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The stranger in the White House

As Barack Obama’s presidency enters its final two years, evaluations of his time in office have begun to appear. An early entry in the assessment sweepstakes is “The Stranger: Barack Obama in the White House,” a well-researched book by prominent Washington journalist Chuck Todd. The book’s title aptly summarizes the central theme of the book — that Obama remains a stranger to many of the ways of Washington and to the other power holders in our nation’s capital. It’s an assessment that seems quite on target by the time one reaches the end of the book.

Todd’s own Washington perspective is evident throughout the work and reflects his background. Early on he worked on the Senate staff of the liberal Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin. After a stint at the prominent Washington weekly National Journal, he became White House correspondent for NBC News and appeared regularly on the liberal MSNBC network. He now hosts NBC’s weekly “Meet the Press” Sunday morning interview show.

Todd has earned a reputation as a usually objective and incisive reporter, but his liberal background at times is evident in his authorial perspective. The “other” for Todd in this book are the conservative Republicans, particularly those Tea Party activists.

In the book the GOP is described as having “an increasingly radicalized base” that is “almost fanatical, the way this crowd dislikes the president,” creating a politics that is “oddly perverse.” In contrast, America’s liberal left receives less attention and his home network of MSNBC softer treatment than Todd’s bete noire, Fox TV News.

In all, Todd portrays Obama as a more mainstream politician than his GOP opponents. That’s a debatable proposition in the wake of historic Republican gains in the 2014 elections.

Also reflective of Todd’s background is the book’s heavy emphasis on certain aspects of politics and governance. In rank order, Todd devotes most attention to (1) Washington politics (2) domestic public policy and (3) foreign affairs.

Those seeking a thorough analysis of Obama’s record as a world leader will have to look elsewhere. Foreign policy tends to intrude into the author’s narrative in times of crisis — Osama Bin Laden’s assassination, the Egyptian revolution and the truculence of Vladimir Putin. Todd discusses the administration’s actions concerning such events and then adds some quick generalizations about Obama’s standing with other world leaders along the way. Illuminating analysis seldom appears in these sections of the book.

Not so regarding electoral politics, a topic that Todd clearly relishes. The 2012 re-election campaign gets exhaustive and engaging coverage from the perspective of Obama’s top operatives. Much of this, however, is pretty familiar territory that has already competently been assessed by other Washington journalists.

The real value added in the volume comes from Todd’s frequent insights into Barack Obama’s character and behavior. These constitute the substantive core of the book.

It’s a tribute to Todd’s effort that his biases do not compromise the sound analysis of Obama himself that lies at the heart of the book.

In Todd’s telling, Obama in several ways is not a comfortable fit to the office he occupies. Still the college professor, he tends to approach all problems quite rationally.

This approach avoids impulsive and dangerous actions, but may also blind the president to important political aspects of the problems he must confront.

According to Todd, Obama’s rationality makes him a poor bargainer: “But rational middle ground [Obama’s starting position] wasn’t where Washington started negotiations. … He metaphorically let everyone at the table see his entire hand when it came to policy debates.” That results in bargaining that could not result in a mutually satisfactory deal.

Obama also has little taste or aptitude for personal persuasion of other Washington politicians. Instead, he is a “lone wolf” who likes to “spend the evening at the White House with headphones on and reading alone … .”

This introversion and his flawed bargaining has left his legislative presidency with a remarkably slim record of accomplishment once the Democratic Congress disappeared with the 2010 elections.

Obama seems to have little inclination to build bridges toward his political opponents. When Republicans took the U.S. House on election night 2010, the White House was so out of touch with their partisan rivals that they did not have incoming Speaker John Boehner’s phone number. Lack of partisan outreach also has circumscribed Obama’s clout in Washington.

When in campaign mode, Obama frequently found he could solve political problems with a speech. His celebrated 2008 Philadelphia speech on race extricated Obama from the embarrassing scrutiny that occurred with the disclosure of controversial statements by his Chicago minister Jeremiah Wright.

But, as Todd notes: “Obama had saved his campaign with one speech, thus teaching a (wrong?) lesson to a future President Obama: when in doubt, a speech can fix things. Of course, in campaigns speeches can fix things. In the presidency? A different story.”

Obama also has no significant management experience prior to assuming the presidency. That caused him to trust delegation too much, leading to the flawed health care rollout and other administrative embarrassments.

In summary, Todd finds that Obama remains a Washington outsider: “He came to Washington on the strength to being a stranger to the city and to its political elites, but it hasn’t always served him well.” Given his — for a president — reclusive personality, Obama’s odd fit for the job has produced a presidency that has fallen far below initial expectations.

That seems a sound assessment, regardless of Todd’s evident personal slant regarding certain topics in the book.

It may well be, though, that the “stranger” ends up faring relatively well during his final years in office. The American economy is growing at a sound clip and is outpacing the economies of most other nations of the world, particularly moribund Europe. Oil prices have plummeted, the unpopular Afghan war is winding down and the president’s job approval is rising.

It may be that Obama’s shortcomings, so convincingly depicted in Todd’s book, do not become defining traits of Obama’s presidency. The president himself must certainly hope so.

Steven Schier is Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.

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