Obama as Chess Master—or Pawn?

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A few days ago I quoted several reader messages to the effect that President Obama -- even as he backs off rather than appoint Elizabeth Warren to head the agency she helped design, even as he lets Sen. Richard Shelby veto the appointment of an impeccably able economist as a governor of the Fed -- knows exactly what he is doing and is playing a long game of outwitting the GOP.

Here are messages from a few of the readers who see it another way. I'm not going to try to sort out all these argument; I just think it's interesting to see the range of hopes and fears, suspicions and trust, Obama has educed.

First, from reader AR, "playing chess -- against his base":

>>I was going to write a long essay in reply to your correspondents, touching on Molly Ivins's counsel to always look at a politician's record and not at what he says or what you project on to him, Ryan Lizza's New Yorker essay in 2011 on Obama's record in Illinois and as a senator, and on George W. Bush's astute political instinct reflected in his insistence on spending his political capital on things that mattered to his constituency and his refusal to negotiate with himself.

But instead, let me attempt a reduction-ad-absurdum proof. Let us assume that Obama is indeed playing multi-dimensional chess that we mere mortals cannot understand.

Remember when late last year, Obama did a huge tax-cut deal with the Republicans and gave a lot of ground for a tax-cut that did not even have his name on it? Suppose he had at the time, negotiated an increase in the debt limit as well. I would argue that he would have gotten it quite easily, his party still had a (lame-duck) majority in Congress, Boehner wasn't yet hostage to the newly-elected tea partiers. And except for a few wonks nobody even knew there was a debt ceiling raise that would come due in 6 months. If he had raised the debt-ceiling then, he could now be enacting all the cuts he wanted...with no need for this hostage drama....

Given that we're here, and the last 3 years appear to have been a series of unforced errors and political miscalculations, I have to assume that Obama is either incompetent or naive or that his goals and those of most liberals aren't quite the same. If there is multi-dimensional chess being played here, I would submit that Obama is playing it against his base.<<

From reader JS in Vermont, "earning chits from the Republicans":

>>I'm a lot less interested in Obama's negotiating tactics than I am in his goals.  Sure, reducing the deficit over the long term is a good goal, but you can do that in more or less destructive ways.

We don't actually know very much about how he's proposing to get there... But we have heard a few snippets from Obama himself and from leaks from the negotiations that give us some clue about what direction his priorities seem to be going in.

So perhaps your Obama-bedazzled correspondents who apparently believe the "11-dimensional chess" theory could explain to me what I am to think of a Democratic president who thinks one way to cut the deficit is the actuarially insane, not to mention cruel, idea of postponing the age of eligibility for Medicare?

What am I to think of a Democratic president who volunteers to cut already puny SS benefits, when it's utterly unnecessary to do so and doesn't have anything to do with the deficit in any case?

We haven't even heard his ideas about Medicaid, but based on the above, I ain't exactly optimistic.

So what's the plan here?  I'm becoming increasingly concerned that Obama has perhaps decided to cut the poor, the elderly and the now long-term unemployed working class off at the knees as a lost cause in order to earn chits from the Republicans and save money he can throw at the middle class and his much grander goals of green energy, education, etc., while leaving the entirely out of control financial sector largely alone to ensure a good supply of campaign cash.

Perhaps that's too cynical, but I honestly don't know any other way to interpret what he's doing.  I'm coming to suspect he's intoxicated with the idea of being hailed as a visionary in the history books 50 years hence, with the suffering created along the way being brushed off as unfortunate but necessary collateral damage....<<

From reader WH, in Capricornia, Australia, the "hypermodern presidency":

>>The president may not be 'strategic 18-dimension chess-game genius' but I'd be surprised if he'd never played 2. .. b6.

In chess, this is a hypermodern response to the classical centre. Allow your opponent to dominate the space and build an impressive looking position which you then undermine and bring crashing to the ground.

The key is that whilst your opponent may have all the early space and initiative, they become static. In contrast the hyper-modern player's position is fluid and can be adapted to take advantage of the inevitable weaknesses of your opponent's over-extension.

Or if you prefer, picture a sweaty, half naked Obama against the ropes in Zaire, ducking and weaving whilst the republican establishment proceeds to punch itself out.<<

Two more, including one from a Republican, after the jump.

From reader M, "it doesn't matter what Obama wants":

>> "I believe that, when we elect a President, we should be voting for someone
who (1) shares one's general political philosophy and orientation and (2) has
the intellectual ability, judgment, discipline and personality to make decisions
 which are as good as they can be under the circumstances"


[This, from a previous reader] is actually a fairly classic American delusion.  We have a two-party system.  When we elect a President, we do not have the luxury of selecting with that level of specificity.  We will have two choices - one will be preferable to the other, and will more closely match our own ideological and philosophical preferences, but neither will necessarily be even close to actually representing a personal ideal.  This delusion, by the way, fits well with American's expectations around the power of the Executive to create actual change in a system with so many veto points.

I preferred Obama over McCain, but neither would have come close to making my short list if I had the option to actually choose.

Second, and you would think that at this point in these odious 'debt ceiling' negotiations, people would have come to understand that Obama's second term will not, ultimately, have very much to do with what Obama wants, thinks or does.  Assuming he wins re-election (an increasingly non-controversial assumption considering the effectiveness and popularity of his opposition), his accomplishments will be virtually entirely dictated by the makeup of Congress coming out of the 2012 General Election.

People need to finally realize that despite the recent relatively massive structural shifts of power to the Executive, it is and will remain congress that writes, amends and passes legislation and appropriates funds.  The Executive literally has more power over public opinion than he does over Congressional decision making.  As we have seen, a small majority in one house of Congress, or even a fairly robust minority in the other can obstruct, derail and cripple every bit of a President's political agenda.  It really doesn't matter what Obama wants, all that matters is what he can get Congress to agree to...<<

And from DB, "what Republicans fear":

>>I'm writing to provide a Republican perspective on the debt ceiling negotiations. I think many of [these] insights into the process are helpful. One thing that frustrates me, though, about your and other commenters, is a failure to acknowledge that tax increases are practically immediate, while spending cuts are in the future - often far into the future; I believe the much-touted 3-to-1 cuts-to-increases ratio proposed by Obama contemplated the spending cuts taking place over 12 years. Thinking such cuts will actually take place is naive. What Republicans fear is a deal that says "3-to-1" but ends up being "zero-to-one." I have yet to hear a mainstream commentator acknowledge this concern.

This is well illustrated by the e-mail from reader DM, which contemplates Obama, after succeeding in the debt-ceiling negotiations, emerging stronger and "then, with his 2nd-term programs, perhaps the economy will recover to the extent that he can re-instate the things he cut before such time as the cuts actually take effect."

Yes, there are (large!) caveats - the economy growing, the structural deficit coming under control - but I hope you can see the bait and switch Republicans fear: promise cuts now, rescind them when the crisis is over. Just as you Democrats are tempted to suspect Republican bad faith over opposition to tax increases on the rich, so we Republicans are likewise tempted to suspect Democrats of bad faith when they promise cuts while hoping to rescind them in the future.

Yes, we can argue over the timing of cuts, where and how much to cut, but it would be nice to have someone in the mainstream acknowledge that, if you really are concerned about spending, getting follow-through on commitments to cut is a legitimate concern.<<

Thanks to all.

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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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