'The Center Holds': How President Obama has dealt with his detractors
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In "The Center Holds," NBCNews contributing correspondent Jonathan Alter examines the inner workings of Barack Obama's presidency and the efforts to undermine it by the president's political nemeses. Here's an excerpt.
President Obama sat hunched over in the second-floor Treaty Room of the White House. It was Election Night 2010, and he was doing his best to offer some solace in a time of loss. The president spent that night and most of the next day on the telephone—hour after hour, call after call, a cortege of funereal conversations with defeated members of Congress.
Reaching out didn’t come naturally to this president, who normally preferred spending his evenings having dinner with his family and reading policy memos (with ESPN on in the background) to chatting with a bunch of politicians he barely knew. His detached and self-contained nature had hampered his presidency, though accounts differed over how much. Obama knew abstractly that he needed to establish what he repeatedly called an “inclusive” White House, but he much preferred the company of friends, his staff, and the extraordinary people he met in his travels to schmoozing in Washington. While The Godfather was one of his favorite movies, he sometimes seemed to have forgotten Hyman Roth’s famous line, “This is the business we’ve chosen.” This business, on this Election Night, was mostly about condolence calls. His personal secretary, Katie Johnson, stayed at her desk until 2 a.m. emailing him the phone numbers of every defeated Democrat on Capitol Hill and several who survived—nearly a hundred calls in all. He was gracious on the phone and between calls remarked to aides how sad it was to lose this member or that in the political earthquake they had just experienced.
The president felt personal affection for early 2008 supporters such as Tom Perriello, Patrick Murphy, and Steve Kagen, who went down in the House, and he reached out to defeated Democrats Russ Feingold and Blanche Lincoln in the Senate. He knew many of the others less well but was genuinely sorry about their fates. A large collection of smart young political leaders saw their careers crash and burn because they voted for health care reform or for the climate change bill that passed the House but died in the Senate, or simply because they were depicted as Obama Democrats. “I really wish I could have done more for those guys,” he told Pete Rouse, his interim chief of staff.
Obama also placed a couple of congratulatory calls to important politicians he knew only from a few meetings. Mitch McConnell, the owlish minority leader of the Senate, had never in two years been to the White House for a one-on-one session with the president. John Boehner, the incoming Speaker of the House, caught the attention of young Obama aides mostly for drinking too much at a White House reception in early 2009 and asking if there was any place to smoke; he was so far off the Obama team’s radar on Election Night that Katie Johnson searched unsuccessfully for his cell phone number before finally getting it from someone at the Democratic National Committee. The snubs went both ways: Neither Republican leader had accepted the president’s invitations to attend state dinners, where politics traditionally gave way to the national interest, and they insisted that a small dinner for the congressional leadership hosted by the president after the midterms be changed to a lower-profile lunch. Obama aides thought that Boehner in particular paid a price with his Obama-despising caucus every time he met with Obama. Boehner said that was bull.
Now McConnell and Boehner could no longer be ignored. When the returns were complete, the GOP had won in a rout. Democrats held a narrow three-seat margin in the Senate, but Republicans had captured sixty-three House seats—the most that had changed hands since 1948. That chamber would soon be controlled by men and women who could not accurately be called members of the Grand Old Party. Boehner may have been an old-fashioned Republican, but he was out-flanked by shock troops of the American right—activists elected in opposition to the party establishment that would now seek to corral their votes. The freshmen joined veteran lawmakers who had watched Boehner and company lose the Congress in 2006 and suffer further reversals in 2008.*1 They too owed little allegiance to the new speaker. Whether or not they identified with the Tea Party (and even most fresh-man declined to join the Tea Party caucus), these Republicans were impatient with the old guard and hell-bent on radical and immediate reductions in the size of government.
Boehner was so spooked by the freshmen that he felt forced to retreat from a word that lay at the center of the entire experiment in self-government envisioned by the founders. A month after the midterms, the soon-to-be-speaker sat down with Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes, who asked him why he rejected the idea of compromise. “When you say the word ‘compromise,’ a lot of Americans look up and go, ‘Uh oh, they’re gonna sell me out,’ ” Boehner said. “And so finding common ground, I think, makes more sense.”
Beyond Congress, Republicans also won a landslide in the states, where they took eleven governorships, including five in battleground states won by Obama in 2008. It could have been even worse: In five other blue states, the Democratic candidate for governor won by fewer than ten thousand votes. All told, the GOP now had control of twenty-nine of the fifty statehouses. Less noticed but perhaps more significant, Republicans picked up 680 state legislative seats, giving them control of more than half of state legislative chambers, the most since 1928. Not a single analyst on Election Night predicted what this might mean for election rules that could shape the outcome of the presidential race in 2012.
Democrats had the misfortune of getting clobbered in a census year, which meant a painful loss was potentially catastrophic. The loss of twenty state legislative chambers to Republicans meant that new congressional maps—drawn in state capitals every decade—would almost certainly lock in GOP control of the House for the foreseeable future. In the month ahead, the Republicans’ master plan, called the Redistricting Majority Project (REDMAP), worked beautifully. In the seventy congressional districts labeled “competitive” in 2010, Republicans in 2011 were able to gerrymander forty-seven, compared to only fifteen for Democrats, with the remainder redrawn on a nonpartisan basis.*2 The result would be about fifty fewer competitive seats in the House of Representatives in 2012, which would mean more Republicans and fewer moderates in either party and thus fewer opportunities for compromise.
Meanwhile Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa—all states easily carried by Obama in 2008—would now be in the hands of Republican governors and state legislatures with plenty of tools to hurt the other party, the most potent of which would be a series of measures making it harder to vote. These blue states would soon have House delegations that were as much as two-thirds red, an undemocratic result locked in by redistricting. If Republicans could meet expectations by winning the Senate and the presidency, the conservative base—even if out of step with young and minority voters— would have control of all three branches of the federal government.
The 2010 rebuke to Obama reflected a powerful message from the voters who bothered to go to the polls: Two years is enough time to get the country back on track. They didn’t want to hear how the recession was officially over, how much worse it could have been, or how impressive it was that Obama pushed more major legislation through Congress in his first two years than any president since Lyndon Johnson. Democrats bore a large share of blame for their own predicament. They chose to hold the president to a standard of perfection instead of working to hold a Democratic Congress.
Obama’s response to his circumstances had been a belated effort to blame the other party, as Franklin Roosevelt had blamed Herbert Hoover’s Republicans and Reagan had blamed Carter’s Democrats during their first midterms. “They [Republicans] drove us into the ditch,” Obama shouted at 2010 campaign rallies. “Don’t give ’em back the keys!” The line was necessary but not sufficient. Reminding voters of the failed past wasn’t enough without offering a coherent message for the future. A pragmatic absence of ideology was no shield against the other side’s passionate ideology. Even in heavily blue New York City, the president couldn’t fill the small ballroom of the Roosevelt Hotel when the tickets were only $100. If the still popular Michelle hadn’t hit the campaign trail at the end, the damage would likely have been even worse.
When David Axelrod talked to the president on the day after the election, they agreed they had gotten their butts kicked. He tried to lift Obama’s spirits by predicting that the GOP would overreach, thus setting up his reelection in 2012. But then Axelrod thought of Winston Churchill’s comment after he was defeated for reelection as prime minister in 1945: “If this is a blessing, it is certainly well-disguised.”
Publicly Axelrod tried to put the best face possible on the results, noting that Democrats had managed to defy expectations and hold the Senate. Of course, that was no thanks to the White House. Colorado, Nevada, and Delaware stayed in the Democratic column because of weak Tea Party challengers, including one who was forced to deny she was a witch. The Democrats’ turnout explanations were more convincing. Only 80 million Americans voted in 2010, compared to 130 million in 2008. Even accounting for the normal drop-off in midterm elections, that difference was staggering. Where were those missing 50 million voters? They would have to be lured back to the polls if Obama was to have any chance of reelection.
Even before the 2010 votes were fully counted, attention was already shifting to 2012, when Democrats would defend twenty Senate seats to the Republicans’ thirteen. It was hard to find anyone in Washington who would give the Democrats odds on holding the Senate. This view would persist. In November of 2011, a year before the 2012 election, Charlie Cook, a well-regarded Washington prognosticator, wrote that in the “best-case scenario” Democrats would lose only three seats, enough to give Republicans control if a Republican vice president broke the tie. (Cook’s projections of a Republican Senate continued well into 2012). If Obama was defeated for reelection—and the odds now favored that too—conservative Republicans would control the presidency, the Congress, and the Supreme Court. They would repeal almost everything Obama had achieved and push the nation sharply to the right.
Less than two years after arriving in Washington as a historic figure heralding a new era, Barack Obama was a wounded president fighting for his political life. The bloggers and cable blowhards who hyped his rise now outdid themselves chronicling his fall. Many confidently invoked statistics about the effect of pocketbook issues on incumbency: Unemployment in October 2010 was a grim 10.2 percent, up 2.5 points from the day Obama took office twenty-two months before. No president had been reelected with an unemployment rate above 7.2 percent since FDR amid the Great Depression in 1936, and that was after the rate fell by a quarter. The consensus in the media was that anything above 8 percent or so would mean the end of the Obama presidency.
Obama despised the noisy cable culture and tried to ignore the manic-depressive fever charts of political fortunes that had come to define public life in the capital. But the car in the ditch was his now, and no one knew if he could haul it out.
1* Many Republicans attributed their huge losses in 2006 and 2008 to the Iraq War. They argued that without that war there would have been no Democratic majority, no President Obama, and no Obamacare.
2* The word gerrymander dates back to 1812. It came from the redistricting map drawn by Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry, which included a district drawn roughly in the shape of a salamander.
The Center Holds copyright © 2013 by Jonathan Alter. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc, NY.