Obama: Chessmaster, not Pawn

Many of the president’s supporters fear that he hasn’t really known what he is doing. Many of his critics worry that he is all-too-skillful at attaining his ends. There’s increasing evidence that the critics may be right.

International figures including Christiana Figueres, Ban Ki-moon, and Francois Hollande celebrate after the deal was announced in Paris (Stephane Mahe / Reuters)

Four years ago at this time, I was in the middle of writing what became a cover story with the (immodest) title “Obama, Explained.” In it, I examined whether the slow, understated, long-game approach of a one-term president about to run for re-election, whose critics blasted him for naivete and “leading from behind” while many of his allies considered him aloof and disengaged, should be considered that of a chessmaster—or of a pawn. Was Obama actually outwitting the Republicans, the Chinese, the Russians, the Congress that would approve or reject his efforts (and where his party had just lost 63 seats in the House), a variety of lobbyists, and others who opposed him? Or was he just getting rolled?

Obviously it will take books, and years, to answer that question fully. A lot has gone disastrously wrong around the world and in America on his watch; a lot has quietly gone right. The upheaval in the Arab world that was largely provoked by the war in Iraq under Bush has accelerated under Obama. Strictly in political terms, at all levels except the presidential Obama’s Democratic party is in much weaker shape than when he arrived. And so on.

But today, after the climate agreement in Paris, it would be wrong not to note three big things that have happened during his presidency that in all probability would not have happened without him:

  • The climate deal itself, as explained in a NYT piece just now, and in unbelievable contrast to the utter collapse of the Copenhagen negotiations early in Obama’s term;
  • The rapprochement with Cuba, marking the beginning of the end of the single stupidest (but hardest to change) aberration in modern U.S. foreign policy; and
  • The international agreement with Iran, which in the short term offers (as I have argued at length) the best prospects for keeping Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, and in the long run has the potential of  beginning to end Iran’s destructive estrangement from the international order.

These things are not easy. Two hundred countries agreeing on anything! When two of the important ones are the United States and China! Plus Russia and India and Saudi Arabia… If you add to this the enactment of his health-care law you have to say: Agree or disagree with these objectives (and I know that many of Obama’s critics view every one of them as a stab in America’s back), this is not the work of a pawn.

Plus the inelegantly stated maxim “don’t do stupid shit,” which Obama has observed more than he has violated, and which is preferable to repeatedly doing stupid shit, like his predecessor. The record now indicates the “inexperienced,” “disengaged,” “narcissistic” Obama will be seen historically as a force to be reckoned with.

I ended my piece four years ago this way:

If Barack Obama loses this fall, he will forever seem a disappointment: a symbolically important but accidental figure who raised hopes he could not fulfill and met difficulties he did not know how to surmount. He meant to show the unity of America but only underscored its division. As a candidate, he symbolized transformation; in office, he applied incrementalism and demonstrated the limits of change. His most important achievement, helping forestall a second Great Depression, will be taken for granted or discounted in the dismay about the economic problems he did not solve. His main legislative accomplishment, the health-care bill, may well be overturned; his effect on America’s international standing will pass; his talk about bridging the partisan divide will seem one more sign of his fatal naïveté. If he is reelected, he will have a chance to solidify what he has accomplished and, more important, build on what he has learned. All of this is additional motivation, as if he needed any, for him to drive for reelection; none of it makes him any more palatable to those who oppose him and his goals.

And for those who supported him the first time, as I did? To me, the evidence suggests that given a second term, he would have a better chance of becoming the figure so many people imagined.

I think that stands up. And it is telling that in an utterly fascinating focus-group study of Republican sentiment I mentioned earlier today, the most passionate Tea Party criticism of Obama is not that he is so feckless and weak but rather that he has been so cunning and strong, and has so fully outwitted the Republican House and Senate majorities that seem so powerless to stop him:

While many voters, even some Democrats, question whether Obama is succeeding and getting his agenda done, Republicans think he has won. The country may think gridlock has won, particularly during a Republican-led government shut down, but Republicans see a president who has fooled and manipulated the public, lied, and gotten his secret socialist-Marxist agenda done. Republicans and their kind of Americans are losing.

Take a moment to watch this video of Obama speaking about the climate deal.