Last Installment (Probably) on Obama: Chess Master or Pawn?

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We've had about enough of this, but one more installment seemed appropriate, given tomorrow's last-ditch negotiations at the White House and this little indication of the larger Third World on the Potomac dysfunction of our public life as a whole:

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Seriously (if we can use that term about the current Congress), this is just squalid. As former guest-blogger E. Goldstick writes about the FAA shutdown:

>>I realized that there is a strange double parallel between [the FAA shutdown] and the GOP critique of EPA, the Department of Education, and similar entities in the past... and their opposition to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau now.

It's not that they oppose regulations and bureaucracies - of course they do - but rather that they are indifferent to the contribution of these institutions to the effective functioning of complex decentralized systems on a national scale during the past fifty years.<< 

Sigh. And, indeed. But let's get back to Obama, and whether he's caving in too easily to the intransigent GOP -- or whether, to the contrary, he's luring them on to overextension and political doom.

First, the extreme pro-Obama case, posed by a reader in the form of a different question:

>>Along the same lines as chess master or pawn question, I have another question for your readers: will Obama win in 2012 by a higher electoral vote margin than he beat McCain?

I think he will, for a lot of reasons:
    •    Short of financial collapse in August, the economy will almost certainly be doing better, or trending better next year. With an improved economy, Obama's numbers should get better.

    •    Republican candidates poll badly. They looked poised to nominate a crazy person, someone pretending to be a crazy person, or a sane person that Republican base voters aren't excited about. No declared Republican candidate can beat the "generic Republican" against Obama. Either option (reduced independent voters, or unenthused Republican base voters) might put states like Georgia, Montana, or Missouri into play.

    •    After Wisconsin's labor battles, people in union households are probably much more likely to vote for Obama than they were in 2008 (when he only got 60% of the union household vote).

    •    After Arizona and elsewhere, I think Latinos will be much more likely to vote for Obama, putting some states like Arizona or even Texas into play (the Democrats would certainly like to see that) and solidifying Obama's wins in Colorado and New Mexico. If it's Michelle Bachmann, this seems even more likely. If Rubio is the Republican vice presidential candidate, this probably fades.

    •    Obama's going to have a whole lot more money than the Republican candidate, as he's already shown. I was worried about this at first, but hundreds of thousands of donors, with an average of $69/gift this past quarter means there's huge potential here.

    •    And finally, historically, Presidents win by higher margins than they won the first time (George W. Bush, Clinton, Reagan, Nixon, Eisenhower) or else they lose (H. W. Bush, Carter). No president since WWII has won reelection by a smaller margin than they won the first time. Since I think Obama's going to win, I think he's going to win by a lot.

Do any of your readers want to argue the other side of this bet?<<

If any readers want to make the opposite case, please keep it to yourself for a while, because I'll be on other duties for a few days. But here is another message that appeared in the mailbox at about the same time:

>>The vibe I'm feeling lately is that 2012 will be a replay of 1972. The economy was lousy with '70s stagflation. George McGovern, with the wide range of liberal, anti-war, amnesty-promoting subgroups, seemed too far out for the moderate middle and independents compared to the incumbent Nixon whose dirty trick were not yet known. McGovern one won only one state and D.C., and the Democrats were in disarray until Clinton's election.

Today, the economy is lousy again with possible deflation and high unemployment. I think Obama's quiet, reserved, conciliatory approach, compared to the Republican blind insanity for ideological purity in the face of economic disaster, will make him the obvious choice of the vast middle-ground voters and independents, in spite of the state of the economy.

In effect, the GOP will have reduced the economy as a critical decision point and put the question of its collective insanity in its place. Obama the community organizer, willing to work out differences, will seem vastly preferable. He may not win by Nixon's margin, but win he will, unless the Republicans actually find someone worth electing. Not very likely.<<

And, just for balance, here are two representative messages on the other side, from people less admiring of the Obama record so far. From a reader in Southern California:

>>Some people say that Obama is a super subtle chess master. He's not stupid, but I think that all he cares about is his own personal re-election, which he thinks depends on his being "the great compromiser"....

Like the song says, "When will they ever learn?" (They = stupid American voters)  Tax cuts benefit the rich and screw the poor.  Taxes were high and nobody was on food stamps in the 50s. Whites who had a job were OK (minorities were often not OK). Now Wal-Mart can pay low wages because many of their employees are on food stamps. Food stamps are in part corporate welfare.
 
Mastermind Obama at work: Obama agreed to extend the Bush tax cuts and put in a temporary reduction in payroll taxes. Now Boehner, McConnell and Norquist say that any change to those tax cuts would be a tax increase and unacceptable. Those tax cuts must stay unless we are attacked by the ChiComs. Real leaders ask for sacrifice- I recall Ike mumbling once or twice about sacrifice, but there has been no real call for sacrifices for the common good since FDR. [JF note: Hey, what about my former employer, Jimmy Carter? Hmmm, this may not be the best counter-example.]...

By the way, Great compromiser Henry Clay delayed the Civil war with his compromises of 1820 and 1850, resulting in far more slaveholders, greater economic power and more fighters for the South, when war came.   He burnished his reputation but he didn't deal with the slavery issue; after the civil war, the railroads catapulted into controlling positions, more or less controlling state and federal governments;  they got the Supremes to rule that corporations are persons for all legal purposes. Not all countries made that stupid mistake...<<

And, finally at least for now:

>>I don't totally subscribe to the Obama the 18 dimensional chess player.  What I see is a chess player that has a good opening (in this case his defeat of McCain - and subsequent passage of the Health Care Reform Act.)  Then - a tepid and unfocused middle game.  Obama can't seem to take the initiative - too many options.  Finally, when push comes to shove - he has a good endgame - he seems able to pounce on his opponents missteps with discipline and focus.  He just has to "hope" that he has enough pieces left after the carnage of the middle game.

Consider his presidential primary campaign.  He came out of the chute (opening) very strong - Iowa - survived New Hampshire - focused on the caucus states.  Then the middle game against Hilary - very tepid - no initiative.  Finally, when Hilary was perceived to have made a mistake - they pounced.  And continued pouncing on McCain in the comparatively short time between the conventions and November (end game.)

With the debt limit crisis: I see the whole middle game starting with the continuing resolution that allowed the Bush tax cuts to continue.  He didn't want a fight and let his opponents take the initiative.  The Republicans seized the House and confidently continued - knowing full well that the debt ceiling vote was in the next few months.  Obama initially (and weakly) said the debt ceiling vote should be independent of budget negotiations.  We see how well that has worked out.

Now the clock is ticking.  Finally, the Republican misstep occurs - Cantor (drama queen) undercuts Boehner the rook (internecine coup d'etat?) - McConnell (the bishop) tries to step into save his 2012 Senate hopes - chaos ensues - Coburn (knight) sidesteps in from the 8th column to try to deflect. Obama keeps his side calm (except for Reid and Pelosi to refer to Cantor as being childish.)    So how will Obama take advantage of his opponents misstep?   (Hey, where's budget wonk Ryan - was he already captured and taken off the table?)

So Geithner, S&P and Moody's are finally selling the public on the concept "this is serious - your 401k could go up in smoke."  Who to trust - the Republicans are like doctor with in the operating room with 4 heads all arguing with eachother.  The Democrats (Pelosi and Reid) seem to mealy to have confidence in. 

"No Drama Obama" - is the only one left standing.  Checkmate.<<

We will learn in these next 12 days (before Aug 2) mainly about the President. We already know about the other dramatis personae -- Boehner (torn between "normal" Republicanism and the Tea Party), Cantor, McConnell, Reid, Pelosi: all with their more or less assigned roles. Where will Obama draw the line? What will he say a reluctant Yes to, or a defiant Hell No! I have my guesses, but we'll see as the drama unfolds. And these are guesses rather than predictions, because I remember how few people would have predicted that he would make the "Go for it!" call on the bin Laden raid.

I think that's it on this theme until we know the outcome.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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