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Book Review: The Stranger: Barack Obama in the White House. Chuck Todd. New York: Little, Brown and Company. 2014.

The central aim of The Stranger: Barack Obama in the White House is to "understand both who Barack Obama is and isn't, what he strives to be and what he actually is." In the process of coming to this understanding of the first African-American president of the United States, Chuck Todd finds that the image the president and his administration have crafted is "hardly representative of the president and the administration that he has built." (3)

The Forgotten Presidency of George W. Bush

Todd, the new host of Meet the Press, contributes to the historic pattern of selective memory of key events and processes of American history. Similar to the memory of the Reagan-initiated spate of African-American job loss and unemployment, the instant President George W. Bush left office the media seemed to wipe clean its memory of the numerous scandals that plagued his two terms, not to mention the global crisis that marked his last few months in office.

The state of desperation of the nation, its leaders, and its political class had peaked during those last perilous months of the Bush presidency. As the world's economy stood on the precipice, the scandals, corruption, and incompetence, fueled by the greed, ideology, and ignorance of Republican leadership were eclipsed by the immediacy and severity of the global crisis. Plans that included a scheme to market "futures" on terrorism, and others too voluminous to mention are almost never mentioned by the media. Having already "outed" its own CIA agents, the administration proceeded to plan and launch a war that has fueled a conflagration of violence that seems to have no end. Already, as Al Qaeda morphs into ISIS, well over one million lives have been lost. The chief architect of the war former president George W. Bush shows little remorse, and is supported by a sympathetic media that focuses more on his hobby of painting than his past misdeeds. Destroying one nation completely, facilitating destruction as in the case of Katrina via its studied ignorance and incompetence, the Bush administration peetered out amid a world financial catastrophe at least partly of its own making. Perhaps the climax of Bush's presidency was so traumatic it induced a weird sort of amnesia that spread even to Democrats who rarely stress or even mention the wild antics of the previous administration.

This atmosphere of forgetfulness makes it easy for analysts such as Chuck Todd to consider the Obama administration out of context. For Chuck Todd the Obama presidency was a mistake. In his view an emerging hyper-partisan media happened to be searching for "someone different," exciting, and interesting when Obama candidacy peaked at just the right moment. This convergence propelled him to national prominence boosted by a new social media wielded as a political weapon by a younger generation also searching for something new and different. Like many on the right, Todd asserts that as a presidential candidate Obama received "fawning coverage" that was unfair to the other major candidates, namely Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, and John McCain.

Obama's Naivete

In a brief and meandering bio of Obama, Todd reasons that because the president is the son of an anthropologist he has "instinctive observational skills that have allowed him to read and understand folks better than most politicians." Really? Wouldn't it more likely be due to the other factors that give him the advantage of seeing things from several different, ethnic, national, regional, racial and class viewpoints. Being biracial, having lived in Hawaii, California and Indonesia, for example, served to broaden his perspective. Confronting, vicariously to some extent, many different social and political quandries faced by various national, ethnic or racial groups, and grappling seriously with the problems confronting them and their particular situations without a doubt helped to round out his global perspectives on reality.

Todd also makes the dubious claim that the nation, in electing Obama, "simply did what it has done every time it's elected a new president from the opposite party——it hired the candidate who most possessed the qualities it thought the previous president lacked. Jimmy Carter won in 1976 because he projected an image that was the opposite of what the country despised about Nixon. Ronald Reagan's optimism and charisma were the pluses to Carter's biggest malaise minuses." He continues on through George W. Bush ignoring the particularities of each situation such as the fact that Reagan's "Iran-Contra" dirty trick enabled him to use the 444 days of the hostage crisis to eke out a victory over Carter, and of the corruption and intimidation that enabled Bush's 2000 victory.

Key to Todd's argument is that the president came into office with a "clear mandate" to change Washington and the way it works but, being intellectually crippled, stood unable to deliver on his promise. In this Obama's limitations play a key role. According to Todd, his inexperience as an executive dooms him. "It appears that Obama had never fired anyone of consequence before becoming president. That's how little executive experience he brought to the office." His disdain for the ways and culture of official Washington makes the situation that much worse, in the author's view. Never mind that the candidate touted as the one with abundant executive experience, and who bragged that he enjoys firing people, was the subject of a Politico article on his campaign's mismanagement just prior to his ill-fated "47 percent" statement. In contrast, during the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama's operation was often cited as a model of efficiency.

Todd also discusses the campaign promises that he describes as "staggeringly naive." The notion that Obama was going to change the way Washington worked and produce some degree of bipartisan harmony that would make Washington work again as it once had in some bygone mythical era. Clearly many from the outset thought that to believe this was possible would be incredibly naive. It is likely that most people did not ever believe that it was anything more than a posture that the campaign thought would bolster its conservative and non-liberal support.

Shockingly Todd writes that Obama, in "moments of unintended frankness" "shows clear disdain for almost every institution that defines the Capitol." The reaction to this, according to Todd, is that "many who have been part of Washington's governing culture far longer than he has been in office show clear disdain for Obama himself." (8) Is Todd asserting that it is not the institutions, individuals, or Republicans that are disrespecting Obama, it is Obama thumbing his nose at these institutions in these "moments of unintended frankness"? In other words, Obama came into Washington with naive ideas about hope and change but by displaying a disdain for Washington he wound up earning disdain for himself.

At times Todd forgets nuance and presents gross generalities. The notion that Obama had the advantage of "a once-in-a-generation gift," a Democratic House and Senate to complement his presidency ignored the reality that this was not a solidly unified Democratic bloc since many of its Red state members would often support Republican measures. This "once in a generation gift," was also altered by the extant anti-black attitudes which when combined with the Republican propensity for lying and evil mythmaking created the toxic brew of birtherism. Todd fails to systematically consider this in his mission to understand Obama and the Obama Era.

He blames President Obama for being "brilliant at communicating with voters and miserable at communicating with the folks they voted for. It's no secret he despises the gladhanding, backslapping necessities of his chosen profession. It took less than two years before many in official Washington simply treated him as they had treated other presidents: just another officeholder who would be gone as quickly as he came, powerful only for the shortest period of time...." Let us remember he is referring to a moderate centrist African-American politician who, at times, has endeavored with every fiber of his being to downplay his blackness politically while being as politically palatable to a nation only a half-century removed from a brutal system of anti-black racial segregation.

Chuck Todd, however, puts the onus on President Obama and lectures:

"You can't simply hope things change, you have to make change happen; and in order to create a new set of rules, you have to succeed by the old ones--all lessons Barack Obama may end up taking away from the presidency, but lessons he may wish he had learned before taking office."

Really? What would he have changed? What strategies could he, given his Democratic party base and constituency, have employed to bust the Republican boycott? What strategies would he have devised to prevent them from turning "Obama" into a racial code word? How could he have smashed the hard core of racially-based opposition and removed the key mobilizing strategy of demonizing a black president? How could he have done this while maintaining the white support he enjoyed through the primaries to the election? Perhaps Obama believed, or perhaps hoped, that the media would unite to shame those who would sponsor measures to suppress votes or who would keep people from enjoying the benefits of basic health care. Was that the essence of his naivete? Was it more a hope that a basic decency would prevail when the facts and morality of the situations are known? Did his historic victory blind him to the hard core of emotional, and irrational, racist opposition to him and African-Americans? Is he and other Americans in denial as to the historical reality that a large segment of working and impoverished white Americans would act against their own interests, and harm themselves financially and in other ways in order to deprive African-Americans of the basic equality as well as, social, cultural, political, and economic advancement.

Why does Todd stress President Obama's supposed naivete instead of emphasizing the unprecedented array of immoral and unprincipled political tactics that the GOP unveiled following his election? They were willing to do things that Obama had, in all probability, put pass them. Surely they, self-proclaimed die-hard patriots, would not stoop to holding the entire American nation hostage to their assorted demands on behalf of the super-rich. If they dared to, then surely the informed mass of indignant and patriotic Americans would rightly punish them. Well, they did it, and they did it without getting punished politically as evidenced by the big victories in the 2014 fall midterm elections. By this time Todd and the rest of media rarely mentioned the shut-down and related hostage-taking performed by the GOP.Later, Todd apparently covering all of his flanks, writes:

"More than any other battle during the first term, what the fight over health care reform taught the White House was that Washington had changed, in two key ways. First, the White House was learning that the loyal opposition that had become, simply, the opposition. Earlier administrations had willing partners to work with; Bill Clinton got welfare reform through a Republlcan-controlled Congress, and George W. Bush worked with Ted Kennedy to pass sweeping educational reform mandates..."(134)

Perhaps Obama was naive enough to believe America would respond to decency wrapped in logic and a higher morality. If so, what would Todd have a candidate like Obama appeal to? Faced with persistent GOP obstruction of Republican-like proposals from President Obama, to what extent did the dominant media and others within the ruling circles complain when Mitch MCConnell proclaimed that his number one job is to doom the Obama presidency? Yet Todd outlines what seemingly contradicts some of what is contained in this book. He notes that even during the inauguration ceremonies Republican strategists were perfecting their plan for obstructing every action Obama would take. At an expensive steak house in Washington, D. C. they vowed to, in Todd's words, "stymie Obama at every turn, attack the administration where it was weak, and give no quarter. Instead of working with the administration, which would only give Obama the victories he needed to further consolidate his political success, Republicans would hold the line and make every Obama win a polarizing, partisan moment...."(102)

Todd pinpoints the origin of Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act to a speech given just after he announced his candidacy for president but scheduled prior to it. According to Todd, experienced political operatives would have shied away from such an important policy-defining speech early in a primary campaign. Gibbs and other Obama advisers decided to make the speech remarkable by planning to have Obama promise to pass a heath care reform bill during his first term as president. When he gave this speech to Families USA, a liberal group, Obama promised he would push to pass a universal health care bill by the end of his first term.(85) Todd notes that, "The Affordable Care Act can hardly qualify as the universal health care Obama promised. Instead, almost from the day he proposed such a bill, Obama began moving toward the center in what would become a familiar Obama pattern: grandly proclaim a bold new direction, then move to the establishment middle."(86)

Bitter Whites, Clinging to Guns and Religion

President Obama's famous statement, one that would be non-controversial among blacks, was infamous among whites. It is a statement from a black man sympathetic to the plight of impoverished and often unemployed whites afflicted by the crumbling Rust Belt in the midwestern states such as Ohio, Michigan, Indiana,and Illinois. Obama said: "Here's how it is: In a lot of these communities in big industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, people have been beaten down for so long. They feel so betrayed by government that when they hear a pitch that is premised on not being cynical about government, then part of them just doesn't buy it. And when it's delivered by--it's true that when it is delivered by a 46-year-old black man named Barack Obama, then that adds another layer of skepticism." The Democratic candidate added that the betrayal resulted from broken promises successive presidential administrations concluding that "it's not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations." (109-10)

For Todd these notions are "anthropological constructs" but for much of black America they would represent intellectualized versions of folk knowledge. It is a view that doesn't view white anti-black hostility as inherent to whites but instead as stemming from certain rough conditions combined with the persistence of an ideological racism. Whether it occurred in an antebellum context or one more contemporary, it represents an irrational response to their dire circumstances since blacks, sharing some of the same problems, would represent their logical ally. Yet inculcated racism makes repugnant any notion that African-Americans could share or have empathy or sympathy with them since, after all, they are of the lowest of the low traditionally. This emotion, clearly fully blown in only a minority of white Americans, has been quite evident during the Obama Era.

Todd ignores so much of reality to discuss the political factors of events one could get the impression that he believes perception is everything. In discussing the BP oil spill his short description of the magnitude and long-lasting significance of the disaster makes it seem like he is downplaying it. In addition, he uncritically writes of the Obama administration's response. "Technically, what the government pulled off was quite the impressive feat. But politically, this took a big toll on the Obama White House, and eventually they'd get no benefit for solving this problem." (175)

Solving what problem? The political fallout from the spill? Eighty-five days to plug the leak, given the absence of regulation, conflicts of interest and the incompetence of the agencies involved, hardly represented a timely response. Apparently he believes that the culprit in the oil spill, BP, was a victim of "shake down" tactics resulting in a "multibillion-dollar recovery fund."

President Obama is to blame for the failure of Congress to pass meaningful legislation during his two terms as president. That is the basic line Todd would have us believe. He repeatedly returns to this theme. He asserts that Obama himself "knows" that "he doesn't play the Washington game." Here Todd writes at length without mentioning the factor of race. The notion is that Obama should have tried, and tried very, very hard to win over Republicans is a basic theme. The fact is that they insulted and repeatedly rejected him making it abundantly clear to anyone paying the slightest attention that they were determined to oppose everything he favored. They proved this with their deeds. They opposed a health care plan that had Republican fingerprints on it from its inception to its execution in Mitt Romney's Massachusetts. The Obama triangulation was met with a strategy strongly resembling the "total resistance" strategy the white South implemented to resist desegregation in the 1950s. The tolerance for these tactics, by white non-Republicans, and the media is a story that one day will be told in detail, but should presently be recognized as a remarkable fact-of-life during the Obama presidency. How is it that, for example, a major political party, resting on a conservative, business-first philosophy, threatened to torpedo the good credit rating of its own nation if its policies were not accepted, and yet, this did not become a major issue before or after the election? The shutdown of the federal government, the use of hostage-taking as a tactic, when the hostage is the federal government, why is this now accepted as a legitimate strategy? This cannot be explained except by the fact that these are extraordinary circumstances. The extraordinary circumstance is, for all of his conservatism, compromises and caution, is that there is a black man in the White House.

He asserts that President Obama has given up trying to win over Republicans with personal charm but Bill Clinton, facing the same recalcitrant Republicans, never quit trying to win them over. Obama, however, according to Todd, doesn't really care if he wins them over or not, or whether they like him. Indeed, the president doesn't even "understand" this "backslapping part of the game." I disagree, Obama is a consummate politician who excels, in relative terms compared with the lame politicians he mentions, at that aspect of politics. The conclusion that he doesn't care if they like him is incorrect since his clear impulse is to be liked by everyone, some would point to that as a character flaw. Anti-black racism, however subtle, remains a serious barrier to social interaction in America in general. It is one thing for Todd to suggest that Obama doesn't engage in the "backslapping" part of politics enough, but it is quite another thing to claim that he doesn't understand it. Time is precious resource and upwardly mobile individuals, like Obama has been for almost all of his life, are not in the habit of wasting it trying to win over the unwinnable or convince those who are determined not to be convinced. With impossible demands on his time as president, it is completely understandable why he wouldn't want to waste time trying to make Republicans like him.

Chuck Todd finds that President Obama is guilty of mismanagement too. It is an accusation that he is ignorant with regard to presidential management, "the routine, laborious, and even boring details of managing an office." Here a detailed comparison with the scandal-ridden and grossly incompetent administration of President George W. Bush would have been helpful.

In The Stranger, Chuck Todd has sacrificed quality for quantity in this massive 518-page book but ultimately fails to come to terms with Barack Obama, GOP obstruction, and the crisis in American politics.