obama calmly going about his daily work without tipping off top advisers as he makes the gut-wrenching decision to send Navy SEALs to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, knowing that the odds are only 50-50 that the mission will succeed. When the al-Qaeda leader is killed and Obama reviews gruesome pictures of the corpse, he instructs the military not to release them, declaring: “We don’t trot this stuff out as trophies.”

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