I've been listening to The Stranger: Barack Obama in the White House (2014) by Chuck Todd. Todd is a real insider journalist, the political director of NBC News and moderator of Meet the Press, so judge what he says accordingly.
In Todd's telling almost everything Obama did wrong during his first term came from lack of experience and a refusal to do things in the time-tested Washington way. Obama and his closest aides came into office determined to change the way Washington works. A symbol of this was their opposition to earmarks in spending bills, the traditional way politicians brought home the goods for their districts or states. To Todd, all the problems Obama has had getting bills passed can be traced back to this rigid unwillingness to make sausage like an old-fashioned pol. The Tea Party Republicans who took over the House after 2010 had a similar rigidity and an identical hatred of earmarks, and the result was complete legislative paralysis. Limited by their own rules, neither side had anything to offer that the other wanted. Todd also places some blame on Obama's famous lack of interest in schmoozing and making friends and all that back-slapping stuff. Todd doesn't make this the centerpiece of his narrative – as I said, he thinks Obama's real problem is highminded rigidity – but he clearly thinks Obama could have found some Republicans to make friend with if he had tried.
That was probably too negative a way to begin. Todd obviously admires much about Obama, including his intelligence, incorruptibility and concern for the nation. Todd is also very good on the challenges faced by the administration, from terrorism to the birthers. But he also obviously thinks Obama could have accomplished even more if he had relied more on friendship and deal-making and less on intellect and high principles.
If Todd has a hero, it is Joe Biden. Biden was friends with everyone and this sometimes enabled him to reach deals with Republicans when Obama could not. The best case of this came when Obama was trying to get the START nuclear arms reduction treaty through the Senate, which required 67 votes and therefore some Republican support. In Todd's telling, the Obama people were in a White House meeting, with Harry Reid on the phone from Capitol Hill, strategizing over whether Reid should schedule a vote on the treaty when they didn't have enough Republican votes securely locked down. Biden comes in, says, "Harry, schedule the vote, I'll get you the votes you need", goes back to his office, gets on the phone to his old Senate friends, and eight hours later has all the pledges of support necessary.
From this inside perspective much turns on how well the West Wing is run and thus on the ability and personality of the chief of staff and a few other key players. To Todd, it is imperative that these people be Washington pols with decades of political experience and large networks of connections. In the way he tells the story, things like who was invited to the meeting and who called which Congressman first determine the fate of the Republic. I have never been sure how seriously to take this sort of stuff. Sometimes it seems to me that there is a whole lot of scurrying and posturing and so on and in the end what happens is what everyone expected at the beginning. But one person who absolutely agrees is Obama. When he picked his cabinet and senior staff in 2008 he disappointed his more Hopey/Changey backers and friends by selecting mainly veterans of the Clinton administration or other Washington insiders. Todd, of course, thinks this was exactly the right thing to do, and he attributes much of Obama's success to the presence around him of professionals like Hillary, Robert Gates, Timothy Geitner, and Rahm Emanuel.
This has made interesting reading in the midst of this crazy election season. From every side (well, except Hillary's) we hear that insiders are the problem, that Washington professionals can't be trusted, that we need new blood and new ideas and a radical change in how Washington operates. And here is Chuck Todd, vastly knowledgeable about recent Washington history, saying that even Obama was too much of a moralistic outsider to really operate effectively in the capital. From his perspective the notion of a Sanders or Trump administration must be laughable. Or maybe terrifying.