Reporter's Notebook

Chessmaster or Pawn: Judgments on Obama's Effectiveness
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Dispatches by James Fallows and others, and responses from readers, on the nature of leadership in the Obama era, in response to his 2012 cover story “Obama, Explained” and his December, 2015 post, “Obama: Chessmaster, not Pawn.”
Show None Newer Notes

Why Can't a Modern President Say, ‘The Only Thing We Have to Fear ... ’?

In 1933 the newly inaugurated FDR said, Fear is the enemy. Today’s politicians have a harder time getting that message across. (Wikipedia)

A week ago at this time I was still typing up notes from a two-hour “off-the-record” interview that President Obama held at the White House with several magazine and newspaper writers, including three from The Atlantic: Peter Beinart, Jeffrey Goldberg, and me. I put “off the record” in quotes because things a president says in front of more than two people rarely stay secret very long. Also, part of the White House’s hope was obviously to expose this group to the president’s rationale. And I say “still typing up notes” because attendees were not allowed to bring recording devices other than notepads to the session. (For why it is worth going, despite off-the-record ground rules, see explanation* after the jump.)

Indeed not long after the session, the New York Times ran two articles (one, two) by a reporter not at the session about what Obama said there, and my friend David Ignatius of the WaPo, who was there, did two columns (one, two) reflecting what Obama must be thinking, although not directly attributing anything to him.

In public and in private, Obama likes to say, “I’m a pretty consistent guy.” And he is. In my limited experience, the gap between the cases he makes on- and off-the record is not very large. (Why, then, bother to go off-the-record? For most public figures, it’s for protection against a single phrase or sentence being taken out of context — although ironically, as explained below, exactly that happened to Obama in this case.)

Through his year-end press conferences, speeches, and on-the-record interviews Obama has been doing two things over and over:  (1) stressing the long view, which I’ve been calling the “chessmaster” perspective, on just about any issue, from domestic politics to the range of problems the nation deals with overseas, and (2) wrestling with the balance between seeming adequately aware of the fear generated by terror attacks in Paris or San Bernardino, and not doing the terrorists’ work by hyping that fear.Most of what is on my scrawled-out notepad from last week’s session is consistent with what everyone has heard him say on those two recurring themes.

Today’s update: readers on whether Obama is being strategically accurate, or instead self-deluding, in presenting his chessmaster-style “long view” perspective. Let’s start with an area where he seems most visibly to have failed: the rout of his fellow Democrats from Senate and House seats, plus governorships and state legislatures, during his time in the White House. The first message comes from a poli-sci academic whose dissertation is on exactly this topic:

[That Obama’s party is in a weaker position now than in 2008] is a truism that I think runs the risk of being somewhat myopic. The Democratic Party is pretty clearly in a more vulnerable place now than it was eight years ago, though I'm not convinced this should be characterized as weaker.

A shot of an apparently rare moment in the president’s day. (White House photo)

In the previous note I mentioned a strange little controversy over President Obama's comment, in a supposedly off-the-record session (which I attended), that he “doesn't watch TV” or “doesn’t watch cable news” and therefore wasn’t initially in sync with the sky-is-falling saturation coverage cable outlets had given to the shootings in San Bernardino.

The controversy was strange at one level because of the backfiring effect of “off the record” rules. As explained earlier, the main justification for off-the-record sessions is to reduce the risk that a single phrase will taken out of context — “I voted for the bill, before I voted against it” — and thus become a “gaffe.” This time, the single “I don’t watch TV” phrase leaked anyway, and the larger context, which obviously I heard at the interview, remains off the record. Let’s imagine, hypothetically, that the context could have involved Obama’s awareness of the jerky, crisis-to-crisis outlook conveyed by 24/7 news. In that case Obama’s no-TV comment might be part of a larger argument about how permanent-emergency coverage affects a society’s ability to figure out what to be afraid of, and how afraid to be. (For more in this vein, naturally I invite you to stroll back down memory lane to take a look at Breaking the News.) Hypothetically.

The larger strangeness was the miffed tone from much of the commentator class about the “no TV” admission. Who does this guy think he is? Talk about aloof! For the DC media culture, Obama’s comment carries an extra dose of status-offense, since “cable hits” are such an important part of modern journalistic branding and presence.

A reader from the West Coast tech world writes in with a reaction that parallels my own: That this supposed mis-step by Obama actually says something good about his understanding of his job. Over to the reader.

I am a life long Democrat from a pretty working class family.  We lived in [the San Fernando Valley] as children and my dad was a plumber.  I went to college, moved to San Jose in 1975 and enjoyed a very successful career in Silicon Valley, the fruits of which have allowed me to have an extended and comfortable retirement.  That is the background behind what I want to say next…

I never watch “cable news”.  Never.  Never.  Never.  That includes CNN, MSNBC and Fox.  The whole idea of “cable news" is toxic in my mind.  The first thing that I do when I get a new TV provider is to delete those channels from the list that I cycle thru when I do any channel surfing.

Memo from Vice President Cheney’s advance team, requiring that rooms where he stayed must have “All Televisions tuned to FOX News.” As reported in 2006 by The Smoking Gun, and to the best of my knowledge not withdrawn or disproven.

Without much set-up or padding, herewith some of the slew of holiday-week responses to last night’s Note, on why President Obama doesn’t watch TV news, and why no president should.

It could have been worse. A reader notes:

Imagine the reaction if the President watched Al Jazeera America as I do.

It could have been better. A representative sample of the anti-Obama response that has come in:

Why would you watch the news when every day another story is told about how your failed policies are destroying the country. Instead he spends his time gazing in mirrors.

How other leaders did it: Part I, Dick Cheney. Many readers wrote to point me toward a leaked memo The Smoking Gun reprinted back in 2006, saying that then-Vice President Cheney required “All Televisions tuned to FOX News” in any room where he would stay. That’s the memo you see above. One reader’s gloss:

Apropos of your post on Obama understanding the worthlessness of cable news, recall the leaked document describing then-Vice President Cheney’s insistence that all TVs in his hotel room be...  tuned to Fox News.

Sort of explains the distinctions between the two men in a nutshell.

Another reader says of the memo,

So not only embracing the chatter, but the echo chamber as well.

How Other Leaders Did It: Part II, LBJ. A reader in Texas sends in this note:

Interesting comparison is to tour the “TX Whitehouse” of LBJ to see the row of TV’s in one room with photos of all blaring at once.  Lot of good that did as he, LeMay, and McNamara sat around next to the Pedernales river deciding who to bomb…

Yesterday morning I had an interesting (from my POV) talk with Kerri Miller of Minnesota Public Radio, on the by-definition impossible task of assessing how the Obama administration’s record will be seen five or ten years from now. The podcast is here. You can tell that I’ve had a cold, but at least Kerri Miller sounds healthy and on top of her game!

This discussion happened 24 hours before Obama’s presentation this morning on gun violence and possible steps against it. I regretfully stand by what I wrote several years ago, and said on MPR 24 hours ago: that trying to change this most pernicious aspect of “American exceptionalism” is itself a case-of-one political outlier.

The United States, unlike other countries, already has countless millions of guns in circulation. Unlike other countries, it has a Second Amendment, misconstrued as it has been. Unlike other countries, it has a substantial minority that will vote on the basis of this issue to the exclusion of all others. Changing climate and energy policy in the United States is hard and slow, but it will happen. Changing health-care policy, ditto. On gun policy I’m most pessimistic.

And to round this off, plus illustrating something about the state of the GOP race, check out Ted Cruz’s response to Obama’s gun statement today.