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Saturday, October 22, 2016

A reading from the annals of American journalism:

The inescapable hurry of the press inevitably means a certain degree of superficiality. It is neither within our power nor our province to be ultimately profound. We write 365 days a year the first rough draft of history, and that is a very great task.

These words, spoken by Washington Post publisher Philip Graham in 1953, have aged well. Six decades later, we have more daily news, opinion, and analysis than ever, but profundity is still scarce. If that standard is too high for the first draft of history, what can we reasonably expect from the second?

Chuck Todd’s The Stranger: Barack Obama in the White House raises this question with unusual force. Todd hosts Meet the Press, serves as NBC News’ political director, and was that network’s chief White House correspondent from 2008 to 2014. Few journalists are in better position to tell the inside story of Barack Obama and his presidency. Todd’s announced goal for The Stranger is to “bring readers behind the scenes to understand both who Barack Obama is and who he isn’t, what he strives to be and what he actually is.”

Todd does indeed bring readers behind the scenes, furnishing almost 500 pages of D.C. war stories, many of them media-centric, and most of them involving Obama. But Todd’s portrait of Obama is more problematic. Part of the problem is his book’s episodic structure. Most of the 19 chapters examine a specific challenge that Obama has faced in office: health care reform, Afghanistan, the 2010 elections, gays in the military, handling the Clintons, refuting the birthers, and so on. Each chapter reflects firsthand reporting and adds a drizzle of analysis. But the great issues of the day are set next to trifles like beads on a string, with little or no indication of their relative importance. It’s a difficult way to produce a portrait or even a cohesive narrative. As Todd plows through the crises, conflicts, and teapot tempests, I thought of Ben Hecht, who compared daily journalism to telling time by looking only at the minute hand of the clock.

What portrait of Obama we do have is furnished mostly through contrast. Joe Biden figures heavily and positively in Todd’s account, almost always as the president’s old-school liaison with a truculent Congress. Bill Clinton is the consummate retail politician, the kind Obama perversely refuses to become. The president’s other foils include Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush, but Todd returns again and again to The Man from Hope. Obama’s problems with Congress could be solved if only he, like President Clinton, persisted in winning over his enemies even as they try to pulverize him. Instead, Obama relies too much on logic and rationality in an irrational world. Worse, he “shows clear disdain for almost every institution that defines the Capitol.” As a consequence, Washington’s “governing culture” returns that disdain, and nothing is accomplished.

Todd’s description of Obama matches others in circulation, but here’s where checking the hour hand of the clock might be worthwhile. Yes, President Clinton cooperated with the GOP — for example, to deregulate Wall Street. In doing so, he helped enable the fraud and greed that eventually crashed the global economy. Working with the Republican Congress, Clinton also reduced the annual deficit, and like many in the Beltway, Todd blesses Obama’s efforts to do the same — even during a weak recovery, when austerity is precisely the wrong move for economic growth. Finally, Clinton helped the Republican Congress “end welfare as we have come to know it.” Todd thinks Obama could likewise work productively with the GOP on “entitlement reform”

Though Obama has long said he would like to revise the social safety net programs that suck up so much of the federal government’s money (an issue on which he could find common ground with Republicans), many Democrats, particularly the ones in leadership, have made it clear they have no intention of allowing benefit cuts.

These programs presumably include Social Security, which has its own funding stream, performs the job it’s supposed to do, and is popular with the American people. It seems never to occur to Todd that working with the GOP to cut benefits would hurt the vast majority of Americans, just as the bipartisan deregulation of Wall Street did. For him, spending cuts would demonstrate leadership, and that’s what matters.

Like many of his media colleagues, Todd also can’t resist false equivalencies. Both George W. Bush and Obama, he writes, early on addressed a crisis “by tackling something that, though tangentially related, didn’t share a direct relationship to the immediate concern.” Bush responded to 9/11 by invading Iraq, while Obama focused on health care reform instead of the recession. A better description might be that Bush manufactured a problem in Iraq whose remedy produced a catastrophe. In contrast, Obama addressed a real problem (health care) with mixed results, and passed an economic stimulus that was offset by spending cuts at the state and local level. Meanwhile, he tried to clean up Bush’s mess in Iraq and later approved a mission that killed Osama Bin Laden — an immediate concern by any definition.

If you like clichés and mixed metaphors with your false equivalencies, Todd won’t disappoint you:

There was no doubt that Republicans in Congress were doing everything they could to destroy the president’s agenda, but if Barack Obama wanted to glimpse the other great obstruction, he needed only to look into the mirror. Because while he didn’t have a willing dance partner, he seemed completely flummoxed by how to navigate these political waters and ask for a dance.

What Obama would see in the mirror, apparently, is an awkward teenager failing to navigate the political waters at the prom. (This is what the New York Times rather generously calls “utilitarian prose.”) But even if we disentangle Todd’s metaphors, the dance trope doesn’t work. Todd details the lengths to which Republicans now go to avoid contact with Obama for fear of attacks from their right. The girls in Todd’s metaphor wouldn’t dance with Obama under any circumstances; even being seen with him would end their social lives. Here and elsewhere, Todd implicitly equates Obama’s reluctance to perpetually court his adversaries with their reflexive refusal to engage him constructively.

By way of conclusion, Todd assesses Obama’s reputation:

[Obama’s] legacy in the long run may have bright prospects, but as it stands in the near future he will be a president whose potential wasn’t realized. He nudged the political spectrum to the left, without changing it. He began a recovery, without completing it. He passed major legislative initiatives by compromising some of the values he held dear.

As Todd notes, Obama likes policies (such as Romneycare) once favored by moderate Republicans. That’s what “the left” means in this paragraph. As for the idea of nudging a spectrum: Is that even possible? And how would Obama have completed the economic recovery? Certainly not by accommodating the GOP, whose austerity program was far more economically wrongheaded than his own. To realize his potential, Obama should have changed the political spectrum (whatever that means), completed the economic recovery with or without Congress, and built broad consensus for major reforms without compromising his values. This, ladies and gentlemen, is why Chuck Todd makes the big bucks.

Finally, there’s the matter of timing. One wonders why Todd would offer this portrait as Obama enters the final two years of his presidency — what Obama calls the fourth quarter, when “interesting stuff happens.” His recent initiatives on immigration reform, Cuba, and China support that remark. Todd’s assessment of Obama’s legacy is premature at best, even if his war stories are welcome.

Falling somewhere between rough draft and polished presidential history, The Stranger offers interesting and valuable information about Obama and his presidency but struggles to transcend the superficiality of daily journalism. For this reason, and despite its contributions, The Stranger doesn’t realize its potential.

Peter Richardson is the book review editor at The National Memo. His history of Ramparts magazine, A Bomb in Every Issue, was an Editors’ Choice at The New York Times and a Top Book of 2009 at Mother Jones. In 2013, he received the National Entertainment Journalism Award for Online Criticism. No Simple Highway, his cultural history of the Grateful Dead, is scheduled for January 2015.

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  • game50

    Barry real Dad is Mohammed Subudd,Michelle is really Michael LaVaugh Robinson. They are the 1st Gay Couple in Our W.H.. Barry is a Muslim who hates America and America. However he loves our money.

    • WhutHeSaid

      Go back in your trailer and shaddup, you drooling bigot. And learn to wash yourself before coming out into public again. With soap.

      • Louis Allen

        WhutHe: You are such an easy target.
        And you are such a dumbass ….
        And so pathetic.
        Poor old man ….

    • Independent1

      Obama hates America?? Is that why he’s accomplished more than any other president since FDR was in office??

      If you don’t believe that – please list for me all the great accomplishments of the last 5 worthless GOP presidents that have done even 2-3 really beneficial things for America.

      I’ll list for you 4 Obama accomplishments and if you’d like to see a few more – checkout my responses to a couple other of you clueless conservative nitwits posting on this blog thread.

      1) Obama has presided over the longest stretch of continuous
      positive jobs growth in America’s history – more than 57 months and counting.

      2) The stock market has virtually tripled during the Obama
      administration (from a low around 6,600 to over 18,000) with it reaching levels NEVER SEEN BEFORE which has improved the lives of millions of American retirees such as myself!!

      3) The Obama Administration has managed America’s energy sector such that TODAY, America is the largest distributor of energy on the planet FOR THE FIRST TIME IN HISTORY!!

      11) Obama has presided over the economy during best year of jobs growth (2014) in America since 1999, when another Democrat was in office!!!

      • game50

        Independent1: Its time for you to stop drinking the kool aid.please take off your rosa color glasses,and just ck out the info. that I wrote. You just might learn the truth about the FRAUD in OUR W.H.

        • Independent1

          Really!! Why don’t you TRY PROVING that I’m drinking the koolaid!! Everything I’ve quoted ARE FACTS. But then again, to you mentally retarded GOP brainwashed sheeple – FACTS are nothing but propaganda!! You mental retards show your stupidity with every post you make!!!!!

        • mah101

          game50, sorry. You need to actually prove your claims in the real world.

      • mah101

        Well Nixon wasn’t so bad. EPA, China, NEPA, ending Vietnam, and a few other nice little accomplishments. Jeesh, one little felony conspiracy and look what happens to your reputation.

        See GOP, actually your best president since Eisenhower was a pardoned felon. You haven’t come close since.

    • Independent1

      When are you going to stop letting yourself be brainwashed by the pathological liars like Faux News, Rush Limpbag, Glenn Beek, Stupid Hannity and the like. You’re probably so tunnelvision and clueless that you believe Obama was a flunky at Harvard when the truth is he graduated Magna Cum Laude and two of his professors have even stated he was one of the most brilliant students they’d ever taught. Talk about ‘DRINKING THE KOOLAID”!! You nimwits are swimming in it!!!!!!

    • Independent1

      And when are you and your other birther idiots of the GOP going to realize IT DOESN’T MATTER WHETHER OR NOT OBAMA WAS BORN IN HAWAII OR SOMEWHERE ELSE IN THE WORLD????

      The fact that his mother was an American citizen MAKES HIM A NATURAL BORN AMERICAN NO MATTER WHERE HE WAS BORN IN THE WORLD!!!!!!

    • mah101

      There really needs to be a sanity requirement for posting online comments.

  • Lo Gitech

    I’m starting to think that Obama’s delusions are dangerous.

    • Independent1

      Really, would you care to clue us in to what those delusions may be?? Especially given that what Obama has accomplished is absolutely amazing given the 24/7 GOP obstructionism over the past 6 years!!

      Let’s see you itemize for us anything the last 5 worthless GOP presidents had accomplished in their disastrous 28 years in office which come even close to being compared to just this short list of Obama accomplishments:

      1) Obama has presided over the longest stretch of continuous
      positive jobs growth in America’s history – more than 57 months and counting.

      2) The stock market has virtually tripled during the Obama
      administration (from a low around 6,600 to over 18,000) with it reaching levels NEVER SEEN BEFORE which has improved the lives of millions of American retirees such as myself!!

      3) The Obama Administration has managed America’s energy sector such that TODAY, America is the largest distributor of energy on the planet FOR THE FIRST TIME IN HISTORY!!

      4) The Obama Administration has rounded up and deported more
      troublesome illegal aliens that have been costing America billions THAN THE THREE PREVIOUS PRESIDENTS COMBINED!!

      5) Obama following through on the auto bailout has resulted in
      America’s largest manufacturing sector, the Auto Industry, recording profits the past couple years that haven’t been seen since Clinton was in office. And in that process arguably saved 1.5 million Americans their jobs and kept America from falling into a full fledged depression.

      6) During Obama’s time in office,deficit spending has come done
      FURTHER and FASTER than under any previous president IN HISTORY (from a 1.4T deficit in Bush’s last budget to under 500B for 2014 – reducing deficit spending more than 1T/yr in 5 budgets)!!

      7) During Obama’s time in off the unemployment rate has come
      down further and faster than under any previous PRESIDENT IN HISTORY!! (From 10.1% when the freefall Bush created turned around, to below 5.8% in less than 6 years.)

      8) Obama’s administration started a war on fraud early in his 1st
      term, the spring of 2009, focusing on fraud in the defense and healthcare sectors which has resulted in bringing more fraud crooks to justice and recovering more illegally gotten government money than the last 3 presidents combined.

      9) Obama pushed for a stimulus in 2009, that not only helped
      keep America out of a depression, but also invigorated the alternative energy sector to create alternatives to fossil fuels (solar, wind, hydro, tidal and plasma) that will greatly reduce demand for oil and coal in the near future; greatly helping the world’s efforts to combat global warming.

      10) Obama was successful in getting legislation passed that
      revises the rules health insurers must follow in providing insurance to Americans (ACA/Obamacare); which has not only already saved more than 60,000 people their lives, but is also now saving hospitals and many states millions/billions, even including in the red state of Arizona, billions of dollars in reduced costs because there are millions fewer Americans that are now uninsured.

      11) Obama has presided over the economy during best year of jobs growth (2014) in America since 1999, when another Democrat was in office!!!

      12) Obama used an Executive Order to cut the banks out of the
      student loan program which has greatly simplified the loan application process which has allowed hundreds of thousands, maybe millions more high school graduates to afford college than under any previous president.

  • Louis Allen

    Chuck, you Obammy sycophant, tell your never-can-go-wrong Messiah to try being truthful …
    It works, …. always.

    • Independent1

      You wouldn’t know what the truth was if it slapped you in the face!

      Nothing that Obama has ever said can even come close to the lies and distortions of the truth that have came out of the mouths of Bush and Cheney and continue to be spewed 24/7 by one GOP legislator after another. Republicans have no shame when it comes to lying. Mitt Romney even admitted to that on the stage of one of the presidential debates when Newt Gingrich jumped on him about the lies a Super Pac supporting Mitt was spewing about him over the airwaves – Mitt said, it’s okay to lie when you’re trying to win votes and elections.

      But let me see you post any lie that Obama has said that compares to these which came out of the mouth of Georgie Boy:

      These tax cuts will pay for themselves and spur the economy: Yet his 8 years were the most lack luster economically in the past 7 decades and those tax cuts have cost Americans 6.6 trillion in income robbing you and me of $48,000 over the past 12 years.

      Iraq has weapons of mass destruction and is in collusion with al Qaeda in the 9/11 bombing.
      Lies upon lies proven time and time again that cost the lives of more than 4,400 American soldiers and countless Iraqis.

      The CIA is just spooking the ghost with their claim that al Qaeda is planning an imminent attack on our country. (Bush said that numerous times after the CIA warned him and Cheney of bin Laden planning an imminent attack) 3,000 more Americans lost their lives because Bush and Cheney wouldn’t believe the truth.

      We don’t torture!! Georgie Boys response to a reporter who questioned him about the just released information that the CIA had admitted to waterboarding terrorists. Bush was intimately familiar with what the CIA was doing and yet Blatantly Lied About it- acts that have disgraced America across the world.

      I could go on – but there’s NOTHING YOU CAN POST ABOUT OBAMA that even comes close to those outright blatant lies and treasonous actions that were committed by the GOP and continue to be committed by them EVEN TODAY!!!!!!

      • Louis Allen

        Indy: The longer your rants, the more moronic you come through.
        Obama has said: “The problem with our Nation is that we are still Capitalists.”
        What? No? Obama did not say that? Are you sure?
        …. NEITHER did Romney say that “…it’s okay to lie when you’re trying to win votes and elections.”
        You lying mo^ron !

        • Independent1


          Just as certainly as Newt said in the same debate: “Do you know what we do with our enemies? We kill them!!” And the supposed NC Christian audience stood up and cheered!!

          And you know why I remember those comments?? Because my grandson who was 15 at the time, and a very sensitive boy, was watching that debate and was very disturbed by both those comments coming out of the mouths of political candidates who were running for president of the U.S.; and since I have a good rapport with him, my daughter asked me to try to calm things down for him. Sorry, Louis, but today’s Republicans are reprehensible people!!!!!

          • Louis Allen

            1) Romney NEVER said that.
            2) Obammy DID say what I said he said.
            3) Instead of killing our enemies, we got a criminal President that will bend backwards to give them space.
            Today’s Dems are IDIOTS !!!!!!!!!!

    • EriktheRed

      Wow, what is it with ODS nutbags? If a guy isn’t saying everything he does is wrong every time he’s a sycophant.

      • Louis Allen

        What’s your point, Erik?

        • EriktheRed

          If you can’t figure it out…

  • Whatmeworry

    Most of the Beltway writers write as if Barak ever had the gravitas to be president He doesn’t possess the intelligence and multiple step thinking that it takes. Its what every quota educated black exhibits

    • Daniel Max Ketter

      President Obama and his administration has accomplished more good things for our patriots than ole Bush whacker and his daddy, as well as actor Ronnie Reegan. Now gay taxpayers are no longer 2nd class citizens

    • EriktheRed

      I remember a lot of people – myself included – saying how the last occupant of the Oval Office wasn’t smart enough to be there. I remember, too, his supporters often saying, “well, he was smart enough to beat you Liberals”.

      Shoe, welcome to the other foot.

      • Whatmeworry

        The article isn’t about Clinton

      • Whatmeworry

        The article is about Clinton

  • Whatmeworry

    Most of the Beltway writers write as if Barack ever had the gravitas to
    be president He does possess the intelligence and multiple step
    thinking that it takes. Its what every quota educated white exhibits

  • Jambi

    Chuck seems to be a “fair-weather” writer …. he’s writing what “he thinks” will sell and what will be a good read for right-wingers…he’s sort of a “wanna be” author and correspondent…

  • bernieo

    Chuck Todd is just another vapid villager. His greatest ambition is to be antihero Saint Tim. You know, Tim Russert, the guy whose show Cheney thought was the best venue to get his propaganda out. The guy who told Bill Moyers that he had no clue that there were serious doubts among the professionals at the CIA about Saddam’s WMD because no one had bothered to call him. That the Beltway media still thinks Russert was the epitome of great political journalism is beyond pathetic.