Tell-all book shows Obama’s love-hate relationship with the media

America Letter: account of 2012 election reveals ironies in Obama’s relations with media

US vice-president Joe Biden listens to secretary of state Hillary Clinton at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington in February 2010. According to Double Down by journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, President Barack Obama’s top aides secretly considered replacing Biden with Clinton on the 2012 ticket in late 2011, when Mr. Obama’s re-election outlook appeared uncertain. Photograph: Luke Sharrett/The New York Times

US vice-president Joe Biden listens to secretary of state Hillary Clinton at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington in February 2010. According to Double Down by journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, President Barack Obama’s top aides secretly considered replacing Biden with Clinton on the 2012 ticket in late 2011, when Mr. Obama’s re-election outlook appeared uncertain. Photograph: Luke Sharrett/The New York Times

Sat, Nov 9, 2013, 01:00

There is a hilarious episode in a new tell-all book about the 2012 presidential election, a tome that has buzzed Washington this past week, that shows the US political elite’s high-risk incestuous relationship with the so-called media-industrial complex.

Double Down by veteran US political reporters Mark Halperin and John Heilemann recounts how in September 2011 President Obama, frustrated by the lack of progress on his legislative wish-list in the third year of his first term, called his team of advisers to the White House’s Roosevelt Room for a brainstorming session to map a clearer road ahead.

The meeting came on the day a US military drone strike, ordered by Obama, killed the American-born agitator Islamist preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, a senior al-Qaeda figure in Yemen, and just months after the group’s leader Osama bin Laden was killed in a US operation in Pakistan. “Turns out I’m really good at killing people,” a surprised Obama told his team, the book says.


On the list
An inveterate list-maker, the president read from handwritten pages of yellow legal pad, outlining his agenda of “pragmatic progressivism” that touched on plans to close the notorious Guantánamo detention centre, reform immigration laws and push for same-sex marriage, among many other things.

Five weeks later, Obama was furious when he learned his list had been leaked to Halperin and Heilemann for this very book on the 2012 campaign.

A chilly meeting followed at which Obama demanded that the leaker (or leakers) confess. Nobody stepped up and Obama proceeded with his busy daily schedule, which included, with delicious irony, an interview with author David Maraniss, Bill Clinton’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, for a book he was writing on Obama.

The anecdote is one of many showing the Obama administration’s love-hate relationship with the media; it loves to see its achievements cheer-led in public but hates when it loses control of the message.

Double Down is the sequel to the Halperin-Heilemann account of the 2008 campaign, the historic and dramatic fight that swept Obama to power. This book is driven by the same fun high-octane prose and lively tempo but suffers in its shadow because the 2012 race was just not as historic or dramatic.

Game Change (entitled Race of a Lifetime for its Irish and UK editions) retold astonishing moments such as when Elizabeth Edwards, wife of Democratic candidate John Edwards, tore off her blouse exposing herself in an airport car park during a meltdown over his affair with a campaign video maker.

Double Down is still peppered with enough fascinating insider morsels about the 2012 race – sourced on “deep background” from hundreds of interviews – to nourish political appetites.

For example, Obama’s advisers secretly toyed with the idea of swapping Joe Biden with Hillary Clinton as the vice-presidential candidate in the election. Obama likes Bill Clinton “in doses”.

The president was racked by self-doubt following his disastrous first televised debate with Mitt Romney in Denver – “I just don’t know if I can do this,” Obama is quoted as telling his coaches while preparing for the follow-up debate. A Romney aide threw up backstage during Clint Eastwood’s bizarre speech-cum-performance art act with a chair at the Republican National Convention.

Biden and Obama chief of staff William Daley – “both Irish Catholic sexagenarians” – felt alienated by Obama’s younger aides who shunned the glad-handing nonsense of politics. Obama “jubilated” on his 2011 trip to Ireland in the discovery – after the conspiracies spun by right-wing “birthers” that he was “exotic” and not really born in America – that his ancestors hailed from Moneygall in Co Offaly.

‘Garish controversies’
More significantly, in light of how this week’s gubernatorial elections have propelled New Jersey’s second-term governor Chris Christie as a favourite to be the next Republican presidential candidate, the book reveals that the Romney camp struggled with “garish controversies” while vetting the larger-than-life Christie as a possible running mate for the former Massachusetts governor.

Interviewed on NBC chat show Meet the Press last weekend, Romney said the vetting process – described in the book as Project Goldfish – revealed “nothing new” about Christie who the project nicknamed “Pufferfish”. Romney went further to limit any fallout from the book on the Republican governor by saying that Christie could easily be on the 2016 Republican ticket and “save our party”.

While critics have pooh-poohed Double Down’s exclusives as “scooplets” – nuggets of gossip that make online news sites such as Politico and the Huffington Post must-click stops for reporters in Washington – taken as a whole they tell an important narrative, much in the way that Pat Leahy’s superb The Price of Power about the Fine Gael-Labour Coalition reveals the backroom tales behind the headlines.

Double Down is an energetic and entertaining account of the knives-out, behind-the-scenes living during the world’s most hard-fought election.