In the summer of wall-to-wall Michael-Jackson-is-still-dead coverage, the job of White House correspondent for a major network is easy as 1-2-3: mention the place where the president happens to be, sound-bite the conventional wisdom about the president’s political fortunes, and then tie it all together with a familiar cliche.
So for NBC’s Chuck Todd, the heavy lifting last week involved talking about President Obama’s domestic "setbacks" while he attended the G-8 Summit in Rome. There were several cliches Todd might have reached for: It wasn’t built in a day; all roads lead to it; when you’re there, do you do as they do?
But he found another route to the sweetspot that encapsulated the corporate media’s meme of the week, which was that (despite a 58 percent approval rating in the Gallup poll and legislative success on most fronts), prodigal son Barack Obama was really, really going to get it when he got back home.
That’s the overwrought conclusion you might have reached from Todd’s Thursday night segment:
The saying Todd refers to in his intro is, of course, "fiddles while Rome burns," though the first word went missing. The reference is to Emperor Nero, who is said to have played the lyre while his capital city burned like a theatrical backdrop behind him (and the last time a president was tagged with fiddling through a fire was, oddly enough, when George W. Bush was caught strumming a guitar with country singer Mark Wills while New Orleans drowned).
Odds are Todd didn’t really want to equate Obama with Nero (or Bush), or to suggest that the Prez was dallying in idle chitchat about climate change and nuclear disarmament while the store burned to the ground back home. That’s probably why Todd couldn’t bring himself to actually say "fiddles" and immediately downgraded his assessment of Obama’s (only slightly decreasing) poll numbers from burning to "not burning" to "wilting a little bit in the summer heat."
Todd was one of the freshest, most insightful political analysts during the presidential campaign, but since getting bumped up to White House correspondent he’s often been bland, awkward, and sometimes downright stupid (asking, for instance, if Obama would "veto" the stimulus bill "if it didn’t have Republican support," or why hadn’t Obama "asked for something specific that the public should be sacrificing to participate in this economic recovery?")