Sunday, February 12, 2012

Chess Master or Pawn?


This week I highlighted an article about Obama's presidency written by James Fallows because I found it to be one of the most balanced reviews I've read. I said I couldn't parse it and only suggested that folks read the whole thing. Now that I have a bit more time on my hands (yeah for weekends!), I'd like to take a closer look at it.

In the beginning, Fallows asks an important question.

In office as during his campaign—indeed, through the entirety of his seven-plus years as a national figure since his keynote speech at the Democratic Convention in the summer of 2004—Obama has maintained his stoic, unflapped, “no drama” air...The earnestly devotional HOPE poster by Shepard Fairey was the official icon of the Obama campaign. But its edgier, unofficial counterpart, a Photoshopped Internet image that appeared as an antidote to the panic over polls and Palin, perfectly captured the candidate’s air of icy assurance. It showed a no-nonsense Obama looking straight at the camera, with the caption EVERYONE CHILL THE FUCK OUT, I GOT THIS!...

Whether things seem to be going very well or very badly around him—whether he is announcing the death of Osama bin Laden or his latest compromise in the face of Republican opposition in Congress—Obama always presents the same dispassionate face. Has he been so calm because he has understood so much about the path ahead of him, and has been so clever in the traps he has set for his rivals? Or has he been so calm because...he has been so innocently unaware of how dire the situation has truly been?

This is the central mystery of his performance as a candidate and a president. Has Obama in office been anything like the chess master he seemed in the campaign, whose placid veneer masked an ability to think 10 moves ahead, at which point his adversaries would belatedly recognize that they had lost long ago? Or has he been revealed as just a pawn—a guy who got lucky as a campaigner but is now pushed around by political opponents who outwit him and economic trends that overwhelm him?

When Fallows gets to the point in the article where he critique's President Obama's performance, here's what he sees as the weaknesses.

Inexperience: that Obama’s own lack of executive experience left him reliant on the instincts and institutional memory of others—and since so many of his appointees came from the Clinton administration, he was also vulnerable to ’90s-vintage groupthink among them. This was particularly true, as we’ll see, during his response to the economic crisis in his first year in office, and then during his showdowns with Congress after Tea Party–inspired Republicans regained control of the House.

Coldness: that what looks serene in public can seem distant and aloof in his private dealings and negotiations.

Complacency about talent: that the disciplined excellence he demands of himself—in physical fitness and appearance, in literary polish of his speeches, in unvarying control of his mood and public presentation—has not extended to demands for a comparably excellent supporting staff.

Symbolic mismatch: that Obama’s personal achievement in rising to the presidency betokened, for much of the electorate, far more sweeping ambitions for political change than Obama the incrementalist operator ever had in mind.

And when it comes time to look at strengths, here's what Fallows says:

What I’ve concluded now is that Obama has shown the main trait we can hope for in a president—an ability to grow and adapt—and that the reason to oppose his reelection would be disagreement with his goals, not that he proved unable to rise to the job. As time has gone on, he has given increasing evidence that the skills he displayed in the campaign were not purely a fluke.

“Three of the most important things he has done are hardest to appreciate,” Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader and an early supporter of Obama’s presidential campaign, told me...

The first is a negative accomplishment: avoiding an economic catastrophe even worse than the one the United States and the world have been through...

The second is what Daschle called “the dramatic improvement in the American image abroad.”...

And finally, according to Daschle, the health-care bill that passed so narrowly and is so controversial will, especially if Obama is reelected, rank with Medicare in the list of legislative and social achievements by Democratic presidents.

I wonder if you see the same thing I do in these two lists. When it comes to weaknesses, they're all about personality and process. And the strengths all point to very real accomplishments.

I would suggest that this difference pretty much answers Fallows original question about whether or not President Obama is a chess master or pawn. Could it be that in assessing his personality and processes people like Fallows are simply focusing on and/or interpreting the wrong things? How did he get to those major accomplishments if his process was so lacking?

In the end, at least Fallows demonstrates that he's heard (and maybe even embraced) an alternative view of the process.

But those around him make the case that in addition to being very unlucky (in the circumstances he inherited) and very lucky (in the Republican field that chose to run against him), Obama also shaped his luck by being shrewd, in three significant ways. First, according to this view, he always kept his eye on what mattered most, namely avoiding another recession—and compromised and backtracked only when, in his assessment, the alternative would have been a greater economic risk. Next, he absorbed pummeling by Republicans not so much because he was weak or unsuspecting as because he recognized problems the over-reaching opposition was creating for itself, much as he had during the 2008 primaries (and much as Bill Clinton had in 1995). And finally, that while like all presidents he came in unprepared, he adjusted as fast as anyone could have expected and was increasingly in control of events as time went on.

In other words, the chess master continued to focus on his North Star, marginalized Republicans with his conciliatory rhetoric as ruthless strategy, and learned/adjusted as the situation developed...pretty much what we've been saying all along.


  1. Excellent piece, Smartypants. I honestly think that this POTUS is so superlative that people sometimes scramble and put forth nonsense in order to "balance" pieces discussing his Presidency. I think that they might be under the misguided notion that being an unapologetic admirer of this level of political prowess is problematic.

    President Obama's personality is actually one of the most unique (and advanced) that I've ever seen, on a national stage or off of it. He has the ability to detach, and thus behave super-rationally during chaos and crisis. He is also 100% self-possessed, meaning that no one has veto power over how he feels about himself; because of this, he is a true embracer of disagreement, diversity, and humanity, because people's opinions are no threat to him; no one defines him but himself. I think he developed these abilities via his upbringing at the hands of a very eccentric (and IMO genius) mother juxtaposed with his grandparents. I wish that all of the people inclined to want to inspect and unpack POTUS' personality would approach such an endeavor by starting with his childhood, and then considering what sorts of emotional technologies would be required to not merely survive, but thrive, in those unique circumstances. If they can figure that out, perhaps they'll have the answer as to why we're in an economic recovery right now rather than a worldwide Great Depression.

    Best POTUS of my lifetime.

    1. So well said gn!!!!! Especially the part about how self-possessed PBO is.

    2. We do not hear from you enough, gn. This is brilliant. It is a marvel to me how it is that these people who try to analyze the President fail to see the man we see. Yes, self-possessed. I think some people are threatened by that capability. They fail to see how he brings out the best in people who pay attention. He simply doesn't need to demonize people. I love every day of his Administration.

    3. Thanks so much Smartypants and Tien Le!

      OT, Tien, I've been trying to get in touch with deaniac with a suggestion for a guest editor: zizi. She used to post these spectactular pieces at weeseeyou and is looking for a venue ever since the unfortunate loss of that site and all of its archives. I've been trying to write to him via the contact us page, but no response. As a TPV front pager, if you're in touch with deaniac, can you ask him to read my emails re: zizi as a potential guest writer at TPV?

    4. What a thoughtful, nuanced reply to such a thoughtful, nuanced post by smartpants. So much to absorb and digest. Thanks, guys.

      I'm not trying to be anonymous but can't seem to sign in through wordpress. Who knows.

    5. Already got done...zizi just announced on TOD that she's been contacted by Deaniac! Nicely done, gn. Great suggestion.

    6. I'm not so well versed on politics but admire the job our POTUS has and is doing, in the face of so much adversity. Also, I had a hard time following the article, couldn't determine if it was pro or con Obama. I need to di my homework. But I so agree with all the comments. Especially GN

    7. I'm not so well versed on politics but admire the job our POTUS has and is doing, in the face of so much adversity. Also, I had a hard time following the article, couldn't determine if it was pro or con Obama. I need to di my homework. But I so agree with all the comments. Especially GN

    8. I'm not so well versed on politics but admire the job our POTUS has and is doing, in the face of so much adversity. Also, I had a hard time following the article, couldn't determine if it was pro or con Obama. I need to di my homework. But I so agree with all the comments. Especially GN

    9. I'm not so well versed on politics but admire the job our POTUS has and is doing, in the face of so much adversity. Also, I had a hard time following the article, couldn't determine if it was pro or con Obama. I need to di my homework. But I so agree with all the comments. Especially GN

  2. It reminds me of what my dad used to say: There are problems and there are situations. He used an obscenity to explain this so I'll jump straight to the point: You can do something about a problem. You have to live with a situation.

    Obama was presented with several problems and a buttload of situations.

    HCR was a problem -- and he did something about it.

    DADT was a problem and he did something about it (I didn't like what he did, but I liked the way it turned out).

    DOMA was a situation ... there was no way he was going to be able to do anthing real about it so he did nothing. It is likely that DOMA will be with us until SCOTUS does away with it. It is too hot politically to be taken down by legislative action.

    There's a lot of other things I could mention, but the proof is in looking at what was fought about and what was endured. Not all the fights ended successfully, and (IMO) not all that was endured was unwinable. But those are matters of opinion. GWBush was right about at least one thing: the President IS "The Decider" ... of what to fight about.

    1. President Obama (and the stellar 111th session of Congress) also reduced the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity, has triggered an expansion of Medicaid in 2014 which is estimated to rope in 10 to 15 million newly eligible people who are above poverty, but barely so, reformed the student loan system so that billions of dollars which were being funneled to banks are redirected to you say, we could go on and on.

      I'd argue that Bush was wrong about being "The Decider" (which is why SS is not being gambled in the stock exchanges as we speak) and that his vision for the country was inconsistent with our form of government and hostile to common sense. Just my two.

  3. One of the things that Fallows gives short shrift to is Obama's ability to adapt. He also perpetuates the idea that Obama was playing "11'th dimensional chess" during the campaign.

    What I saw during the campaign was that his ability to adapt is exceptional - he has a frighteningly fast learning curve. Yes, he did have a great overall strategy, and him implemented it well. But, any look back will show that the candidate who started out in 2007 was not the candidate who finished the primaries in 2008. Look at his early debate performances and his later ones for examples. When hit with the unexpected, he showed the ability to turn what could have been disastrous into either a non-issue or turn it into a springboard to jump into the next phase.

    That's what I've seen from him during this presidency. Yes, he's made mistakes, yes, he's been blindsided by things, but his ability to adapt to it, to turn it around is very much in evidence.

  4. "Coldness" is a criticism I never got about Obama. Yes, he's usually unflappable, which is a strength (remember everyone's fears about the erratic McCain?). But he is also frequently warm and funny --the very opposite of cold.

  5. PBO is the way Mr. Spock would have been if he had embraced his human side a little more.