Carlos Lozada is Outlook editor of The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter: @CarlosLozadaWP.
By Chuck Todd
Little, Brown & Co. 518 pp. $29.
Chuck Todd is not just invariably described as a political junkie — he is invariably described as being invariably described as a political junkie. When NBC News announced that Todd would take over the moderator’s chair on “Meet the Press,” profiles gushed about his love for political minutiae. This is the guy, after all, who as host of MSNBC’s “The Daily Rundown” reported on the White House soup of the day . Every day.
But now Todd has written a thick book devoted to understanding the man in the Oval Office, or as Todd explains, “who Barack Obama is and who he isn’t, what he strives to be and what he actually is.” Finally, a chance for the smart chronicler of in-the-moment politics to think big and reveal what the presidency that he has covered from the beginning really means.
Except it’s a chance he passes up. “The Stranger” is not an evolution of the Chuck Todd brand but a celebration of it. Todd has written a daily rundown of the Obama presidency, with every moment, critical or trivial, assessed by its political weight. That approach works for a morning cable-news show, but stretched over 500 pages, its limits become clear. This book, though critical of the president, reveals less about Obama than about what the world looks like through the eyes of a writer for whom politics is not just everything, it is the only thing.
As for the title conceit: Todd perceives Obama as a stranger to Washington, analytical more than ideological; a successful politician who is almost arrogant in his disdain for the personal demands of retail politics; a nuance guy in an all-or-nothing town. The result of this mismatch is that Obama, who seemed to promise an era of post-partisanship, has presided over “a nadir of partisan relations.”
That is a reasonable view; it’s just not a particularly novel one. It’s been the rap on Obama for a while. And in “The Stranger,” that argument feels grafted onto the opening and closing chapters, a dutiful analysis bookending Todd’s blow-by-blow of the Obama years.
Each chapter coincides roughly with a crisis Obama has faced, starting with the Great Recession. Todd dwells on the internal disputes between the White House’s econ geeks and its political advisers, and on the legislative strategizing to get the stimulus bill passed. He loves to tell us what was in people’s minds during meetings: “This is going to be politically tough,” senior political adviser David Axelrod thinks in a key early discussion of the stimulus package, while White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel ponders “how the response to the economic crisis could be used for maximum political gain.” Todd appears most interested in the “optics” of the stimulus and why Obama failed to gain more than token GOP support for it. “He had signed a stimulus bill that would give Republicans every excuse they needed to accuse him of exploding the deficit,” Todd writes. “Far from drawing up a truly bipartisan bill, Obama would claim the veneer of bipartisanship.”
Todd boils down the administration’s debate over troop levels in Afghanistan — another early decision for the president — to bureaucratic sniping between the Pentagon and the White House and whether “the generals were trying to roll the civilians.” Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Vice President Biden disagreed on “almost everything,” explains Todd, but he suggests that Biden’s opposition to troop increases may have been less out of conviction and more of a good cop/bad cop ploy to expand Obama’s options. And remember Obama’s 2002 speech calling the impending Iraq invasion a “dumb” war? Turns out that was not a principled stand but a “political bet” he made, Todd explains, one that “turned out to be correct” when Obama ran for president.
The 2010 BP oil spill gets similarly narrow treatment. “No crisis inspired more fear in the White House than the oil pouring into the Gulf of Mexico,” Todd writes. Yet, after devoting a couple of paragraphs to the disaster response — briefings, conference calls and “the impressive feat” of plugging the leak — Todd reverts to the politics of the spill, including the internal debate over whether Obama should show anger and how his Oval Office speech couldn’t compete with the video of oil still gushing. And, of course, there were the electoral implications: “The oil spill took the president off the fundraising circuit,” Todd frets, and the Democratic Party was “knocked off message at one of the most critical periods of the 2010 campaign.”
Even the killing of Osama bin Laden becomes less about its impact on the war on terrorism and more about the disagreements within the administration over how much credit to take and information to share with the public. “The race to disclose details reflected the mind-set of the White House at that period,” Todd says, “when Obama’s approval ratings were middling at best and his prospects for re-election looked shaky.”
Sometimes Todd’s blinders help. A chapter evocatively titled “They Were First-Graders” does more than lament the brutality of Newtown; it deconstructs the politics of gun control and emphasizes how the NRA’s real power resides not in its sway over the far right but in its pull with pro-gun Democrats. And Todd’s recap of the HealthCare.gov debacle shows how the multiplicity of managers involved in the project didn’t absolve Obama from failing to assign one person sole responsibility for making the site work.
But more often than not, the political focus is jarring. In a chapter called “If He Had a Son,” referring to Obama’s emotional remarks about Trayvon Martin, Todd examines Obama’s role in America’s race debates. But after recounting the 2009 “Beer Summit” and the president’s reactions to Martin’s killing and the acquittal of George Zimmerman, Todd inexplicably devotes the bulk of the chapter to Obama’s running squabbles with congressional Republicans. Todd briefly notes that “the Trayvon experience was a turning point for Obama,” and that his initiative to help vulnerable young black men, called My Brother’s Keeper, will be a big part of his post-presidential years. But surely there is more to explore on the subject of Obama, race and the presidency?
Todd’s attempts to peer deep inside Obama as an individual don’t take us far. “As is the case for many Americans, the president’s unusual upbringing shaped him to be the person he is today,” is not an encouraging start. Todd makes much of the fact that Obama’s mother was an anthropologist, which somehow transmitted to her only son “instinctive observational skills that allowed him to read and understand folks better than most politicians.” At the same time, being biracial “infused in him the temperament and patience that have marked his presidency both positively and negatively.” As a politician, Obama is described as “passive and arrogant,” and at times he is “all telescope and zero microscope.”
The author’s focus on personality strays, inevitably, into the grievances among high-level staffers and party players. For readers keeping score at home: Anita Dunn and Robert Gibbs didn’t have “a lot of love lost,” Joe Biden didn’t get along with David Plouffe, Gibbs clashed with Valerie Jarrett, Bill Clinton could barely bring himself to look at David Axelrod (though they reconciled later), and Rahm Emanuel was at odds with Gibbs. (Seriously, did anyone like Gibbs?) There is bickering over job titles, too, because “titles always matter with Beltway types,” Todd explains. It’s true: The book cover features the words “Moderator of Meet the Press and former NBC News Chief White House Correspondent” under Todd’s name.
As befitting a political junkie chronicle, the book is generous with political cliches. Throughout “The Stranger,” field days are had, rocky shoals are navigated, skies pose limits, writing appears on walls, fuel is added to fires, dies are cast, and collective sighs of relief are breathed. And there are sentences like this one: “Early on, there were signs the Republicans wouldn’t follow the presidential Pied Piper to postpartisanship.”
So, if not post-partisanship, what does Todd see as the legacy of a man who wants to be known as much more than America’s first black president? On matters such as Middle East stability or the long-term impact of Obamacare, Todd offers a lot of time-will-tells and history-will-decides. The one thing he is certain of, however, is Obama’s impact on the practice of politics. This president has transformed “the way campaigns are run and elections are won,” Todd writes, both in the technology deployed and dollars spent. Obama also leaves behind a more ideologically unified Democratic Party and an “unassailable” Democratic coalition, based on minority voters and newly empowered interest groups. Even though that coalition looks slightly more assailable after Tuesday’s midterms, Todd makes clear that for the president and his entourage, “the Obama brand and the Democratic Party brand were distinct, and . . . one was paramount over the other.”
Todd is most insightful in such moments, when politics is truly the only relevant subject. His retelling of the 2012 campaign spans everything from the Romney camp’s flawed strategy for television ad buys to Obama’s lethargic preparation for the first debate. He also unspools the confrontational, co-dependent relationship between Obama and the Clintons (frankly, I would read a book just about that). And Todd even plays media critic, pinning the early “fawning coverage” of Obama on baby boomer editors excited at the prospect of a black president, as well as noting that Fox News and his own MSNBC are both “partisan cable networks that catered to specific ideologies.” I wonder what his colleagues will think of that one.
During Todd’s farewell segment on “The Daily Rundown” in August, he made a passionate defense of political obsessiveness. “Yes, I’m a political junkie, I don’t run away from that,” he told viewers. “But my love for politics is because I love our democracy. To some who have mistaken my love for politics as simply loving a game . . . they don’t understand that it’s the most important game our country is involved with, every day.”
That may be. But “The Stranger” doesn’t prove his case. It’s all microscope and zero telescope.
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