Review: Chuck Todd’s ‘The Stranger: Barack Obama in the White House’

The Stranger: Barack Obama in the White House. Chuck Todd. Little, Brown. 528 pages.
The Stranger: Barack Obama in the White House. Chuck Todd. Little, Brown. 528 pages.

In his first post-midterm television interview, President Barack Obama owned up to ineptly practicing the art of the possible. “There is a failure in politics that we’ve got to improve on,” he said on Face the Nation. Among the Beltway media I-told-you-soers who would agree is the host of another Sunday morning talk show.

Before inheriting Meet the Press, Miami-born Chuck Todd served as NBC’s White House correspondent. He covered Obama from the heady early days to the second term doldrums. Now, in The Stranger, he chides this talented yet enigmatic figure for lacking the Machiavellian aptitude to outmaneuver his enemies and build bipartisan consensus.

This gripe against the president is not new. In fact, nothing much is new in Todd’s book. Expect no startling insights and revelations. The administration’s highs and lows are recalled in dry, uninspiring prose that is beholden to a preconceived, one-size-fits-all thesis: Obama should have dropped the idealistic outsider shtick and hugged the Washington establishment to his bosom. What a loss to the republic that he avoids the Gridiron Club and Sally Quinn’s dinner parties!

Repetition and redundancy abound. On a single page we are informed three times — “stunned,” “slack-jawed,” “punch in the gut” — that the White House was taken by surprise at the united front Republicans presented against the president’s stimulus package. We are also told, once too often, that one-term presidents can have their achievements reversed; Obama might have been a columnist if he hadn’t run for office; he doesn’t like firing people; Hillary Clinton was dissed by Obama’s national security team; and Obama and Bill Clinton are really, really different. Space prevents me from going on. Todd’s writing style would improve greatly if he learned to trim the fat.

He makes an incontestable point, however, about the president’s lousy negotiating skills. Obama approaches the table with the naïve hope that both parties want to come to an equitable arrangement. “Again and again, he’d immediately identify the common ground as a means of showing the other person that they were on the same side, and that therefore that person’s prejudices and preconceptions should be abandoned.” If he were buying a car, he would probably open with the sticker price, as a sign of good faith. No wonder progressives fear he is an unreliable guardian of their legacy.

As for the Republicans, Todd lands soft punches, despite their egregious disrespect for the president. Otherwise he might have a problem booking John McCain on Meet the Press for a record-setting 100th appearance. In lieu of honest analysis, he plays the false equivalence game.

“The truth is, both parties have seen that total and complete obstruction can bring the presidency to a near halt and reward the party that’s out of power.” This is, of course, historically inaccurate. Democrats in Congress worked with George W. Bush on numerous occasions to pass significant legislation. What about FDR, LBJ, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton? These presidents found receptive hands when they reached across the aisle.

But Todd thinks Obama should have torn a rotator cuff tendon to get GOP votes. “There were plenty of Republicans who wanted to help, but they wanted the White House to acknowledge the (sometimes ridiculous) political peril being seen with him might cause.” Who, exactly, were these “helpful” Republicans? The ones who questioned the president’s legitimacy and patriotism, who threatened to default on the nation’s debt, who shut down the government over giving millions of citizens access to affordable healthcare?

Todd is not interested in policy. He cares only about the horse race, who’s ahead, who’s behind, who’s getting his message out. Politics is a game to him, yes, a game of thrones, but one with real-life consequences. He observes, “It may be safer, in the modern GOP, to be pro-choice than to be in favor of a path to citizenship for an undocumented immigrant living in America.” But he never explains why. Republicans congressional candidates take a less-aggressive stance against abortion, thereby affording them a veneer of moderation, because the heavy lifting is being done in state legislatures, where harsh restrictions on reproductive rights have passed.

Unfortunately, this book will enjoy the lifespan of a campaign biography. Within a year it will be forgotten. It may be read with regret, but it will not be reread.

Chuck Todd appears at 8 p.m. Wednesday in the Chapman Conference Center at Miami Dade College; $15;