The Essential Obama, 2. Long-Gamer


“’But I don’t want to go among mad people,’ Alice remarked.

‘Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the Cat: ‘we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.’

‘How do you know I’m mad?’ said Alice.

‘You must be,’ said the Cat, ‘or you wouldn’t have come here.’”

A frequent truism about Barack Obama is that he plays a long game.  From my observation, this is correct, although only in one sense—and that sense not the one that interests pundits.  Politics is usually the context of long game commentary.  But for Obama politics is merely the means to an end—and I can argue both sides of the debate on whether or not he is especially gifted at the art of politics.

The end game for President Obama, as indeed it should be for any president, is the preservation of the nation.  So many of his speeches include the observation, “It is my job to keep the American people safe.”  Observers assume this is merely a bromide.  Further, when Mr. Obama says “God Bless America” at the end of every one of his public remarks, Beltway wags assume that he is pandering to his audiences.  He ends his speeches so only because the words are on the teleprompter.  Anyway, he isn’t really a Christian; he is a secular humanist.

Now I am sure that more than one coastal elite assumes that any intelligent man must be a secular humanist.  However, nothing in his words and acts shows Mr. Obama to be other than the Christian he professes to be.  As a Christian, I accept him as a fellow believer, if one who needs to learn a few more biblical homilies than “I am my brother’s keeper.”  Even Franklin Graham accepts, if reluctantly, if more reluctantly over time, Obama’s declaration of faith.

No—what the iterations and reiterations about the people’s safety and the “God Bless” reveal is that Mr. Obama is not an ironist.  I talked previously about this peculiarity—one that sets him apart from his intellectual peers in Washington.  He is a literalist verbally, in the way long-gamers often are.  More often than not, he says exactly what he means—no less and no more.

This is a discipline, of course.  I think we all agree that Barack Obama has the gift of discipline.  But it is also the only way that a long-gamer can communicate with other people.  He or she sees (and if a leader, sets) a plethora of strategies and way points that in close-up seem to contradict one another and to fly apart but that at a far horizon form a constellation.

When he opens his mouth, therefore, Mr. Obama says not a tenth of what he is thinking.  (Usually.  Certainly, he has learned that a politician should never muse in public.)  He zeroes in on one or two observations about a problem.  He pegs his remarks in the safe ground of reasonableness.  This is where he is most comfortable interacting with his fellow Americans.  With the possible exception of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he never tries to share difficult insights or to steer our imaginations towards that far horizon.

Personally, I think that Obama’s reticence is not his best choice.  We Americans are perfectly capable of getting at least a bit of the long game.  We have a history of sucking it up, of accepting difficult truths, of maneuvering through troubled waters.  But President Obama underestimates us, partly because he is uncomfortable with other people.  Lynn Sweet, the Washington bureau chief of the Chicago Sun-Times, who followed Barack Obama from the earliest days of his political career, told me once that back in Chicago he never had close friends.  Obama’s current golf buddies notwithstanding, Sweet’s comment reads like insight to me.

More than half-way through his first term, we can see the consequences here for Barack Obama, Long-gamer.  First of all, his choosing to speak to us from his comfort zone, that middle ground of reasonableness, has led many pundits and fellow Democrats to conclude that he is a centrist.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Let me give but two examples now.  (More will be coming in subsequent pieces.)

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (H.R. 3590), although greatly flawed, although the individual mandate may well be found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court and overturned, nevertheless is an accomplishment of magnitude.  This is the foot wedged in the door of health care delivery revolution.  This is a beginning all the more astonishing because it was enacted during a time of great financial uncertainty and upheaval.  In short retrospect, it is clear that Barack Obama was right about the choice of initiative and its timing.  It was indeed “now or never.”  Today, the Great Recession still with us, the Republicans recovered from their 2008 funk, such sweeping legislation would be impossible.

Much about that health care act will have to be changed.  As any middle class woman could have told Obama and the Democratic legislators, for example, people with pre-existing conditions are not going to rush out now to buy health coverage, because even with the government subsidies, it is too expensive.  Sick people do not have an extra $4000 a year to spend on anything, much less insurance.  And so this has proved to be true, and Kathleen Sebelius is trying to figure out a solution.

The significance here is not that there are stupidity and wrong assumptions in the health care act but that, unlike the Clintons, Obama was comfortable with backing and launching a work-in-progress whose end or stasis lies decades down the road.

Far from being a centrist, Obama is a gambler.  Nowhere is this more clear than in the ways in which he has abrogated law and increased the power of the presidency.  As a former teacher of constitutional law, surely he appreciates the meaning of precedents, and their possible consequences down the road, in future presidencies.  Engaging in the Libyan War without the consent of Congress.  Circumventing bankruptcy law and creditors in order to save Chrysler and General Motors.  These are enormous gambles for someone who knows jurisprudence, and they will pay off only if American foreign policy shifts course (which I believe it has) and if American auto manufacturing lives to feed another generation of workers.

Obama the Long-gamer has a bigger problem now than the misperception that he is a centrist.  In Washington, most everybody else is a short-gamer.  Pundits look at the wielding of power as if its time frame were quarters and they could call the score every fifteen minutes.

He has deferred to the military on the incarceration of Wiki-leaker Bradley Manning!  Shows he’s weak!

He gave in to the Republicans on keeping the Bush tax cuts!  Shows he’s not a leader!  Shows he’s too eager to compromise!

This is the world of the short game.  Since that is Washington’s game, and since the denizens of our capital tend to assume that anybody who lands there must, ergo, think as they do—well, you see the blind spot.

President Obama’s decision-making is not tethered to the short game.  He has not involved himself as Commander-in-Chief in the Bradley Manning case because the long game here is the preservation of the military command structure.  In the long game, furthermore, Bradley Manning serves as an object lesson for the consequences of treason.

The Bush tax cuts?  Don’t think for a minute that, in the end, President Obama won’t get what he wants.  Like all long-gamers, he has patience.  Therefore, he has the discipline to use one move (tax increases on the wealthy) as a bargaining chip to get something of more exigent value.  What did he get out of the debt ceiling compromise?  Two things:  time (ceiling raises until post-election) and conscripts (a congressional “supercommittee” wrestling with the tax issue).

That President Obama was playing a long game—that he had his eye trained on the horizon where tax increases and spending cuts would come together—does not mean necessarily that he made the right choice.  Sometimes a series of short games is the better move.

Obama’s biggest problem is that he is not the only Long-gamer in the field right now.  The Tea Party faction of the Republican Party is also dedicated to the long game.  Therefore, Obama has lost any advantage that singularity of strategy confers.  Furthermore, he does not understand the other long-game players, if for no other reason than the White House bubble has prevented him from getting to know these fellow Americans who are single-mindedly dedicated to cutting government spending.  Even more significantly—and here is something that Obama surely grasps now—the Teas are willing to be ruthless in pursuit of this long-term goal in a way that he, however ruthless himself, is not.  Obama versus the Tea Party dramatizes an inherent danger:  there is always somebody or something able or willing to take ruthlessness one step further.

I suppose I should say that how this struggle for control of the long game plays out is anybody’s guess.  Mindful of the law of inexorable consequence, however, I predict that President Obama, having engaged in a tactical retreat over the debt ceiling, will nevertheless get the tax revenues he wants in the end.  Why am I fairly sure about this?  Because the spoils of the twenty-first century are going to those who are masters of complexity.  Here is the crux of  the change that globalism has brought us.  Globalism has raised the bar for what it takes to succeed, both as individuals and as nations.  A higher level of education, facility with multi-tasking, nimbleness and speed, coping with increasing competitiveness–these are the new requirements.  And above all these is the ability to see the world for what it is now, a place where nothing is simple anymore.

August 31, 2011

Next up:  The Essential Obama, 3.  Complexifier.






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