Let's Look on the Brighter Side! More on Chess Master v. Pawn

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Over the past 24 hours I have put up a number of non-supportive items about the debt-ceiling "compromise," the least upbeat being this and this. A number of readers have written in to sound the note that over the years I have often sounded myself: things are not that bad, let's take the long view, we've been here before, and so on. I turn the floor over to them.

Giving up a pawn, not being a pawn:

>>Could we not shift the imagery a bit here and observe that rather than being a pawn, he gave up a pawn, a gambit common to winning chess strategies?   That is, the president is thinking several moves down the table.  (I'm not a cargo cultist, by the way, on the subject of our president.) 

In a hostage situation, first goal is to get the hostage out alive.  Deal with the bad guys later.

You can tell I'm making the best explanation of a terrible situation.  Time will tell how it all works out.  Already the Romney, the Republican frontrunner, has blithely announced he would rather blow up the economy than govern.<<

Lancing the boil:

>>I continue to respectfully disagree with the "Obama is a pawn" line of reasoning. I'm as sick of this whole mess as everyone else, but I think the basis of my difference of opinion from what appears to be the general consensus is that I believe the now exposed pathologies in our political system have been festering for decades. I see the process we've just gone through as analogous to a massive boil being lanced -- at first a bunch of really ugly stuff comes out, but it's a necessary first step towards healing.

It was clear at a certain point that, in order to get a deal to avoid default under the current political circumstances, something would have to be kicked down the road. It absolutely plays to Obama's and the Democratic Party's favor to have that be the Bush tax cuts. Almost everyone seems to be throwing tantrums about the present point in time, and I've seen very little discussion of strategy extending that far ahead.

One of the things this circus has exposed, for anyone who has been paying attention, is the degree to which individual politicians are motivated more by their personal political fortunes than by working for the public interest. Also, I caught a CSPAN clip yesterday of John McCain exchanging banter with Dick Durbin, and had the impression that McCain may finally understand what he introduced onto the national scene in elevating Sarah Palin. If this mess promotes broader awareness amongst people of good faith of the distinction between advocacy and legislating, that will be progress right there.<<

Now you know how to hurt a guy:

>>I have to disagree that the question of pawn or chess master has been answered regarding Obama. Respectfully, I think you're getting dangerously close to the line you discussed in your article about why people don't like news, namely viewing it through the optics of "win" vs. "lose". I've always felt that Obama's MO is to focus on the policy and ignore the politics of it. Most times this works, as strong policy results usually equals better politics. Especially when working against a group who is really only focused on politics. (The modern GOP really doest have a coherent policy agenda, just slogans.)

From a policy perspective, the president had one overarching goal: avoid a default. He had some lines in the sand, no revisiting the debt ceiling until after the 2012 election, and a balanced approach of cuts and taxes. Through months of negotiations a solution was sought that would stick to these goals. At some point it became clear that the republicans weren't negotiating in good faith (or at least a significant wing of the GOP wasn't). This means that the traditional political negotiation process is no longer useful. The test then becomes, can we keep the plane from crashing into a mountain? In the end he moved the process away from a group that seemed perfectly ok with crashing into a mountain, with no interest in honorable compromise to a process less subject to the whims of a bunch of fanatics. This may not be a "win" in the Washington game but it seems like a reasonable shift from the policy perspective. I've had some experience trying to negotiate with people acting in bad faith, and I can say that the best option usually is to get them away from the negotiating table.

Now I'm not ready to say this proves he's a chess master, there are fair criticisms to make about the way he handled this whole thing. But I think it's premature to say that he's a captured pawn. He walked away from the negotiations with (a) no default, (b) back loaded cuts and (c) a plan that has at least a modicum of hope for producing a somewhat realistic plan without getting hijacked by a fanatical subset of the GOP. The plain truth is there are enough republicans in the House that would vote against any bill that had been negotiated honestly. If the Speaker of the House can't get his plan passed, what hope is there the President could have? To reprise the analogy above, if you've got a crazy pilot willing to fly the plane into a mountain, the thing to do is get them away from the controls and make sure they don't have control of a plane in the future.<<

I'll respond to this one. (a) My disappointment in the outcome is not about the resulting political up-or-down. It's because of the substantive effect on the economy in the short run and on the political system in the longer term. (b) I am well aware that it's a million times easier to give "Oh, you shouldda..." advice from the sideline than to be in the middle of these deals. But it does seem that it would have been smarter, as many people were saying at the time, to call "this is bullshit" on the Tea Party attempt to make the debt ceiling into a hostage for their demands.

Three more after the jump.

Like a divorce:

>>That (the debt ceiling proposal) isn't a compromise, it's the Michael Douglas/Kathleen Turner movie, "The War Between the Roses", in which they destroyed the house rather than give anything to the other in the divorce. First it's the chandeliers, then it's the dog.  This is no way to run a country.  These people need to get out in the real world more often. Thanks for listening.  (All of my friends have turned off to the politics a long time ago, even if they started out as Obama supporters.)<<

Yes, he is a master!

>>I don't think that the outcome of the debt ceiling crisis offers a definitive answer about Obama either way. But to my eyes, he looks more like a master than a pawn.

First of all, a deal was made, and yet again the world kept turning under Obama's watch. Secondly, Obama got a lot of what he wants even if it's not what liberals like you and me think is best. Let's not forget that Obama's been calling for spending cuts, and we're talking about whether he's the master or the pawn. (I'm beginning to think that in this game, the liberal base is full Obama's pawns.) Thirdly, Obama got the spending cuts he wanted, but can still blame the Republicans for them when he has to rally the base next year. Fourth, the deal prevented a catastrophe, won't take a significant bite into demand until 2013, and even then those bites will be subject to the changes a new congress might make. Obama knew all of this. Fifth, defense spending cuts are part of the game. I don't know if you can attribute that directly to Obama's negotiating skills, but in the end, for better or worse, he will get the credit/blame for presiding over such a shift in the public discourse.

Have you ever seen the movie Revolver?...One of the themes in the film is that the chess master always feeds his pieces to his opponent, making the opponent think he's winning. When the opponent is most confident he is most vulnerable, and the master always comes out of nowhere for the win. I know this is what this whole discussion about Obama is about, but that's exactly what the prez keeps doing if you keep score the way he does.

Also, beer note. I finally turned 21. I'm living in Chicago. There is such a variety of unique beers here. You know what I've found? In this economy it's hard to beat a six-pack of Old Mil at $2.99.<<

Only ourselves/themselves to blame:

>>Elizabeth Drew contemplates a near-future in which the observer expresses astonishment:  "What were they thinking?"
 
But let's remember that one side in this dispute--the Republicans--don't believe (or at least, refuse to acknowledge) that spending cuts are the wrong prescription for the current economic problems.  It's not that everyone is out of their minds--only one of the two parties, but in the current political structure, that's enough to stymie any sound, level-headed policy making.
 
As someone today pointed out, if Democrats and liberals wanted to avoid this result, we should have come out to vote last November in greater numbers.  Allowing the Republicans to take control of the House and eliminate the Democrats' filibuster-proof majority in the Senate has led to this situation.
 
I haven't seen any criticisms of the result here which convinces me that Obama and the Administration had much of a choice or could have achieved a markedly better result here.  Could he have insisted, as part of the extension of the Bush tax cuts last fall, that the debt ceiling be raised?  Sure, although it's doubtful that the Republicans would have allowed that to be part of the deal.  And, despite the relentlessly partisan nature of the Republican Congressional party over the last couple of years, we still couldn't have predicted that the GOP would have turned this historically routine legislation into a near Armageddon.  Given that one side in this was apparently willing to force the country into a terrible economic situation in order to satisfy its know-nothing base, it's hard to see where this really could have gone better.<<

As always, thanks to all, judge for yourself.

UPDATE. Here is one more.

>>Respectfully, I disagree. When one looks at the immediate impact of the debt ceiling agreement, it appears that the GOP got roughly $25 bil in immediate cuts in exchange for a $2 Trillion extension of the debt ceiling through the next election. Everything else, the $2.4,975 trillion remainder of their "victory" will have to take place after 2012 AND it will have to include, in principle, equal cuts from the Defense budget for every dime of Discretionary cuts, while leaving out SS and Medicare. In between, we can have an election and the GOP will have to run on continuing the Bush tax cuts which, when they run out under a Democratically controlled Congress (ie: Senate vetoing House belligerence) will add $4 Trillion over ten years in increased revenue.

Seriously, the Ryan Plan, for which they all voted, plus permanent Bush Tax levels, to which they have all pledged, are going to be a hard case to make when the reverse is Clinton period taxes (ie: fairness and a strong economy), Clinton period wars (ie: none) and preservation of SS and Medicare AND Obamacare, all of which are solvent (except for Obamacare, which SAVES money).

My hope is that the Tea Baggers don't have the wit to realize just how badly they've been snookered. But, since they have no grip on or connection to reality, I suspect there is no danger of that.

Consider, they could have had $3 Trillion in cuts, including changes to SS and Medicare without any pressure on Defense, plus only $1 Trillion in increased revenues. Now, they have basically $25 bil in cuts plus equal pressure on Defense and Discretionary cuts going forward with no pressure on SS, Medicare or Obamacare, and $4 Trillion in increased revenues.

And you think Obama was pawned? Paul Krugman notwithstanding, this is better than anyone on the left could have hoped for.<<
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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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