The Battle for America, 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election. By Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson.
New York: Viking, August 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-0670021116, $29.95. 432 pages.
Reviewed by Amarnath Amarasingam, Wilfrid Laurier University, Toronto
“It was an election that took place against a background of two wars, the collapse of the world’s capital markets, a gathering global recession, soaring national debt, and pervasive doubts about the direction of the country from traditionally optimistic Americans” (xiii). This is how Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson begin their excellent book on the momentous 2008 election. Balz and Johnson, present at many of the events they discuss and having conducted extensive interviews, provide an informative history mixed with behind-the-scenes accounts of the long campaign season. The story is that much more interesting because we know how it ends. It was an election marked by a fairly impressive list of candidates, putting forth their message in the shadow of the Bush presidency. After 9/11, Bush’s approval rating hovered around 90 percent, the highest ever recorded. However, by January 2007, following the invasion of Iraq, the absence of WMDs, Abu Ghraib, and Hurricane Katrina, his approval rating was at 30 percent and falling.
Reacting to the Bush presidency, which had produced “some of the most daunting policy problems at home and abroad ever faced,” the new candidates embraced a message of change and attempted to rectify the political disaffection that was sweeping the country (13). The Battle for America is divided into five parts. Book One, containing three chapters, introduces personal life histories and the initial campaign plans of Obama, McCain, and Clinton. Book Two, entitled “The People,” contains only one chapter and explores the increasing pessimism and uncertainty expressed by voters during the election season. The people during this campaign season were looking for new solutions to the current economic crisis, to America’s diminished international standing, and to the lack of trust in government. The candidates, faced with a worried and suspicious public, were left to make their case.
The third and fourth parts of the book examine the election season from the perspective of Democrats and Republicans respectively. Hilary Clinton began her campaign with experience, money, and a vast network of connections obtained throughout her many years in politics. Obama, on the other hand, began with next to nothing. The televised debates between the two candidates drew huge audiences and increased interest in the election. There were more than two dozen debates between the Democratic candidates, and the Republicans had more than twenty over the course of the year.
Grassroots organizing in support of Obama was unprecedented in the Super Tuesday states. By the time Obama’s staff arrived in Idaho, for example, supporters in the state had already organized themselves. By late fall, Obama’s staff was present in sixteen of the twenty-two February 5th states, while Clinton’s team was largely absent. During Super Tuesday, Clinton had taken New York, New Jersey, and even Massachusetts. Obama took Idaho and Illinois. After Super Tuesday, Clinton lost eleven consecutive contests. Then, she won Ohio and Texas. Ten days after Ohio and Texas, a grainy video emerged of Obama’s pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, screaming “God damn America” from the pulpit. Obama had described Wright in The Audacity of Hope as a calm and loving father figure. In the video, however, Wright sounded angry and divisive. Obama knew that he could not avoid the issue. As he told Balz and Johnson, “If we had not handled the Reverend Wright episode properly, I think we could have lost” (201). Despite the controversies, on June 3, the final day of the primary process, it was clear that Obama had won.
The Republican candidates in the meantime were searching for Ronald Reagan. The debates that took place between the candidates “symbolized the plight of a Republican Party that had fallen on hard times and was now looking back to one of its greatest heroes for inspiration” (228). In their search for the new Gipper, John McCain did not ideally fit the bill. However, he seemed to be the only one that had a chance of beating the Democratic candidate. McCain’s complicated position on the Iraq War plus his support of the surge put him in a precarious position. His fundraising was also not up to par, and his finances, unlike someone like Mitt Romney, were often in the red. McCain had to depend on the shortcomings of his opponents in order to succeed, and “had any of them seized command of the race, he would not have had a chance” (260). McCain’s victory in the Florida primary was decisive. Giuliani, Romney, and Huckabee slowly dropped out of the race following Florida and Super Tuesday. McCain was now the leader of the Republican Party.
Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention was a success by any measure. The public was enthusiastic about the potential victory of the Democrats, about Joe Biden, and about their vibrant candidate. As the Democrats left Denver, everybody awaited John McCain’s choice for a running mate. His choice had the potential to divide the Republican Party. His choice of Sarah Palin stunned many in the Republican Party. When Obama learned of the choice he said, “Wow, that’s surprising. Why do you think he did that?” (337). Biden had never heard of her before. Some in McCain’s campaign did not know how to pronounce her name, while speechwriters scoured the internet looking for information about her to include in speeches.
Everything pointed to an Obama victory. As one individual on Obama’s campaign told Balz and Johnson, “I think we had the perfect balance of new technology, old-school organization, faith in the people that they hired, and trust they were going to get the job done” (366). On election day, America started to look different: “The eastern seaboard, save for Georgia and South Carolina, was a blue wall” (371). There were many surprising wins for Obama: New Mexico, which went Republican in 2004, went for Obama this time around; Colorado, which Bush won by five points, went for Obama by nine. The networks called the race at 11 p.m.
Balz and Johnson’s book is an extraordinary insider’s account of the recent American election. They were present at numerous events, and conducted interviews with a number of the key players. It should be noted, however, that the book does not provide much political or sociological analysis of the election, contains very little history, and reflects only briefly about Obama’s cosmopolitan significance. Even Book Five, dealing with the actual election, contains mostly anecdotal evidence taken from focus groups and interviews. To be fair, the purpose of the book is rather to provide the definitive account of the election season itself. To this end, The Battle for America is unparalleled and will likely remain so for some time.