This week, Weekend Reader brings you an excerpt from Jonathan Alter’s new book, The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies. Don’t jump to conclusions — this isn’t your run-of-the-mill Obama-loving account of his life and presidency. But trust us, you won’t see it on any Fox News bestseller list either. Alter delves into President Obama’s campaigns and his presidency with the help of well-placed sources close to the center of power in both Washington and Chicago. The Center Holds provides a candid account of the many ups — and countless downs — of this president’s tumultuous tenure.
You can purchase the book here.
Significant political change in the United States is usually the result of social movements that work their way into the political realm. The years 2009–12 saw the emergence of an angry reactionary movement that will be best remembered for the part it played in the 2010 midterms and for the severe political dysfunction that flowed from that election. Its racial and ethnic undertones were subordinated to a brilliant marketing pitch: the old whines of even older white conservatives bottled as a refreshing new tonic for anxious voters.
At bottom, the Tea Party—the fastest growing political brand of the modern era—was more a temperament than a specific agenda for change. Its unifying idea was visceral opposition to the left in general and to Barack Obama in particular, especially to Obamacare and what conservatives considered the “socialistic” expansion of government. The movement was animated by a sense of foreboding that the survival of the nation was on the line, with opposition to immigration and Islam bringing together disparate elements of the coalition. Obama’s “otherness,” his not-from-here quality, became a euphemism for race and fueled absurd conspiracy theories.
At first it seemed as if the Tea Party was a godsend to the GOP. The energy it brought to the conservative movement helped its five pre-existing wings get along. The economic establishment wing (deficit hawks), the neoconservative wing (foreign policy hawks), the antigovernment libertarian wing, and the Christian right wing all worked together with the help of the Murdoch-owned media wing: Fox News, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and the New York Post.
One of the achievements of the Tea Party was to convince social conservatives to embrace an economic agenda. To Rob Stein, one of the founders of the liberal Democracy Alliance, this was an important moment in recent political history. Stein figured the billionaires subsidizing the conservative infrastructure must have experienced “orgiastic joy” when they found out the Tea Party could be the arms and legs of libertarianism and turn it into a grassroots movement. The result was that one strain of conservatism, an ideology of enlightened selfishness, took center stage.
It wasn’t clear if the energy behind the movement would translate into genuine power on the ground, where the Republican gap with Democrats seemed to be shrinking. Unions, once the backbone of the Democratic Party, had slid from representing 35 percent of American workers in 1954 to 11 percent in 2012 (and only 7 percent in the private sector). Labor still had plenty of bite, especially when it came to the use of union dues for political campaigns. But the left trailed the right in building party infrastructure. It had no comparable network of closely linked organizations and no feeder system for the young. The progressives’ best training ground and alumni association was the 2008 Obama campaign.
The Tea Party was born three weeks after Obama took office, when a libertarian business reporter for CNBC, Rick Santelli, lit into the new administration on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade for making Americans “pay for [their] neighbor’s mortgage [when he has] an extra bathroom and can’t pay the bills.” In fact Obama had unveiled a modest foreclosure relief bill that week but never endorsed a full housing bailout; he and his advisers thought it would have been political suicide to rescue every homeowner facing foreclosure. But Santelli’s call for a “Chicago Tea Party” resonated, and within hours twenty conservative activists using the Twitter hashtag #tcot (top conservatives on Twitter) held a conference call to build on the idea. Greta Van Susteren’s Fox News Channel show picked up the story, and by tax day on April 15, 2009—less than three months after Obama took office—tea parties had spread to 850 communities, fueled by round-the-clock coverage on Fox, where four anchors went so far as to cobrand with the movement by reporting, and cheerleading, on scene from “FNC Tea Parties.”
It was hard to discern what lay behind the sense of outrage. Amy Kremer, a former flight attendant and real estate broker who helped organize Tea Party Patriots and later Tea Party Express, believed that the million or so people who took part that first spring were “united by anger over Washington not listening.” But listening about what? The bank and auto bailouts were rarely mentioned by Tea Party members asked about their grievances. Despite some grumbling, no one had organized street protests on the right when President Bush pushed through huge bailouts, not to mention trillions in new spending on wars and a prescription drug benefit that wasn’t paid for.
In late 2009 Obama said that he thought it was the debate over the stimulus that led to the Tea Party. (At the time, he was paying so little attention to the protesters that he inadvertently called them “teabaggers.”) But when he saw the “Take Our Country Back” placards on television, he was under no illusions about the racial subtext. “‘Take back the country’?” he said one night to a couple of friends gathered in the treaty room in the residence. “Take it back from . . . ?” he didn’t need to finish the sentence.
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