Meet The Press host Chuck Todd began work on his biography of President Obama long before he took up his Sunday duties for NBC, and be glad he did because The Stranger is a wonderfully revealing, extremely well reported look inside the first nearly six years of the Obama presidency. There are some chapters which evidence great sympathy for the president, but most of the time Todd is just brutal on recounting all the many ways this president has failed. Todd will be my guest in hours two and three of today’s interview, and I’ll post the audio and transcript below as soon as they are available.
HH: I’m so pleased this hour and next. Chuck Todd, host of NBC’s Meet The Press is with me. Chuck has just put out his brand new book, The Stranger: Barack Obama In The White House. It’s linked over at Hughhewitt.com. It’s an incredible read. Chuck, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show.
CT: Thank you, sir.
HH: How many times did you sit down with Joe Biden to talk about The Stranger?
CT: (laughing) I did not have any official book interview with him.
CT: So the answer is no.
HH: I tried my little Meet The Press trick there, Chuck.
CT: Yeah, nice try. Neither the President nor the Vice President ever did a book interview with me.
HH: Now Tom Donilon is quoted on Page 418 about Benghazi. Now he must have sat down with you on the record, because there’s no other way for you to have reported that episode.
CT: Yes, there are, you know, I’m trying to be protective of my sources, but certainly, I interviewed a lot of people on the record.
HH: It’s really very well-reported. I am curious if they are mad at you at Team Obama.
CT: I don’t know. I don’t know. I know, you know, it’s funny. It’s like I don’t, in one of those things, I don’t want to know. It’s one of those weird things. As I said, I think I said this to you earlier, I neither was trying to attempt a liberal defense or a conservative attack. It’s simply reporting what I saw, reporting what I know, the story so far. I’ve described it as sort of the second draft, right? If daily reporting is the first draft of history, this is an attempt at a second draft. And there’s going to be other biographers who will particularly, you know, more people will talk more freely when they leave the administration. So it is a, it is the story so far.
HH: I am awfully glad that you started The Stranger before you became the host of Meet The Press. I don’t know that your current schedule would allow you to write this book now.
CT: Well, it’s funny, just so you know in the scheduling, so when I first agreed to do this book back in 2009, and you know, my publisher had this idea, oh, this is great. This will come out in his reelection year. And I’m sitting there going, okay. So it’s two years late, but I actually think this is then an appropriate time to start having the conversation.
HH: Oh, it’s very well timed, and especially as Republicans move into the majority. And today, you know, Harry Reid was reelected as majority leaders, I mean, as minority leader, and Nancy Pelosi was reelected as minority leader. And the President is threatening his immigration executive order. This study in his character and his operating system is incredibly timely for Republicans.
CT: It is, and I have to say the whole, this is going to be a, this is one of those things that’s like already I feel like my book’s behind, because I think the next six weeks could be among the most consequential of his term. You know, what happened? How, what happens here on immigration? What happens on the next six months, right? We’ve got the health care, the Supreme Court on health care. I mean, this is, you know, here we are. It’s like now my book feels like a cliffhanger. What’s next, right, with immigration and health care both are going to be how Washington, how he manages Washington, how Washington manages him, how these two issues resolve itself over the next six months, I think, is going to be something we don’t know yet.
HH: Chuck Todd, the reason I think Republicans and conservatives ought to read The Stranger is that they will realize he is politically tone deaf. Here’s my biggest takeaway of all, of many takeaways. He simply cannot understand his opponents or abroad, and he frequently voices that. On Page 420, you write that Obama couldn’t understand the GOP’s focus on Benghazi. On Page 465, you write the tech savvy President who couldn’t believe that his legacy might be tarnished over an inability to build a functional website. I mean, again and again and again, you come back to the fact he simply can’t believe things that you know, majorities or super majorities of people believe.
CT: Well, it’s funny. It’s more of the, you know, for somebody as a politician, you’d think that somebody that achieves two terms as president of the United States, you would think okay, they must be the best politician in the land. But when it comes to Washington politics, and there is sort of a sense of tone deafness that he has sometimes, and it is, you know, something that Reagan and Clinton did not have, right? One thing they both were so good at is sort of sensing where the public was. And they were both, I always say they both strived to be what I call 65% presidents. And I think we are now having, we’re in an era where both parties, I feel like George W. Bush sometimes just strove to be a 51% president, and that Barack Obama was thinking about only being a 51% president. And what do I mean by that? I mean both Clinton and Reagan wanted approval ratings of 65%. That was their goal. How did they get to 65% approval? Where I think both W. and Barack Obama in some ways didn’t necessarily worry about the 65% as much, and particularly in President Obama’s case. And I think that that is, you know, that’s a sense of whether he’s politically tone deaf or not, it is not a priority. You know, I’m of the mindset that you want that political capital that you get with a 65% approval rating.
HH: I agree with you, but I walked away from The Stranger two days before the immigration executive order story came out. And I am not surprised at all by it, because he is, the portrait that emerges in The Stranger is of a petulant president who is easily offended. And if John Boehner went down there, and a bunch of other people, Mitch McConnell went down there and said don’t do this, after I read The Stranger, almost as an emotional reaction, he’s going to do it.
CT: I don’t know if it’s emotional on that front. It’s interesting that you came away that way, and you know, look, I think that people are going to read it in whole different ways of viewing him. But I think what he is, I think he’s sort of set in his ways is probably the way to do it, the way to think about it. And I think he is sort of, put it this way. I think in the last two years, he’s resigned to his station. He sort of believes the idea that comes mainly from the left that the Republicans are refusing to work with him, they’re not going to work with him on anything, so why bother. And I think that he believes that. And if you believe that, then you’re going to make these decisions, and you’re going to go ahead and say okay. Like I would think, my guess is Bill Clinton would do the immigration order this way, Hugh. Here’s everything I’m going to do. And I’m going to do it on June 1st. But I’m going to give the new Republican Congress six months to come up with something, you know.
HH: And it could be a bluff.
CT: You sort of, you show that you want to drop a hammer, but you’re going to acknowledge the election, acknowledge the new majorities, and say I’m going to give you guys six months. And then is nothing happens, you can’t say I didn’t give you enough, I didn’t give you six more months.
HH: But that would be a poker player’s approach. You write on Page 185, “It’s actually surprising that the President enjoyed playing poker so much, because in legislative negotiations, he rarely acted like a sophisticated player. He metaphorically let everyone at the table see his entire hand when it came to policy debates.” That’s because, Chuck, I don’t expect you to agree with me. I just think his monumental arrogance is such he doesn’t care about getting anything done. And I don’t even think he much thinks about the impact of this executive order on the people it’s going to impact.
CT: Well, you know, it’s interesting. I wonder, one of the things I’ve wondered is that the biggest mistake that happened to him was having a Democratic majority in both the Senate and the House where he didn’t need Republicans.
HH: Oh, interesting.
CT: You know, I wonder what life would have been like had he had 52 Democratic Senators and he had to go find 10, that he had to go find 10-12 from the very beginning. Would it have been, you know, what would that have been like? I think when they did the outreach to Republicans in ’09, they did it more out of a perfunctory outreach. And then when things got tough, when they thought they were, they were like well, we don’t need them, we’ve got the majorities. We can do what we want. And obviously, I think now you look back and it’s, you would think it’s got to be the biggest regret.
HH: You know, that thought fits, though, with my idea of sort of a childish reaction of his at many points when I said that’s just childish what he’s doing here. And children react that way if they’re not disciplined early, if they’re never said no to, and they don’t have to work their way through. They become petulant and spoiled.
CT: Well, it’s funny, and I actually think that the relationship that he’s had with Congressional Democrats is such where he didn’t take, he should have taken a heavier hand with them, and he didn’t. And I think the biggest, and I guess I go back and, you know, my whole frame of reference for him, and as you probably noticed this at the beginning of the book, which is you know, what was the great promise of Barack Obama? It was not ideological and it was not about policy. The promise was you’re burned out of the divisive politics. Are you burned out of red versus blue? That was his brand. That was that 2004 brand, and that is what, that is why he did well with independents. That’s why he had, there were Republicans for Obama. That’s why there were those red state Democrats gravitated to him and not Hillary, right, because the assumption was Hillary’s brand was the divisive brand. This guy’s brand in ’07 and ’08 was this. And then he came to Washington and he worked with the old guard rather than challenge the old guard.
HH: Not merely work with them, but in many respects, allow them to dictate the stimulus.
CT: He allowed them to dictate it. That’s right. I think the biggest early mistake he made, and frankly, there are people that work for him that believe it was a big, early mistake, is when he allowed an earmark-filled spending bill that was a holdover, that he didn’t veto it. He signed it and then lectured them.
HH: That is much in the book.
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HH: It is immensely readable, and I read them all, right? I’ve had them all on, and whether it’s Jonathan Alter or anybody else, Jon Allen, I read them all. This is riveting. And on the cusp of the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Chuck Todd, I read with particular interest your account of the Trayvon experience. And on Page 368, you write, because it’s not an unsympathetic portrait. I want to convey that. You’re very sympathetic at points to the President, but you’re also very brutally candid at points. But on Page 368, you write, “The Trayvon experience was a turning point for Obama personally on how he should deal with race while he was in office. It was the moment that he came to realize that if he was going to be a role model for young black men, he knew he should be, he would have to start acting and not just talking.” Now I think that’s very revealing not just about how he dealt with young black men, but on his entire presidency, which has been talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk.
CT: Yeah, no, and it’s funny, on the issue of race, I think he’s been, you know, he doesn’t like, he really spent, and I think part of it is he spent most of his political career almost wanting to, you know, not wanting to be defined by race, right? He was not wanting to be seen in the Jesse Jackson-Al Sharpton wing of African-American politics, that he wanted to be a successful Democratic politician who happened to be black. And so certainly I think he worked very hard to do that. And so what did that mean? It meant if he dipped his toe into the race issue, he always just tried to hurry up and get out of it. And I think he decided that the best, I think he has decided that the best way he can deal with the race issue is basically, you know, he can play the role of Bill Cosby, right, which is talk tough, and he has on fatherhood, and the importance of fatherhood, talk tough to the African-American community, and try to be an explainer to the white community.
HH: Has he had a Sister Souljah moment, Chuck Todd?
CT: On any, I would, you know, and I can’t, nothing, the fact that I’m thinking about it this long, I don’t feel like there has been one big Sister Souljah moment.
HH: I don’t, either. And I think that…
CT: And it’s on anything. When you say Sister Souljah, I don’t mean, let’s not just look at it through race.
HH: No, through anything.
CT: Through anything. I mean, look, I think he’s not challenged the Democratic Party enough. He was close. The closest he came was on energy, believe it or not. Remember he was going to come out for nukes, come out for building, he was going to be the first, he was going to be a Democratic president who was going to issue permits for new nuclear power plants. And then, and he was going to agree to new offshore oil drilling. And then between the BP oil spill and the Fukushima plant, basically the politics of that shifted, and he walked away.
HH: He walks away a lot. In fact, one of the great takeaways of The Stranger is people don’t trust the President, and with good reason. And I think your account of the McCain-Obama dust up in February, 2006 over lobbying ethics reform. “The once promising partnership had turned stone cold.” You know, Congressman Campbell comes in here week after week, and he says it over and over again. Nobody trusts him. And that January 23rd meeting with Eric Cantor where he said I won, so I think on that one, I trump you, or when he blasts the Supreme Court in the State of the Union address, or he invited Paul Ryan over to the White House and insulted him? Or even when he double-crossed Boehner on the grand bargain, he’s built up quite a deep distrust, Chuck Todd.
CT: Well, it’s funny. I think that McCain experience, and I think that that’s been, if there is a frustration you sense from some corners of Obama supporters, it is this, it is this idea that he’s too cautious when it comes to his own politics, when it comes to Democratic Party politics. And that caution, it’s almost at the end of the day, he doesn’t want to rock the boat. And so working with McCain was going to make Harry Reid mad, so he didn’t want to make Harry Reid mad.
HH: But in the end, he led McCain to believe, as you tell it, that he was going to work with him.
CT: That’s right.
HH: And he sent that letter. And then McCain just brought down, you know, Thor’s hammer on him.
CT: Well, Mark Salter, and by the way, Mark Salter brought down…
HH: Yeah, well…
CT: I mean, let’s remember, not to say he obviously had John McCain’s permission, but being on the receiving end of various Mark Salter emails, reading that letter, I know this is Mark. I knew it was written by Salter. I always say I think his last name probably used to be Halter, and they decided he’s too salty, you know, so they made him Salter.
HH: But that, he, if you go out and you encourage people to believe that you can be trusted, and then you turn around and you walk it back, for whatever reason – Harry Reid’s going to be mad at you, or Nancy Pelosi yells at you, or people, or of course, Valerie Jarrett advises you not to bomb in Syria. You don’t come to that conclusion, but a lot of people have, that she is the reason he didn’t bomb.
CT: Yeah, I don’t, you know, on that one, I think sometimes, you know, it’s funny. Valerie’s more, she’s more influential than some in the White House want her to be, and not as influential as some people think. There is, you know, she is the First Friend.
HH: Is that all she is? Do you really think…
CT: No, as I say, she’s not, she’s, no, no, no, I think she’s a keeper of the flame. I think she is, I think she’s also the First Lady’s eyes and ears. But…
HH: Look, I’m proud. She’s a University of Michigan Law grad, so I’m very proud of that, same time I was there. But she is, she’s outlasted Rahm Emanuel. She’s outlasted Axelrod. She’s bumped off more presidential advisors than the Sopranos had extras.
CT: Yeah, she certainly has that, but I think it’s more of she’s there because the President wants her there. And you know, let’s remember that.
HH: And does she have a belief set? Is she as hard left as he has governed?
CT: Oh, I think she’s definitely a progressive. There’s no doubt about it. But I think she is, I think her ideology is Barack Obama. You know, if Obama’s for it, she’s for it. Like I don’t, you know, I mean I think that that, she is very much a protector of him, and that’s the role she serves. But she is, she’s not as vindictive, and she may have been early on, but she’s not as vindictive as I think her reputation is being.
HH: Has anyone in the course of writing this, Chuck Todd, said to you I wish we hadn’t said I won to Eric Cantor, I wish we hadn’t insulted the Supreme Court in the State of the Union, I wish we hadn’t, I mean, they really…
CT: I’ll tell you, the Paul Ryan one, I’ll tell you this, that was one, that was one that they did regret, because they didn’t know he was going to be, they apparently, as one of the stories go, that they didn’t, the President wasn’t aware Ryan was going to be there.
HH: How could that, does that go to the efficiency of this White House?
CT: It just goes to bad communications. It’s bad staffing, yeah.
HH: And the second term, the mantra is, or the last two years, is he’s got to shake up the White House staff. Is that going to happen, Chuck Todd?
CT: I don’t think so. I mean, I think if he was going to do it, you’d see it by now. You know, it was interesting, he, this is where, and there’s a moment after 2010. The most reflection he did about his presidency is in that, is in that two month period in 2010 after the election where he started, that’s where he first started bonding with Bill Clinton for the first time. And he took, the advice he took away from Bill Clinton is Bill Clinton, while he made major staff changes after the ’94, but he, because of the Dick Morris era, like Bill Clinton always believes that hiring Dick Morris was a mistake, and that some of the things that he over-calibrated. And I think one of the things that Obama took away from Clinton’s advice was don’t shake things up too much, as I think Bill Daley found out the hard way.
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HH: Chuck, Dr. Gruber, who’s been a guest on this show for extensive interviews a couple of times, and I’ve linked those transcripts over at Hughhewitt.com in light of the controversy about his comments, is not in your index. He’s not in this book. And so I do think there’s a tendency to overstate his importance in this. But in this book is a detailed description of where it went wrong, what you call the butterfly effect moment, is when Tom Daschle crashes and burns. Explain to the audience why that mattered so much.
CT: Well, so Tom Daschle was going to be, if you recall, they were going to name him, he was going to be both HHS secretary, but he was going to be a unique cabinet secretary in that he was going to have an office in the West Wing, because essentially, he was going to be the CEO of health care, okay, which meant both getting the policy implemented, getting it passed, getting it written, overseeing the whole thing, and then eventually implementation over at HHS. Frankly, it was a very, when you think about it, sounds like a pretty smart business way to organize things. And then of course the Daschle nomination blows up over the taxes. And it really, when you think about it, the fact that Max Baucus’ committee, and it really is their committee that did this to him, you know, that Max Baucus, and I think it almost makes you wonder there must not be love lost between Baucus and Daschle. I don’t know this for sure, but it’s hard to imagine that there’s not, that a former Senate majority leader can’t, sees his nomination torpedoed. And you know, there’s, Daschle at the moment it happened, he had a brother who was dying, and he just decided he didn’t have the stomach to do the fight, to take the daggers that he was going to take, and it was pretty embarrassing.
HH: Yeah, it’s as shocking and consequential as John Tower losing his Defense secretary…
CT: That’s right. You’re absolutely right. It is sort of Toweresque when you look back, I think, in hindsight. You know, it is stunning at that time when a former U.S. Senator, a former respected U.S. Senator like John Tower gets, watches the whole thing come apart in the U.S. Senate. These things happen.
HH: But now, Chuck, you’ve got Jon Gruber out there getting flayed, I mean, just, and Nancy Pelosi denying today she doesn’t even know who he is, I’ve never seen him before. And it’s just not, it doesn’t make any sense.
CT: No, and Gruber was brought in, and you know, he was always one of these, you know, advisors that they would tap into, and honestly, I think some of the times, Gruber was a prop just because the White House loved to sort of ding Mitt Romney. Hey, we’re bringing in a Mitt Romney advisor to write health care. Ha ha.
HH: You bet. You bet, and so SCOTUS, Supreme Court, has now taken the federal subsidy. The website enrollment is 40% below projection. The premiums are up 20-25%. It’s an utter fiasco. Is that because Daschle left? Or is it because this stuff just doesn’t work, and the lefties in the White House won’t admit it?
CT: Well, look, I’m not going to sit here and pretend I’m a policy perfectionist when it comes to the intricacy of everything, everything is linked in order to make this work. I mean, ultimately, the decision that was made by the White House was to do, was to basically write a health care bill that the insurance industry would accept and not kill, right? That was the, you know, at the end of the day, what is the, you know, how did they write this bill? How did they, they designed a bill that the insurance industry would accept, because they decided that what happened in ’94, the insurance industry didn’t like it, and they killed it. So once you start with that, then of course that’s why they had to have the mandate. And then, you know, that’s why they had to have exchanges. And then that’s why they, frankly, didn’t fight to the death on a public option, when the left was upset when they didn’t do that. So you have to sort of, to understand why the law is written the way it is, you start with that fact. They made the decision to get into bed with the insurance companies.
HH: But now, obviously, on the basis, on the basis of The Stranger, though, you know this stuff so well. Give us a glimpse in the green room. Does everyone recognize it’s a tornado of failure at this point?
CT: They recognize that the law was written poorly. Now they will argue they never intended for what ended up being law. They always intended to fix this in reconciliation. Don’t forget, they, it was amazing to me how many little things I would discover, and you probably noticed it in the book, where they said oh, we thought we could fix that.
CT: And we knew that was a flaw, but you know, this was what we had to do to pass it in the House. This is what we had to do to pass it in the Senate. And we knew we would fix it in reconciliation, whether it was, and so that’s why they ended up issuing all of these various regulatory delays, because these were the things that they were going to try to fix in the law. And then of course, everything went wrong. And that’s why when I say the butterfly effect is Tom Daschle, do you believe that Tom Daschle would have allowed Max Baucus to take nine months to approve a health care bill?
HH: True. And when we come back, I want to talk about some of the other unravelings of Obamacare.
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HH: Talking about Obamacare with Chuck Todd, on Page…there are so many of the details you just mentioned in the last segment, Chuck, that accumulate here. One of them, it’s such an admission against interest for the Democrats. President Obama’s chief liaison, Phil Schiliro, tells him, “The House would never back malpractice reform given the sway trial lawyers hold over the Democratic Party.” That gives the lie to President Obama always saying good ideas, no matter where they come from, are welcome here, right? They just, they weren’t going to take that good idea.
CT: Well, no, it goes to the, but it also goes to the larger theme that I think I’ve been talking to you about, which is he doesn’t, when push comes to shove, he seems to not challenge, he seems to be uncomfortable challenging folks on his own side. So going after, you know, medical malpractice reform, you know, so they did pilot projects. You know, he didn’t, he could have put that in there, would have probably, would that have gotten a couple of Republicans in the Senate? I think it might have.
CT: And he didn’t do it, because at the end of the day, somebody was, oh, you’re going to upset Nancy Pelosi. And this, you know, and I think, like I said, I think he is in the position he’s in now because he did not, he has been too cautious in dealing with Congressional Democrats and Democratic constituency groups.
HH: Well, and maybe that is the answer to this. There is a very compelling portrait of Bart Stupak here on Pages 133-134-135. And you cite Bob Bauer, the White House Counsel, going through weeks of agonizing negotiations to get the pro lifers’ support with this executive order 13535. But as Hobby Lobby and the Little Sisters of the Poor cases show, that all of that was a sham. They never intended to honor the pro-life commitments that they made to Bart Stupak and the others. They couldn’t have.
CT: Well, that’s what it ended up looking like at the end, right. In the moment, they did what they had to do in the moment. And that’s, you know, the whole health care story, when you watch this whole thing, and it’s like, you know, and I know the cliché is nobody ever wants to see sausage get made, but boy, this one was extra brutal in the slaughterhouse when it comes to the making of this law, because everything got cobbled together. And I think that’s why they, you know, it may very well be, you know, let’s take them at their word about the exchange issue that they’re dealing with in the Supreme Court, that it was basically a rushed, bad typo, rushed language and all of that. But that’s, you know, there’s so many parts of this law, that that’s how it happened. You know, it was like they got to a point where simply passing it mattered more than anything else.
HH: But everyone around the White House knows what they promised to Stupak. And still, his Health and Human Services department won’t give an exemption to Hobby Lobby, and tries to get Little Sisters of the Poor to pay for abortifacients. And I mean, that’s just not good faith, and that good faith deficit, Chuck, which is detailed on like every chapter of The Stranger, mounts and mounts to like a, this is before your time and my time, what they used to call about the credibility gap with LBJ.
CT: Right, no, and I think that that’s where, you know, he now, you know, one of their chief complaints, one of the complaints I get from sort of his supporters of his on the book is like you know, you’re holding him more accountable for the dysfunction than Republicans. And you know, and I think that he doesn’t have enough examples where he went to the mat, where he challenged his own orthodoxy, or he challenged members of his own party, because that’s how you can build trust with the other side if they think geez, you’re going to side with us, and you’re going to make so and so mad on your side to do it, okay. All right, we will do this. You know, look at the Social Security, you know, I think at the end of the day, Reid was upset, and so it ended up killing it, and the President wouldn’t push harder on the Social Security reforms that he was willing to do, and I think wanted to do. But at the end of the day, he didn’t want to challenge Senate Democratic leadership.
HH: But he also, for example, the Pentagon sends over a great analysis of Afghanistan and Iraq in here, by the way, in The Stranger.
CT: Well, I think the Afghanistan portion, and I think is very, if you’re trying to understand decisions he’s making right now with ISIS, I think this sort of, the scar tissue of the Afghanistan surge debate, I think, explains it.
HH: Sure. I had on Tony Zinni two days ago after I read his book, Before The First Shots Are Fired. And he called the decision to go with 30,000 troops just nakedly political, that you know, McChrystal wanted 40,000…
HH: 140, and the President comes back with 30,000 troop increase, and Zinni just says look, that’s just a political decision. You talk about the level of unprecedented senior group meetings, and it doesn’t, A) I’m glad he went through those meetings, but I don’t know how he got to the decision he got to, Chuck Todd.
CT: No, I think he got to the decision because he felt like he had no choice. I think he thinks he was boxed in. What I find interesting is folks at the Pentagon believe they did box him in. Now they swear they weren’t intending to do it, that it was sort of a series, that it sort of ended up happening. And I think that that’s why you have seen more, you know, everybody, what’s the big criticism right now when it comes to ISIS and Syria, is that the White House is calling all the shots. Well, it’s because they felt as if, he felt as if he didn’t get to make the decision he wanted to make when it comes to Afghanistan, and frankly, by the way, and maybe someday he’ll say it, maybe somebody will say it. I am convinced he is, that he does not believe the Afghanistan surge in hindsight was necessary.
HH: That’s going to be clear. His memoir is going to be fascinating, as a matter of fact. Now on Page 108, you write, “Obama was his mother’s son, his own removed from any one single community led him to observe the world as an anthropologist, an observer who stood apart and analyzed some tribe or culture or philosophy that has gotten him into hot water.” Boy, has it ever, but that’s the first time I’ve seen it put that way. It makes you very arrogant, as anthropologists are always warned against being. And when he talks about his big speech on race after the Wright tapes, he told Jon Favreau, “He wanted the speech to be a teaching moment.” And I just hit my head and said sheesh, what in the world does he think he’s doing here? He’s not the country’s professor. He’s supposed to be leading it.
CT: Well, you know, and I do think that it’s an important aspect that people have to understand Obama, is to be reminded that he’s the son of an anthropologist, because look, I think that you correctly note that you can sound arrogant. He doesn’t mean to be condescending. He doesn’t want to come across as arrogant. But it can come across that way when you’re making an observation about a culture, or about a group. And I use that reminder to talk about the infamous quote about clinging to your guns…
CT: …and Bible, that that is, that was commentary and an observation that would have been written in a dissertation by an anthropologist about trying to explain what’s going on in rural America. It’s not politically what you would say.
HH: It’s tone deaf.
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HH: I’m so happy to be talking with Chuck Todd, the host of Meet The Press. Nothing out of Ferguson, yet, but there’s fresh fighting in Eastern Ukraine, there is the tape from the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He’s not dead, doggone it, and we’ve got our eyes on everything. If anything breaks, I’ll tell you about it. But the brand new book, The Stranger, by Chuck Todd is linked over at Hughhewitt.com. You’ve got to get it. Not only do you get the best portrait yet, because it’s the most recent comprehensive portrait of the president, you also get thrown in portraits of Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. And now I want to talk about those in the first two segments here, Chuck Todd. Hillary was badly banged up by the elections of 2014. She went to Kentucky and held a fundraiser for Alison Lundergan Grimes. She held a fundraiser for Mark Pryor, and Bill actually went to Arkansas three times for Mark Pryor, and Tom Cotton wins by 17, and Mitch McConnell wins by 15. Does she have a glass jaw?
CT: I don’t know. You know, look, I think that surrogates are always overrated in general, right? At the end of the day, are you going to tell me that all the work Rick Santorum did for Joni Ernst is the reason why Joni Ernst in Iowa? You know what I mean? So I do think that we take the surrogate stuff, you know, we overrate it. But I think that she didn’t use, what I would say that Hillary Clinton didn’t do in 2014 that she should have used 2014 to do, I didn’t feel like she campaigned. I didn’t feel like she, you know, instead she was doing fundraisers. Instead, she was trying, you know, I didn’t see her doing retail politics. I didn’t see her sort of taking batting practice, essentially, when it comes to retail politicking, that you know, that has been a weakness of hers. It was a weakness of hers in ’07 and ’08. And so why not use 2014 to start honing a message, and more importantly, to also start doing some campaigning, doing some retail campaigning. So instead, she just simply was somebody to show up at a rally in order to get TV cameras to show up.
HH: Does she have a message? Does she have a platform?
CT: Well, you know, that’s a great question. I don’t think she does, yet. Like what is, you know, she’s got to answer the why, right? She’s got to answer the whole Roger Mudd question. Why do you want to be president? And maybe it is to break the glass ceiling. That is a reason. And that’s going to be a reason for a lot of people. That’s going to matter to a lot of voters, which is you know, let’s, it’s time to have a woman president, and that is a reason. She needs another why.
HH: You know, a lot of people say she’s too old, and I don’t mean chronologically. I mean that everything has a sell-by date in D.C. when it gets stale.
CT: You know who is a great, who sort of coined this in politics? Jonathan Rauch.
HH: Oh, sure, and one of the great proponents of same sex marriage.
CT: He has said that there is a sell-by date for politicians, and he figured it out once. He said basically, it’s somewhere between, the sweet spot is something like eight to fourteen years on the national stage. And once you’ve been on the national stage more than fourteen years, then if you look back, you just have a higher hurdle in order to be seen as the future candidate, the change candidate.
HH: And was Rauch one of the big proponents of Obamacare as well, Chuck Todd?
CT: I don’t remember on that.
HH: I can’t remember, either. I think he might be. He’s a Yalie, and I’ve been following his career for a long time. But I think he was also, which brings me to this question. Is Hillary the grandmother of Obamacare? Is she going to get tagged in 2016 for the ongoing collapse of this fiasco?
CT: Well, and it’s funny, it’s like that’s, I think that’s something she’s got to get her arms around, because the irony is, of course, is candidate Obmaa campaigned against the mandate. Candidate Obama campaigned against taxing the big health, you know, basically campaigned against two, a part of Hillary Clinton’s health care plan in 2008, and a part of John McCain’s health care plan in 2008. And then he adopted both of them. I think she has to own it. I think she can’t run away from it. I think the lesson for Democrats in general in ’14 is if you try to run away from it, the voters are going to say well, you know, then what are you for? You know, I think that she’s going to have to own it, and I think in an interesting way that you’re going to call it grandmother, that’s going to, some people are going to take that the wrong way. But I do think that she’s going to have to own it and figure out how to be the person that says okay, this is how I would fix it. This is how…you know, Democrats have to stop saying they want to fix health care. They actually have to say what they want to fix.
HH: As she is to her granddaughter, so she is to Obamacare. I mean, she started it. And no Hillary, no Chelsea, no granddaughter. No Hillary, no Obama, no Obamacare. Let me ask you about State. What is she going to say about State, Chuck Todd? It was a fiasco?
CT: Well, I had one former Democratic senator say to me, you mean the secretary of Myanmar, that basically, that that’s her best…
HH: Yeah, we call that Burma Bingo.
HH: Whenever I ask this question, we wait for someone to bring up Burma, and then we yell Bingo.
CT: And that’s the, and you know, that’s the best, that’s the best part of her record to tout. And I think that that’s, you know, at the end of the day, I think that the best thing going for her is that it’s Obama’s administration, it wasn’t hers. And I think one thing that I think I made clear in the book is that you know, he directed foreign policy, she represented it.
HH: You know what’s interesting in The Stranger, Jon Allen’s been a guest for a lot of time as well when he wrote HRC. He had part of the Benghazi story. You’ve got another part of the Benghazi story. But you both put Hillary in the room with Cheryl Mills in the State Department Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF. She was right in the middle of it, and then she goes home at some point, and she never calls back Greg Hicks. She called him once, but after they confirmed Stevens was dead, and the embassy burned, she never called back her number two in the country. Does she have explaining to do?
CT: I don’t know if she thinks she does anymore. I think she feels like she did it during the book tour. I think it really, I think when it comes to Benghazi, I think that the bigger problem she has to answer for is the Libyan intervention, right, which was the decision to intervene without leaving a footprint, and was there a rush to intervene? Was it necessary? Should it have been done? And I think that that’s, you know, that to me is the larger question. That, to me, is the larger debate. And I’ve always thought, frankly, Republicans have spent too much time worried about Benghazi as an incident and not enough time asking larger questions about the decision to go in and not have a, if you’re going to go in, then you need to have some sort of footprint after the fact to stabilize the situation, because guess what we got?
HH: You know, Chuck, though, that always strikes me as like my saying I think Democrats have always spent too much time on the 17 minutes of tape that are missing, and you know, it was those 17 missing minutes of tape that cooked Richard Nixon’s tail, right?
CT: Well, I’m not saying, but look, and I think it certainly shines a spotlight on a larger policy issue.
HH: Exactly, or a set of competencies.
CT: Okay, which was intervening in Libya without a plan to win once you’ve toppled Qaddafi.
HH: Now I also want the audience to know, one of the reasons I think they need to read The Stranger is I think whoever it was that gave you the Thomas Donilon account of what happened that night, this is the first time I’ve seen anywhere an account of what the president was doing that night. And it’s not much of an account, but it’s more than we’ve got anywhere on Page 418. Donilon says he kept the president informed throughout the evening, and that Martin Dempsey had ordered military units, and he had ordered Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs, to get military units into the area as fast as possible. It doesn’t really make sense to me, Chuck, because he’s not the combatant commander. I mean, you can call up your JCS chairman, but you should be calling the guy at Centcom, whoever it was at the time, I think it was Mattis, I’m not sure, and saying what have we got, what do we have, and that’s not happening here. And nevertheless, someone gave you an account that no one else has had, yet, of what was going on in the White House that night.
CT: Well, I mean, you know, I’d like to think it was putting some more pieces together. I mean, look, I think that there was, there has been, I think there is more attempts at assuming conspiracy, and I think it was not a conspiracy. I think there were just mistakes made in the heat of the moment.
HH: Oh, I agree with that. I think it shows that she broke. They sent her home at 1:00, according to Jon Allen, and I think that the 3:00AM phone call ad from 2008, which you talk about in The Stranger, is going to come back around to the secretary of State when she runs for president, if she runs. Do you think she’s going?
CT: I can’t imagine she doesn’t. I, you know, look, I think she is really, though, in a weird box, because she’s getting advice that says if you’re going to run, run early, because you need to put up an infrastructure, because frankly, you know, the Republicans are ready to go. They want to, there is going to be a concerted effort to not let her have a free ride. If she’s not going to have a competitive primary, and if Republicans are going to be busy beating each other up in a primary, somebody’s going to focus their fire on her. And that’s certainly, I think the RNC has made it clear that that’s what they view their job in 2015.
HH: Has the White House’s political operation, which you detail so well, polling, polling, polling, has that disbanded now? Or is being shifted over to Team Hillary?
CT: There’s not, I mean, I was just going to say if they have a political operation, it’s not a very thorough one anymore. I mean, basically, once Plouffe left, so went the political operation, for what it’s worth.
HH: Are they surprised, Chuck Todd, at how massively they were beaten up?
CT: Yes. Yes, they believed their own hype on the GOTV.
CT: And I think that you know, and this is what’s going to define, that’s why I think there is still some unpredictability that maybe for the first time in six months, or for the first time in six years, the president might be tempted to actually challenge or buck Congressional Democrats for once, because I think he feels as if Congressional Democrats are scapegoating him when he feels as if he got benched and never had a chance to compete in 2014.
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HH: It has, by the way, a terrific portrait of Mitch McConnell. That’s the guy I went ten days ago to help campaign, Chuck Todd. You’re very fair to the Republicans you portray in this, and I guess if you want to run Meet The Press, you’d better be.
CT: You know, it’s, to me, it’s all about fairness, you know? I mean, look, everybody has a point of view. I respect the point of view.
HH: Now look, I’ve only met the Vice President once. I’ve only interviewed him on the air once. He charmed the hell out of me – those teeth, that, you know, glad-handing, there’s a lot of Joe Biden in The Stranger. But some of it’s not flattering. On Page 148, you find him talking, talking, talking. He’s given two minutes, he’s allocated two minutes, he takes 20. On Page 209, he gets stuck with the stimulus oversight, and he’s burdened by a president who doesn’t want to work with Congress, and he becomes what you call the Washington complaint department. Does he mind this? Or does he love this?
CT: Oh, I think he on one hand loved it, loves it, and I think there are days that he didn’t like it. I mean, but he was sort of, when people would get frustrated with the President, particularly with Democrats, then they would go to him. They’d go through him. He became sort of, he became that person to try to well, can you tell the President this, can you tell the staff this. You know, it’s interesting with Joe Biden, he has personally a better relationship with the President, and at times, didn’t always have the best of relations with some of the President’s staff. But there was over time a pretty decent level of trust, though, between the Vice President and the President. This is not one of those situations where you have sort of, I think, Clinton and Gore really weren’t that close, and that became pretty clear, particularly in the last two years. I think Bush and Cheney, you know, we know that that portrayal, that history continues to be rewritten, I think, on the Bush-Cheney relationship. I think the Obama-Biden relationship was, is probably going to be seen as one of the closer president to vice president relationships, frankly, in the last 30 years.
HH: There’s one amazing episode in here that occurs after Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin comes out, and there are some very confidential communications which are just totally leaked to the authors. And the President is furious, and then Joe Biden, after he leaves the meeting, Joe Biden takes the floor, and you write, “rages about leaks. For Joseph R. Biden, there was no deeper insult, no greater betrayal than a breach of trust like that.” But then he’s the guy who let out the same sex marriage pivot, Chuck.
CT: I know. And what’s funny there is there are still a few people who believe that he did it on purpose. And you know, I don’t think he did it on purpose. I mean, I think actually this is one of those cases where when he was finally asked the third time, he broke, you know? It wasn’t one of those cases. I mean, my predecessor at Meet The Press, you know, just kept asking him. You know, sometimes you’ve got to ask the same question two or three times before they’ll, before somebody will answer them. He did a very good job at sort of pushing him.
HH: Before I come back to that subject and that interview, on Page 363, you reveal, I didn’t know this, Joe Biden doesn’t drink. Why? Is he a recovering alcoholic?
CT: No, I think it’s, he just has never has been.
HH: Okay, I thought maybe his brain surgery or something like that.
CT: No, I mean, you know, I think there was a little bit of health, but I think it goes back to, I think it goes back to, you know, having to be a family man, having to be a single dad raising his family after a tragic car crash.
HH: But not a George W. Bush kind of…
CT: No, it’s not a, he was an alcoholic, no, no, no.
HH: Because I mean you get down to the level of detail for the beer summit that he had a Buckler.
HH: That’s great reporting.
CT: You know, because I think most people didn’t, don’t know that.
HH: No. It’s great reporting.
HH: It’s terrific. Now go back to the same sex marriage debate. President Obama was for same sex marriage before he was against it before he was for it again. And it raised for me in the course of The Stranger, is there a core at the core of Barack Obama about what he believes?
CT: Well, I do think he’s not as, it’s funny you say that. I think he is, he’s not as, there’s not an ideological core to him. That doesn’t mean that he isn’t more sympathetic…he’s certainly more liberal than Bill Clinton. But there is sort of this, he wants to be a compromiser. He wants to be somebody who’s sort of almost an appeaser of sorts. You know, he wants everybody to get along, and he wants to try to find a middle ground. But he never, but I think it’s Jell-O sometimes, I think, when it comes to what it is a little bit. You know, on same sex marriage, look, there is no, this is the most politically obvious positioning that was done when you look at it in hindsight, you know, because he was for it, and then as he was running for the U.S. Senate, he took the standard Democratic line back in 2004 that everybody, that every Democrat was taking, and then suddenly all of these Democrats have evolved right at the same time. And then they knew they had to deal with gay marriage before their convention, because they didn’t want the convention to get defined by some kind of floor fight, or have the President disagree with this own platform. That would have been embarrassing. So it’s among the more nakedly political evolutions that there’s been in this president.
HH: So Chuck, is there any, you’re not old enough to have been there like I was when Reagan was there, and to work in those years. Reagan had a core that never moved, and most of it was anti-communist. And that’s what I say, Obama’s sort of the opposite of Reagan. I don’t know what he stands for that he would fight to the death for, that he wouldn’t give an inch for.
CT: I think he’s yet to prove that to us.
HH: Is there any opportunity left given that it’s now flipped over to McConnell and Boehner?
CT: Well, there’s always an opportunity. There’s always an opportunity. I mean, I think to me, one of the ways I’m going to judge to see what kind of six month relationship he wants to have, and I say six months, because I’m being realistic. I mean, the presidential campaign, by the summer of next year…
CT: …is going to be, you know, I really think that if you’re going to see anything get done between Congressional Republicans and the President, it’s going to happen before the 4th of July, sometime between now and the 4th of July of next year. If he’s having weekly meetings with the blue state Republican senators trying to figure out what can get done with them, because by the way, who wants to do, who desperately needs to look bipartisan?
HH: Maybe Mark Kirk. Ron Johnson? Not so much.
CT: Right, well, we’ll see. You know, Ron Johnson’s been very, every time the White House has invited him over, Ron Johnson goes over there.
HH: Of course, because he’s a businessman. I’ve got to ask you, though, Iran scares me because of the portrait that emerges in The Stranger. The guy’s desperately needy for approval, in my opinion. He screwed up Egypt so badly. He threw Mubarak 15 different curves. Now, we’ve got the ayatollahs, and I think they can work him. And I think Putin marching troops into Ukraine today, think they can work him. Can he reclaim any semblance of toughness on the international stage?
CT: I think a lot of it has to do with how ISIS goes. I mean, I think at this point, I think he’s going to be defined by that. But it does seem as if the Iran, you know, they let that cat out of the bag with that leaked memo about, you know, from the think tank that says they’ve got to defend the Iran deal. Look, he wants to cut a deal. And he definitely wants to have a deal. He wants to just, this goes to a sort of a core campaign promise. You asked about a core. Let me go back to something, because I think that’s one thing that gets underwritten about him. It’s they, whatever campaign promises he makes, he does, he obsessively wants to try to fill them.
HH: Except immigration reform. He had the whole Congress for two years.
CT: Well, on immigration reform, that’s a fascinating, you know, that was one of the, if there’s, you know, for a 500 page book, I left a lot, there’s plenty of stuff I left out. The 2009-10 debate on immigration, and how close they were at one point, and it was actually Democratic senators that actually…
HH: That killed it.
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HH: I want to close by talking about the most important issue, Chuck, which is the war, in my view. And on Page 292, this is a revelation. Bob Gates did not want McChrystal fired. And he advised against it. And the President fired him anyway. And the President fired Petraeus, and the President let Mattis retire. The President botched up Egypt, and as this memo indicates, and his people expect, he’s going to sign an deal with Iran. I think his legacy is going to be a terrible decision to withdraw from Iraq in 2011, premature withdrawal of Afghanistan, and a refusal to do what the professionals tell him to do.
CT: Well look, on the McChrystal front, in his defense, the Petraeus swap out was, you know, that was a big moment for him. And that actually restored some trust with Gates at a time when he needed to restore some trust with Gates. I mean, you are right. Gates and Mullen were absolutely panicked on the McChrystal front when the whole Rolling Stone thing happened. And then when the President proposed the Petraeus idea, it sort of kept everybody calm and calmed them down. But look, you can’t, the fact is, he was, he was elected. He was nominated to get the country out of war in the Middle East. There was a promise that his presidency would bring some stability to the Middle East, would bring some new opportunities, new conversation with the Muslim world and all of those things. And the fact of the matter is it’s going to be less stable when he leaves office. I mean, unless something magical happens in the next two years, and I think we don’t see that happening, it’s going to be less stable. And that’s, you know, some of it’s circumstances. I think some of it is misreading on the Arab Spring. I think it’s possible some of this would have happened no matter who was president. But facts are the facts.
HH: Let me close by asking you sort of the generational question. A generation of politics began when Nixon resigned. It concludes when he leaves. It’s 40 years – 1876-2016. Is he the worst president of a generation?
CT: Oh, I’m not, I, you know, I think it’s hard to figure a president out in the moment. I really do.
HH: How many times has he sat down with you on the record, Chuck Todd, for Meet The Press?
CT: I think it takes decades sometimes to fully, put it this way. I think we are still in an incredible, we are living in a generation of political instability like we haven’t seen in this country in over a hundred years. And that I think you can’t ignore that fact.
HH: It is Rock’em Sock’em.
CT: 24 straight years of polarization.
HH: It is Rock’em Sock’em, but it’s nothing like the Civil War or Watergate.
HH: Let me ask you, though, how many times has he sat down with you and done a long interview? We’ve been talking for a long time now. And has the President ever done any kind of interview this length with anyone?
CT: He did with Remnick. Remnick traveled with him.
HH: The Jayvees.
CT: He did a long, right, that was a very long multi, multiple day. He did with Michael Lewis. You know, the longest interview I’ve had with him on the record is 30 minutes, right? It was a Meet The Press interview. And then a 25 minute one we did on health care. And off the records, I’ve, you know, been in group settings with him for over an hour. But no, I think Remnick and Lewis are the only ones that have had the over an hour long conversation.
HH: And that’s, you know W. had, I did two of those myself with W. and four other people that went an hour and a half. I just think maybe he’s the most cloistered president since Nixon.
CT: I think he’s too insular. I mean, I think that that’s, you know, and obviously, that’s what the title is intended to tell you. I think there definitely is that feeling he is, and that’s what makes him, you know, he and Bill Clinton couldn’t be two polar opposites.
HH: Last question, is the White House and Beltway media going to turn against him with savagery over the next two years?
CT: I hate, you know, I have colleagues who like to put all of us in, and one thing I don’t like to do is characterize Beltway media. So you’re not going to get me to bite on that. I think it’s, I just, you know, we’re, when the going gets tough, there is a tendency for the media to get tougher.
HH: Do you expect the President to show up to the White House Correspondent’s Dinner and make jokes this year?
CT: Yeah, I do. And I imagine I might be the butt of a few.
HH: Well, watch this, Chuck. I don’t think he’s going to come. I think it’s going to get uglier and uglier back there. You are in…
CT: Oh, I don’t know. I mean, look, in the last two years, I have to say, I think the next president is going to study Obama, is going to study Bush, is going to study Reagan, is going to study Clinton, and my concern is that they’re going to come to the conclusion that you only have two years to get anything done, because your last six years are going to be fighting to protect it, or fighting some sort of political battle. I hope that’s not the lesson that the next president takes from the last four presidencies that we’ve had, but I’m concerned that that’s what’s going to happen.
HH: Good way to end. The Stranger is a terrific book. Chuck Todd, thanks for spending all this time with us.
CT: You were very generous, and you’ve been very kind with your, with the words about the book.
HH: Oh, it’s terrific. So America, go and get it. It’s over at Hughhewitt.com. The Stranger: Barack Obama In the White House
End of interview.