In his new book, “The Stranger: Barack Obama in the White House,” Chuck Todd digs into the day-by-day of President Obama’s White House and finds the chief executive at times disengaged with Republicans in Congress (both when he didn’t need them in 2009 and 2010 and when he did in the four years since) and often inept when he did engage with them.
“They were terrible negotiators,” Todd said of the White House team that pushed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act through Congress in 2009. “They didn’t know how to play hardball.”
The NBC News political director and moderator of “Meet the Press” sat down with Salon to discuss the book, the present and future Obama, the public’s fascination with celebrity journalists, and his plan to retool and revive NBC’s franchise Sunday show.
Did you go into “Meet the Press” with the attitude that the format was broken and you needed to do something different?
I didn’t think the format was necessarily broken, but I thought it couldn’t be just a better-produced cable show. I think people are worn out of the daily news cycle. Monthly magazines are having a bit of a revival, and I’d like to think the Sunday news shows could be that for politics. I want to do healthcare in multiple segments, do a status update, try to be less political and less Washington about it, and I think Sunday shows have that luxury again.
Do you think you’re already doing that, or is that a direction you want to go?
It’s a direction I’m trying to go. When we did an Ebola show, we brought in experts and the politicians were secondary. We had doctors — specialists in the field. I want to do that more on big issues.
What do you think ratings for a Sunday show correlate to: the better interviews, the better host, the topics?
I think it’s habitual. If you look at the history of all of television news, it’s habitual. People are NBC families or ABC families or CBS families. Tim Russert was in third place, and it took him four or five years to catch David Brinkley. I’m really trying to keep our P.R. people from trumpeting short-term rating success. It’s more like building a football program; it’s a three-year plan. In three years, I’d better be in the top spot or they should think about a new head coach.
Do you think delivering ratings are part of your job?
Yeah, whether I like it or not.
If a year from now you’re happy with the quality of the journalism and the news division is happy with what’s going on the air but you don’t have the ratings, then what do you have?
I assume if the quality is there that the ratings will follow. They have followed quickly in D.C. That to me is an important metric; if Washington cares about the show, that’s a start. If you look at the rings of opinion leaders, that’s ring No. 1. If you’re doing a quality show, then the ratings will follow.
My beef with media writers is that they only cover the ratings. I hope we have the guests and are asking the questions that make news. If we have more clips that are generated by what people are saying on the show, that tells me we’re doing our job.
The show’s iPhone app got folded into the NBC News app. Is the digital strategy for the show to be more a part of NBC News?
We’re trying to meld the “Meet the Press” and our politics into one brand, which is easier to do now because I have both titles — moderator and political director — so we’re trying to meld those two worlds together. The gold standard in politics is the “Meet the Press” brand, so we should be embracing the “Meet the Press” brand.
Isn’t it a little icky that corporate media companies are polling on how much viewers like you?
Let me say this: I don’t like it when journalists become part of a story. We have a culture in social media that wants to make journalists as big a part of the story as politicians themselves. That’s not good. People say, “Oh, you’re trying to insert yourself into a story.” I’m not. I’m trying to be a conduit, to be a challenge or a devil’s advocate for the public. I wish there wasn’t as much focus on the individual personalities of journalists. The people we cover should be the focus.
I say this, and I’m going on “Conan” to sell my book.
I think that’s different. That’s publicity in an effort to sell a book. You would expect to do interviews when you’re selling a book.
I guess. The journalists shouldn’t be the focal point. Whenever I have moderated a debate, it’s just like a football game. If people are talking about the officiating at the end of a game, that’s not good. You want people to talk about the game. The moderator shouldn’t be the story; the candidate should be the story.
The Washington Post said the book is “all microscope and zero telescope” in your focus on individual White House decisions. Do you think you could have connected the dots better, or is the Post missing the point of the book?
I wrote a book about Obama in Washington — his battle to change Washington. It’s going to be insular. That’s the nature of it.
If we do not see evidence of another serious Democratic primary candidate by the end of June, will that be it? Hillary is the nominee?
I guess. But the history of the Democratic Party is that even when they have a powerful front-runner, somebody nips at their heels in a semi-significant way, so I just hesitate to make that assumption. Can I envision the people we talk about now being that candidate? Martin O’Malley? Not really. Bernie Sanders? Probably not. Jim Webb? He doesn’t strike me as having the hunger to do the campaigning you need to do.
But Democrats do like to shop. You just can’t help but wonder if someone will have a why-not-let’s-see-what-happens kind of moment. I understand Hillary getting in early because you’ve got to start an infrastructure and have it ready to go because the Republicans will do whatever they can to weaken her from the beginning. And what living American politician can wear well after two straight years of campaigning.
I already have Hillary fatigue.
The biggest problem she has is that a ton of people in the media have Hillary fatigue. I don’t know if the grass-roots Democrats do; eight years ago they did, which is why they looked to Obama. People had Hillary fatigue — really Clinton fatigue — and were looking for a new direction. Now in the grass roots there’s some Clinton nostalgia, especially as Obama’s presidency looks shaky. But the Hillary fatigue in the press corps is going to be a challenge.
How does the White House talk about the popularity problem? Do they say don’t care about popularity, that they’ve got a job to do?
They want the ratings to improve. They know better approval ratings gets you more political capital to do things. Their post-election attitude is that they have freedom now. They said they made a lot of decisions based on what Senate Democrats claimed was in their own interest. For instance, the decision not to go ahead on immigration, which I think the White House regrets.
Do you see Obama writing a Churchill-style multi-volume history of his White House years? Do you see him spending years bolstering his presidency, or will he move on to other things?
I think he likes writing and will look for opportunities to do that. I don’t expect him to write multiple books that are attempts to defend his legacy. If he writes multiple books, they’ll be more in the Nixon style — different topics where he has some expertise. I wouldn’t be surprised if he became a columnist somewhere.
Writing 800-word Op-Ed columns?
I wouldn’t be surprised if he found a place where he could write a monthly column. Who was the last president to do that — Herbert Hoover?
You got me.
I’ll put it this way: If he chose another career, I think he would be a David Brooks.