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.”
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MPR Interview on Chessmaster vs. Pawn

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.

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 As reported in 2006 by The Smoking Gun, and to the best of my knowledge not withdrawn or disproven.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…

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.

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.

Our March, 2012 cover

Through the past ten days in this space, I’ve had several items on the style and logic of President Obama’s leadership style. First, one on the ISIS speech, which I found very strong in logic but perhaps too coldly logical in affect. Then readers chiming with similar views. Finally, after announcement of the Paris climate deal, an argument that evidence on the timeless “chessmaster? or pawn?” question about Obama’s effectiveness was swinging toward the former.

Now, readers pro and con. I’m kicking off a new Thread on this theme, because a lot of response has come in, and I’ll try to break it up into related installments.

Let’s start with discussions of why 14 (horrible) deaths in San Bernardino can seem an “existential” threat, when the 60 to 80 other Americans killed with guns that day don’t—and whether there is something more, something different, that a logician-leader like Obama could have done to address that fear.

A psychologist on the West Coast, on why the fear of terrorism is so powerful, including relentless hyping by the news media:

Off the top of my head, I’m having trouble thinking of any attempts to dig a little deeper into the question of the “enabling” role of the media. Yes, politicians—some eagerly, others more reluctantly—are much more likely to bloviate about “terrorist” attacks which are motivated by an allegiance to some foreign conspiracy. And yes, for those media and individual journalists who are looking for ways to make a quick buck it's much easier and more lucrative to let yourself be used by politicians as an outlet than to do the hard work of digging into complicated subject. But that still begs the question of why these things are so.

From my own professional perspective, I’d guess that the reason that there’s always a market for the pols and media to pander to in this way is that focusing on an identifiable and theoretically circumscribable threat provides a measure of psychological comfort that you won't get if you look at the data objectively and conclude that at a certain number of these terrible attacks are not going to be preventable.

Putting it slightly different, believing that the problem is one of foreign-inspired fanatics who “hate us because of who we are” is a kind of mass delusion in which many people, assisted by their enablers in the media and the political world, find a tenuous, illusory feeling of safety that they otherwise wouldn’t get. As in the Woody Allen joke about the guy whose brother thinks he’s a chicken, we all need the eggs ...

There’s a parallel with psychologist Jon Haidt’s contribution to the “Coddling of the American Mind” article (that avoidance just feeds the fear). With respect to the fear of terrorist attacks what’s being avoided is the potentially overwhelming “fear itself” from not being able to circumscribe and, hopefully, destroy your enemy. It’s an ancient problem—240 years ago the not-quite-U.S. was on the other side of it.

After the jump, two former Senate staffers with different assessments of the ISIS speech.

Meredith Baxter and Michael Gross in Family Ties (Wikipedia)

After President Obama’s anti-ISIS speech, I said that I agreed with his strategy and its underlying logic, but could understand why it might not reassure those who felt most fearful. Last night several readers responded, including one who talked about the president’s super-rational “Vulcan”/Spock-like style.

Now, some harsher views. First from a reader on the West Coast, who agrees with the president’s message but disapproves of his tone:

The president's ideas and words were great but the delivery was abysmal.  He sounded not like a professor, but like a dad pleading to his wayward teenagers to wise up and stop smoking out in the shed.  Do you hear the stress and rising tone in his supposedly declarative statements?

Obama knows that public opinion is out of control, and he’s gone into coping mode. What the country needs instead—and what Roosevelt brought—is a president who brings a posture of commanding authority.

To achieve that, what Obama personally needs—and is not getting from his tone-deaf staff—is theatrical direction. That’s peachy if Obama analyzes issues like a professor. But a great professor knows that in the classroom, he needs to be a great performer.

Next, from a reader on the East Coast who is in the defense-policy business:

I don’t have any sympathy for Trump or Cruz, who are intuitive and calculated demagogues respectively. But I do have sympathy for a lot of their followers. People are scared. Should they be less scared? Perhaps. Should they accept that there is no solution to their fears, and that the over-reaction is the worst option? Again, perhaps.

But that is not realistic. Leaders need to deal with the world as it is, not as they wish it to be. When President Obama comes out, after a terrorist attack, and says, basically, “nothing to worry about, everything is going according to plan, just be patient,” it is nothing short of an abdication of responsibility.