The Long Game
I’m lying here waiting for the State of the Union to start, expecting (less than eagerly) to hear about guns. I don’t know whether to be surprised or not that guns are threatening to become a signature issue of Obama’s second term. On the one hand, Obama’s on record as believing that guns are something hopeless people cling to, and he’s even more on record as being a man rather expressly without hopelessness. (As a sidenote, how did that not hurt him more in 2008? It was really an offensive thing to say, even though I agree with him.) But on the other, he gave no indication, none at all, that guns were central to his plans until Newtown.
No overt indication, that is, for the gun nuts have been seeing indications all over the place for years. In highlighting the issue now, Obama plays into their demonizations. You can’t fault him, though, the demonizations are so total that he’s never had a shot at avoiding them. But this one is fairer than most. People who own and love guns do more than own and love them; they internalize them, and make them part of their conceptual selves. That so many fellow citizens do so is meaningful of itself. Personally, I’d like to see them all banned, but, unfortunately, other people matter, too.
But the extended slow crank of the president’s dance with gun control is an example of another phenomenon I find more disturbing. Despite all the flak for his political obtuseness, much of it deserved (these are complicated times), Obama is proving himself an expert, or at least enthusiastic, practitioner of the long game. By this I mean that he says and does things not only or primarily for an intended short-term effect, but rather for the last domino in a causal chain months or years down the line. It’s hardly a novel strategy–every politician and thinking living person deploys it–but Obama’s style manifests a deviousness that make me uncomfortable, and makes him other than he’s anxious to have us believe of him. In the case of guns, it’s turned him into a meaning-of-the-word-is liar: He never said that he would never sign gun control legislation, but he certainly led us to believe that the issue would never breathe State of the Union air.
The most famous example, this one more salutary, is the fiscal cliff. In these very pages among them, liberals bemoaned the extension of the previous administration’s tax cuts, but as others pointed out at the time, the fiscal cliff born of that deal put the president in a very strong future position, indeed. Two years later, that proved to be the case. This strikes me as very clever, and perhaps helpful, but still troubling. When the referential object is always beyond the edge of the horizon, it becomes difficult for political speech to have any meaning, as meaning is commonly understood.
In fact, in this context, political speech engenders a paranoia. Just when his chances were at their apex, the president turned in a debate performance so abysmal that the race was perceived to have been thrown back to a coin toss. It seemed impossible that a man so famously methodical and conscientious could flub so badly, and I became as worried as everyone else in the days after as his poll numbers cratered. But, then, when they began their steady climb, I wondered if perhaps he had done badly on purpose. Everything had been going so well, it came to seem to me reasonable to believe that they couldn’t continue forever and that he’d be better off controlling the decline, as a boxer’s corner will cut the cheek to relieve swelling. I believe this now, a transmogrification of my paranoia of the president into a paranoia of my own mind.
The Clinton comparison is implicit but unavoidable. His central argument against Clinton uxor was that she acted and spoke out of political expedience, rather than core belief. It was a good argument because it was undeniable; it turned the strength of the Clintons into a liability. But Obama’s long game is different. Clintonian triangulation has an endearing transparency, but the temporal removes of Obama’s speech, action, and policies are something else. They are obfuscations of obfuscations. They make rational Jeffersonianism impossible. And they are the corrosive bad faith we see in all of the worst that surrounds us.