Take the harrumphing of plump pundits on the Sunday shows, mix in some smug in-the-know assertions from Morning Joe, and sprinkle on top whatever the taxi driver from Union Station told Tom Friedman, then spread over 400 pages and bake—and you’ll get the spoon-fed conventional wisdom found in The Stranger, the disappointing new Obama book by Meet the Press host Chuck Todd.
This detailed critique of the Obama presidency exhaustively examines every major moment in both Obama terms, including health care reform, the 2012 election, the Arab Spring, and the debate over whether or not to bomb Syria. The theory at the heart of Todd’s 528-page doorstopper is that Obama’s obsession with his status as an outsider, as an agent of change, and his inability to backslap in Washington, are what stood in the way of Obama being a successful president.
The problem with the book is two-fold. The first is that it is largely a rehash of much of what we already know, or think we know, about the Obama White House. Books by Bob Woodward, John Heilemann, Mark Halperin, David Remnick, Timothy Geithner, Robert Gates, Leon Panetta, and reporting by Ryan Lizza, Peter Baker, Helene Cooper, and Glenn Thrush, among others, have already familiarized us with the charges of an isolated, controlling White House thwarted by the chaos of Washington.
Todd, whose morning show was the most watchable and informative on cable news, has been portrayed in the press as more than your average pundit or television host. He is seen as having an unassailable knowledge of the intricacies of how Washington works—the motives, opinions, and gossip from members of Congress, lobbyists, influencers, and other journalists.
If that is the case, his book is at best a disappointment. At almost every turn, he fails to move our understanding of this president beyond pop-psychology interpretations of his relationship to his mother, his childhood, and his time at the Harvard Law Review—territory well explored by the president himself and in books like David Remnick’s The Bridge.
At its worst, The Stranger merely recycles the biases, conventional wisdom, and cynical bitterness of inside-the-beltway habitués.
And weirdly, this very opinionated book lacks the one opinion that matters most: Todd rarely says what Obama could have done differently, or what specifically would have changed as a result.
For example, to persuade us that Obama’s inability to “fake” politics hurts him, Todd recounts how Obama, on the advice of an advisor, hosts a series of dinners for GOP senators after his 2012 reelection. Those dinners—so beloved by the bipartisan-drinking-solves-everything caucus—were “not nearly as rewarding for these senators as [they] could have been. While all who attended acknowledged the president was serious about reaching out and about figuring out how to do something big, the follow-through wasn’t there.” And while Todd notes that after the dinners “a few senators even softened their anger toward the president,” he doesn’t explain what the Republicans wanted the president to follow through on. More dinners? Tax reform? Vegetables from the White House garden? What specifically did Obama stand to gain if he did what Todd thinks he should do? Later, after another round of similar dinners in 2013 in which Obama did manage to establish “closer relationships,” Todd resolutely sticks to his glass-half-empty point that “so far none have resulted in significant legislative achievement.”
Those details of what Obama stood to gain—the stuff that would have prevented the so-called failings of his presidency—present the second problem in Todd’s book.
Time and again, the author confuses chattering class dissatisfaction with an honest assessment of accomplishment. One can think (as many do) that Obamacare, Dodd-Frank and the CFPB, DADT repeal, fuel emission standards, $800 billion stimulus, sunsetting some Bush tax cuts, dropping defense of DOMA, the auto bailout, Lily Ledbetter, student loan reform, the START treaty, and Race to the Top are all bad policy—but they are achievements. In addition, Obama not only passed them, but managed to win reelection, something Jimmy Carter (a frequent comparison Todd makes) failed to do. Yes, there were other significant items on the liberal agenda, but when stacked up against the landmarks of that skilled schmoozer and frenemy specialist Bill Clinton, the diagnosis of Obama’s flaws looks overblown.
You can’t be fairly tagged as an ineffectual president who isn’t “fluent” in Washington if the other side is screaming bloody murder about your agenda being shoved down their throats.
The book also manages to engender a feeling of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t even among those of us sympathetic to arguments that this administration has had serious shortcomings. Obama’s attempt at getting buy-ins from Congress during the health-care reform process, once seen as a smart lesson learned from the Clinton debacle, ends up being faulted as the reason the bill took so long to pass. And that delay mattered almost more than anything, since it gave Republicans the time they needed to muddy the issue in the public’s eyes.
Todd is at his best discussing the unbelievably botched rollout of healthcare.gov. He notes early on that if former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle had been confirmed as HHS secretary, and had not withdrawn due to a tax dustup, there might not have been the disastrous vacuum of leadership at the new White House Office of Health Reform. Laid out in clear, simple prose, Todd’s digestible chronology of the website’s troubles leaves no doubt about the lack of White House leadership when it came to implementing its core legislative achievement.
Todd is also onto something when he writes about how Obama has broken his promise to be an agent of change—as when his 2008 campaign staffers woke up after Election Day to find that their bosses were old Clinton hands or how the president wound up protecting Gitmo and the national security state after he’d vowed on the campaign trail to dismantle them.
Unfortunately, Todd’s pop-psych explanation—that Obama sees himself alone as enough change—is unconvincing. The problem, of course, is that when detailing how Obama does play the game and co-opts traditional Washington, Todd undercuts his own argument that Obama is above it all and too removed or naïve to see how the city works.
It is unclear why Todd, now perched on the throne that Meet the Press provides, would write a book this long about so much we already know. That the book is full of conventional wisdom, of course, doesn’t mean it’s wrong—it just means it isn’t very interesting.