Q&A with With Jonathan Alter, author of The Center Holds

Jonathan Alter, a Bloomberg columnist and former editor at Newsweek, is the first out of the gate with a look at the 2012 election. His book, The Center Holds, examines how the 2010 race affected the 2012 campaign and President Obama’s relationships with everyone from the Koch brothers to Congress.

Alter talked to The Hill about Obama’s dealings with Congress, how the president used technology in 2012 much better than his GOP counterparts, and how Obama has subcontracted too much of congressional relations.

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Q: Why did you decide to write the book and what’s the focus?

I decided to write the book because I thought that the 2010 election was much more significant than people realized at the time in that it keyed up a much more ideological choice in 2012 than we faced in 2008.

Q: The book is subtitled “Obama and his enemies.” Is Congress one of his enemies?

[Their relationship is] partly his fault and partly due to obstruction in Congress. So I proportion blame and try to provide some insight into the debt ceiling fiasco, which I call the low point of Obama’s presidency. 

Q: You talk about Obama’s cool personality. How did that affect his relationships with Congress?

The president has left a major tool in the tool shed, and we’ll see now whether he takes it out and uses [it]. … What he fails to understand is that effective presidents realize that all politics is personal, and you have to have these personal relationships to fall back on in a jam. 

So if you’re a Democratic senator and you go home and talk to your constituents a lot of them want to know: ‘You know the president. How’s the president?’ You don’t really want to answer, ‘I haven’t talked to the president in 18 months.’ It’s pretty embarrassing and doesn’t bring a lot of goodwill. … It doesn’t give the president a lot of personal relationships to fall back on in the Democratic caucus. … He kind of delegated congressional relations to [then-White House chief of staff) Rahm Emanuel, [Vice President] Joe Biden and [White House director of Legislative Affairs] Phil Schiliro in the first term, but he delegated too much of it.

Q: Your book also goes into how the Obama campaign used technology better than Republicans in 2012.

I think the Obama campaign will change the way all congressional campaigns are run: the way they connected technology to shoe leather canvassing; the way they connected technology and the Web to fundraising. … I think that almost every well-funded congressional race will have a couple kind of people that understand analytics. … As Jeremy Bird, who was the head of field directing for Obama, told me, you can have the greatest analytics in the world, but if you don’t have the volunteers, it’s not going to do you very much good. So the technology is not the substitute for message … but it certainly intensifies and multiples for every campaign.

Q: Talk about Obama’s and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) relationship. 

Reid had a poor relationship with [former White House chief of staff] Bill Daley. … In private, Reid wished Obama did more schmoozing with his caucus. He felt that he, [Majority Leader Dick] Durbin and [Chairman of the Democratic Caucus Charles] Schumer had to do some of the work previous presidents had done and whether that will change in the second term, I don’t know. … Reid has a very strong relationship with the president. The president appreciates Reid. … [Obama] has a good relationship with leadership, but he didn’t bother to build relationships with committee chairs or others. He subcontracted too much of congressional relations.

Q: Anything else about your book you want to mention.

I just want to ensure that insiders on [Capitol] Hill recognize that even they will still learn things from this book that they didn’t know. I’m very confident of that. … There’s a tendency to go, ‘I’m versed in politics all day, every day. What am I going to learn from a book about 2012?’ While I can’t give you a money back guarantee, I know you’re going to learn a lot from this book.

ABOUT THE BOOK

The Center Holds: Obama and his enemies

By Jonathan Alter

Simon & Schuster, June 2013

448 pages, $30.00