TV Optics, Presidential Optics

Chuck Todd interview with President obama

Image courtesy of NBC News

TV Optics, Presidential Optics
| published September 9, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

When veteran White House correspondent Chuck Todd made his debut on NBC’s Meet the Press this past Sunday, lots of people were watching to see if his new stewardship of the iconic show—one of television’s longest running programs—would be auspicious. After all, Todd would be filling not only the shoes of his predecessor, David Gregory—a capable newscaster and first-rate journalist who was nevertheless replaced by NBC because the show’s ratings had fallen—but also the outsized shoes of Martha Rountree, Ned Brooks, Bill Monroe, Roger Mudd, Marvin Kalb, Garrick Utley, Tom Brokaw, and the beloved Tim Russert, who hosted the show for a record 17 years from 1991 to his death in 2008.

Months of speculation and rumor had left David Gregory more-or-less twisting in the wind while NBC wrangled with internal decisions about the future of a show with more air time than all of the episodes of I Love Lucy, Bonanza, Gunsmoke and CSI combined. Meet the Press had fallen into third place behind the other major Sunday shows, Face the Nation (CBS), and This Week (ABC). Todd, a protégé of Russert, had all along been the presumed top candidate if Gregory were to leave or be pushed aside. But NBC’s strange, cryptic handling of the transition generated a lot of unpleasant chatter among television professionals and media watchers.

So when Todd took ownership of the interviewer’s chair this weekend, plenty of people were watching to see how things turned out. Besides, his first guest would be none other than U.S. President Barack Obama.

There would be plenty to talk about. Foreign policy was to be the central theme of the conversation—a topic with so many variables, so many complexities, and so much stress, that when Todd asked the haggard-looking President about sleeplessness, Obama answered candidly that there had been plenty of nights lately when the chief executive slept only a few hours.

The year 2014 has been a rough one for the White House. Obama and his top advisors had not expected to face the tsunami of international crises now dominating the headlines, and this was clearly not what the President wanted his foreign policy agenda to look like as he rounds the homestretch curve of his two terms in office. The goal of the White House had always been to remain decoupled from Iraq, and to keep the military and foreign policy apparatus focused on an orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan. The President had campaigned to end both wars, as well as ramp down the U.S. war on terror. Bitter fighting with the GOP in 2013 had pointed toward an agenda heavily weighted toward domestic issues—budgets, taxes and spending, sequestration, debt ceilings, education, social security, wages, infrastructure, the internet and web neutrality, and continued economic recovery. And along the way Obama might have time for border issues—until this year a seemingly fading concern—and even some catch-up work on health care and the Veterans Administration.

But from the very start of 2014 problems overseas have begun to dominate, even overwhelm the White House. While much of the world watched the Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, there were those TV cutaways and split screens, as protests in Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine, began to turn increasingly violent. A corrupt, pro-Moscow president was deposed, and in his place came a moment of long-lasting democracy. It was not to last. Fueled by disapproving and menacing talk by Vladimir Putin, Russia encouraged insurrection and rebellion. It sent troops into the Crimea region, seized practically everything, and soon annexed the peninsular, reverting to pre-1954 lines of authority. Within days heavily-armed militant groups sprang up, seemingly out of the soil, to take control of cities and towns across much of Eastern Ukraine. Within the space of a few weeks the worst international crisis since the end of the Cold War evolved with breathtaking speed. Later, using Russian-made rockets, the militants (deliberately or accidentally) shot down a civilian airliner over Ukrainian skies, killing all 295 passengers, and setting in motion a horrible scene involving the citizens of a score of nations. Russian troops massed by the tens of thousands along the Ukrainian border, supported by MiG fighter jets, attack helicopters, tanks, and more.

As if this were not enough, a previously obscure militant coalition calling itself ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIL), burst across northern Syria, crossing the border into Iraq. That crisis quickly became horrific, fragmenting a fragile Iraq, setting into motion bloody sectarian violence, and triggering one of the worst humanitarian crises of the last decade, with tens of thousands of people on the move, fleeing war, and fleeing the radical extremism espoused violently by ISIS fighters.

Like the Ukrainian tensions, the ISIS threat came as a shock to the White House. In the space of only a few weeks, ISIS threatened to unravel all the work exerted, all the billions of dollars spent, and render wasted the thousands of American lives lost in a costly, bloody war. ISIS engaged in a killing spree—summary executions of thousands, beheadings, amputations—and imposing a radical interpretation of Muslim law, extorting shopkeepers, banning women from the streets, even pilfering banks. When an aerial campaign began last month, at first as a way to abet the humanitarian efforts aimed at the Kurds in the north and the Yezidis trapped in pockets in and around Mount Sinjar, it was quickly expanded to include other ISIS targets on the ground. ISIS retaliated by beheading photojournalist James Foley.

A couple of weeks later, acting upon its threats, it also beheaded American freelance journalist Steven Sotloff. Sotloff, who wrote for Time, the Christian Science Monitor, and Foreign Affairs, had been kidnapped from an area outside of Allepo, Syria, not long after he had crossed the border from Turkey. Like Foley’s execution, Sotloff’s too was accompanied by a gruesome videotaped message, claiming the beheading was retribution for continued U.S. airstrikes against ISIS, and for U.S. support for Iraqi and Kurdish fighters who retook control of the dam at Mosul days earlier.

Almost simultaneous to Sotloff’s murder came the news that Russian troops had entered Ukraine, those numbers varying from hundreds to perhaps thousands, in an attempt by Putin to rally the strength of the militants and push back against a resurgent Ukrainian army.

Days before the NATO summit, it did not appear that the United States had a strategy for confronting Russia or battling ISIS, and, in fact, the President said as much in a widely-watched and widely discussed press conference. After talking to reporters while on vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, and after telling journalists that “the entire world is appalled by the brutal murder of Jim Foley,” the President returned to his golf game. Those photos and video images of him putting and chipping in the hours after Foley’s murder generated complaints heard around the world: Obama was either insensitive to the moment, or his lack of strategic vision meant he had little patience or regard for the severity of the ISIS threat.

The narrative, presented by conservatives, moderates and liberals, Republicans and Democrats alike, has become one of a President far too reluctant to act. Even Democrats were complaining: understandably reticent to put the country back on the path to war, President Obama has been engaged in over-caution and circumspection.

To add to the confusion, others around him talked tough—including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Vice-President Joe Biden. This inevitably led to a muddled, incomplete picture of U.S. intentions, even as Britain’s David Cameron briefly took on the leadership role in denouncing ISIS for its very real threat to democracy and the civilized nations.

The NATO summit helped to clarify the resolve of dozens of partner nations, but the damage was already deep. Chuck Todd set up his interview by framing these events as a rapidly-expanding set of crises.

“All this,” Todd said, “[is] contributing to a sense that the world is spinning out of the President’s control.” Todd also referenced Obama’s falling poll numbers, data so dismal that many Democrats are distancing themselves from the President as the mid-terms grow closer.

Todd began by asking if the President is preparing the country for war. Obama responded that he is preparing the country to confront ISIS, just as the U.S. has confronted other terror movements of the last decades, including al Qaeda. Obama also cited the airstrikes in Iraq as a crucial opening phase in the effort. But Obama stressed that there would be no ground troops, nor another Iraq War. U.S. airstrikes, he said, would be in support of Iraqi and Kurdish troops on the ground. The President referenced his upcoming speech to the American people.

When pressed by Todd to explain his position on Syria—the country which ISIS calls home—the President again stressed that the United States cannot “serially occupy every country” which poses a threat. Obama said that the boots on the ground in Syria must be Syrian boots. Obama also said that other Sunni Arab nations would need to become engaged in the fight against ISIS and other militant and terror organizations. Obama said that it should never be viewed as a Sunni versus Shia battle.

“Sunni extremism,” Obama said, “as represented by ISIL, it the biggest danger we face right now.”

During his interview, the President said that he regretted the incident with the golf game after Foley’s death. “I should have anticipated the optics,” the President said, “because part of the job is the theater of it.”

Taken along with the President’s earlier “as of now, we don’t have a strategy” comments, it had been a rough week for the White House at a time when a consensus was emerging that Obama has a foreign policy based on entirely reactive thinking and hesitancy. Even after the NATO summit produced the appearance of agreement among member nations, there still seems little in the way of a long-term strategy for defanging ISIS in Syria. If drone strikes, cruise missile strikes and bombing alone can’t provide the catalyst for destroying ISIS, then some form of on-the-ground action will be necessary, and despite Todd’s persistence, the President offered no such plan.

The President’s address to the nation this week may bring a more-or-less official policy into clear view. Widely expected to be a foreign policy speech, most observers say the President will attempt—once and for all—to illuminate his long-view of the multiple crises now unfolding in various parts of the world: violence between Israel and Hamas and its horrible consequences for Palestine; rising tensions in the South China Sea and new military provocations by the Chinese military; sanctions and other options to push Vladimir Putin away from outright annexation of large parts of the Ukraine; a continuing border crisis (as of six months ago, a virtual non-issue) with thousands of children entering the country to flee violence in their homelands); and ISIS, now a destabilizing and serious threat to a half dozen Middle Eastern countries.

Now that The Hague has concluded that Malaysian Airlines flight 17 was struck by a “high-energy objects from outside the aircraft” (a circumspect way of saying the plane was shot down by a missile), Obama must also face pressure to come down hard on Putin and his allies, and the President must acknowledge the vast cost to dozens of EU member states if sanctions are made even tougher.

As for Meet the Press, Todd’s debut went as smoothly as could be expected. He began the show by paying historical tribute to David Gregory—his immediate predecessor—as well as the other 11 moderators dating back to 1947.

Todd also acknowledged that the set and format would slowly evolve to reflect some of the show’s potential changes in direction. Where David Gregory had typically opened the show seated alone, Todd began with his panel of guests already in place to his left and right.

One future feature: the addition of Luke Russert, son of longtime host Tim Russert, who will likely begin soon as a field reporter and guest analyst for the show.

Gregory’s departure from Meet the Press was accompanied by the more-or-less official announcement that Gregory was leaving NBC altogether. There are rumors, unconfirmed, that Gregory may be in talks with CNN.

Related Thursday Review articles:

You’re Gonna’ Need a Bigger Foreign Policy; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; September 9, 2014.

The Economic Impact of Ukraine’s War; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; August 25, 2014.