More on Obama as Chess Master or Pawn

By James Fallows
TomTomorrowMiddle.png

In three previous installments, readers weighed in on whether the evolving shape of the debt-and-deficit "negotiations," and President Obama's larger management of his domestic agenda, should be seen as brilliantly subtle strategy on his part, or sheer haplessness in the face of a more ruthless and disciplined opposition. For the most biting (and hilarious) version of the "hapless" assessment, see this "Middle-Man and the Debt Ceiling Debacle" cartoon by Tom Tomorrow. (Update: I figured it was wrong not to have a sample of Tom Tomorrow's view, at right.)

Today's group of reader dispatches mainly takes the opposite view: that Obama is playing the wily, effective, and mature long game. [And all this is pending the breaking news of a possible budget deal, which I'm hearing about just at this moment. More on that later.]

First, from reader DS, "the GOP is trapped":

>>I vote Chess Master.  One thing that seems pretty obvious to me, but appears to get lost on both sides of the political spectrum is that whatever gets agreed to today can be undone by some future Congress.  Call it "The GOP's Democracy Happens Problem."

Republicans seem to understand this in part, but want to paint it as an Obama double-cross when all he is really doing is acknowledging reality, something with which they have a hard time.

Maybe deep down they understand they're using a bogus argument about deficits to achieve their dream of drastically undercutting the social safety net to the point that whatever remaining Social Security and Medicare programs are meaningless both in cost and effectiveness.  Yes, structural deficits are a problem, but not now, and just like before Republicans would quickly ignore the deficits if Romney were to capture the Whitehouse.

Whether conscious of it or not they seem to sense that a deal based on a bogus argument has a slim chance of holding up over time.  They want to cement a permanent cutback in social programs, but to do that requires constitutional changes or a different electorate (and demographics) hence the desperation dripping off every thing they say and painted all over their faces.

But, one thing would never change if they accepted Obama's deal; their vote for tax increases.  I see several end results if Boehner rounds up enough Republicans to support a bipartisan deal; 1) the GOP will tear itself apart all the way to extinction; or, 2) the head of the monster that is Grover Norquist will explode and the GOP will be free again to act like a party capable of governing as grown-ups.  Yeah, definitely #1 *with* Grover's head exploding.

Obama's jujitsu has trapped the GOP at a fork in the road; either way is hell for them.  I can't imagine a scenario more poorly played (from the GOP perspective.)<<

From reader LS, "all that matters is a second term":

>>I think Obama is aiming for one goal: a second term. He is positioning himself for 2012 as the calm, reasonable centerist while the Republicans candidates dash their hopes on the rocks of Tea Party extremism. I think he's baiting the House Republicans to act crazy. He could be so lucky as to see some sort of uprising in the House against Boehner if he keep hugging him.

If he's really lucky, the Republicans will nominate Bachmann. When reelected, he can then let the economy slowly heal itself after a financial caused recession, let the Bush tax cuts die with a only whimper, and protect the Affordable Care Act from Republican ravages. <<

From reader NP, "he's getting what he wants":

>>Talking about whether or not Obama believes we can save ourselves out of a recession is pointless. He has clearly stated his goal to balance the budget even before the crash as candidate Obama. It's not about job creation or saving the country from recession, balancing the budget for him is an end in it's own right and he's using the right's rhetoric to try to get some serious movement on that issue....

He's using this debt ceiling discussion as an opportunity to pass massive legislation that wouldn't be able to get passed otherwise. He's using the Republicans taking the economy hostage to get his party to agree to cuts in entitlements and he's called the right's bluff on the deficit by trying to get them to agree to defense cuts and revenue increases.

I think most people can agree that the long-term future of our country would be improved by the closing of tax loopholes and subsidies and cuts to entitlements and defense. The only real argument is about the short-term damage done by cutting discretionary spending. My guess is, just like the budget deal, that those cuts wouldn't be nearly as intense in the fine print and that they'd try to sneak in some extra stimulus like in the Bush tax cut deal, but then again maybe I have too much belief in Obama. Then again, those last two cases shows he's very good at getting the things he wants in the end of the deal.

The left loves to criticize Obama's negotiating prowess, but he's been very good at getting what he wants in the end. Here it seems like he's using our current crisis to get what he wants once again, a balanced budget resulting from real reform that will be deeper and more effective long-term than other modern efforts.<<

After the jump, one more argument for the long-term strategic view.

From reader LB in California, "comfortable with chaos":

>>I'm intrigued that my impressions of how Obama is playing his hand [ie, skillfully] appear to be such a distinctly minority view. Whenever I consider that maybe I'm wrong, I just listen to what the president is actually saying and invariably think, "Nope - makes perfect sense to me," and I figure he's just operating at a more sophisticated level than people in this ADD-addled world have grown accustomed to (thank you, Rupert Murdoch...). Here are some thoughts to back up that assertion:

1. I don't see Obama as being "a strategic 18-dimension chess-game genius," capable of envisioning moves far out into the future in a manner that eludes us mere mortals, so much as I think he's comfortable with the relationship between chaos and form and has good instincts about what can and cannot be controlled in any given situation. I expect this is why people on my wavelength believe he's trustworthy. As a woman, I definitely pick up on something he's doing that is not business as usual for the "Good Ol' Boys Club," and I attribute this to his background.

Under multicultural theory, the Western white male experience has been presented for so long as equivalent to the universal human experience that we're a long way from correcting such a fundamental over-simplification. In the meantime, in order to succeed within the societal mainstream, the archetypal "Other" (woman, ethnic minority, or whatever) must be fluent in the language and ways of the dominant culture and their individual subculture(s) and also know how to bridge the various realms. Do you think Eric Cantor would comprehend what I'm talking about? Their egos will be their downfall...

2. I believe that people who haven't directly experienced a multi-faceted, complex undertaking involving large numbers of people working under stressful deadlines in a high stakes, high pressure environment; with the global media Leviathan ever-hovering, ready to swoop down and shred to pieces each and every morsel that can be clawed off the outward perception of a seamless operation; generally fail to comprehend that any one individual has a finite amount of time, intellectual firepower, emotional energy, etc. to expend at any given point in time... Whereas George W. Bush was primarily caught up in self-indulgent theatrics, with Dick Cheney off in his dark tower running the show, Obama seems to be a good leader with a healthy personal life....

It takes time and energy to thoroughly vet issues in a responsible fashion, and then it takes real leadership to distill conclusions down to readily comprehensible talking points and present them to the public for open discussion. Between the economy, foreign policy and health care, I think Obama has done an extraordinary job these past few years of keeping his cool while making tangible, significant progress on multiple fronts, and it quite frankly astonishes me how few people seem to truly appreciate this.

3. Finally, given the degree to which the dark arts of propaganda have poisoned the well of the public commons in recent decades, along with the impact the rise of the Internet has had on mass communication and the effect such post-modern pathologies as moral relativism and false equivalencies have had on civic discourse, I applaud Obama for staking a claim on higher ground and insisting that everyone join him on that field rather than remain bogged down in the usual fray. I have learned over and over that if you're dealing with someone who is either unwilling or unable to act in good faith, at a certain point you have no choice but to walk away.

I consistently see the president working to reframe the entire terms of the public dialogue, in a manner that, while certainly benefitting him and the Democratic Party in the short term, is vitally important for the long-term, healthy functioning of our wild, unruly democracy. If we're unable at this juncture to restore a widespread concept of good faith dealings in the public commons, we're in serious trouble. I think this idea is central to what Obama is trying to do, and it's the reason I will defend him to the hilt. He's showing us, in real time, what "hope" and "change" look like when applied to the nasty, brutish and short social contract in which we're currently mired.<<

For now, I'm just laying these out rather than responding. Thanks to all for help in the Rashomon / Rorschach exercise of making sense of the moment's politics.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/07/more-on-obama-as-chess-master-or-pawn/242288/