And the amazing thing is that so many people believe it. “Mr. Obama is like a championship chess player, always several moves ahead of friend and foe alike. He’s smart, deft, elegant and subtle,” proclaimed then-New York Times columnist Bob Herbert in 2009. It’s an image of the president that his biggest fans, in and out of the press, have been terribly reluctant to relinquish — because it confirms the faith they invested in him. Nobody ever likes to admit they were suckered.
But the fiction of Obama as a man three steps ahead has taken a terrible beating if you have eyes to see it. The budget cuts under the so-called sequester are the law of the land because Obama thought he was outthinking his opponents when he gave budget-cutters budget cuts. Now he’s stuck railing against his own idea. His allegedly revolutionary decision to turn his presidential campaign into a personal political organization independent from the Democratic Party has turned out to be the most expensive way ever to generate smarmy and ineffectual email spam. And, if you want to believe that Obama’s goal in Syria all along was to elevate Vladimir Putin and alienate all of our Middle East allies, including Saudi Arabia and Israel, to make Bashar al-Assad our strategic partner while he finds more politically correct ways to slaughter his own people, well, that’s nice.
Or consider Obama’s only clear-cut political victory since his re-election. Republican demands were a bit of a moving target, but basically the GOP wanted either an all-out repeal of Obamacare or, as a fallback, a one-year delay of the individual mandate. By the end, they would have taken even less.
But Obama wouldn’t consider it. Instead, he played hardball with everything from national park closures to, temporarily at least, denying death benefits to military families. As the debt ceiling loomed, the GOP relented. Conventional wisdom says Obama won, and I basically agree with the conventional wisdom.
Or at least I did. There’s something those of us scoring that bout didn’t know: The president desperately, urgently and indisputably needed to delay the rollout of Obamacare.
This is not a matter open to fair-minded dispute, never mind partisan disagreement. Even the president and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius agree that the rollout of Obamacare has been a “debacle” (Sebelius’ word). Revelations in the press and in congressional hearings show that the administration was warned prior to both the shutdown and the Obamacare debut that healthcare.gov was as ready to go live as a kid’s make-believe refrigerator-box submarine was ready to explore the ocean depths.
If Obama were a chess master — or even a fairly adept checkers novice — he would have known that when you’re not ready to do something incredibly important, it’s best to buy time. He could have traded a delay (Three months? Six months?) for some major budget concessions, maybe even lifting the sequester. Perhaps his base wouldn’t have liked it, but he could have easily spun the compromise as a necessity given how irrational and “extreme” the GOP was being.
Publicly he’d say he was paying a ransom to “kidnappers” and “hostage takers.” He’d denounce Republicans for delaying precious insurance coverage for sick kids and frail oldsters just to score partisan and ideological points.
But privately, ah privately, the master strategist would be stroking his proverbial white cat — or, in reality, his hypoallergenic black dog — while breathing a sigh of relief that he bought himself some time to fix his woefully mangled healthcare reform.
Obviously he wouldn’t want to delay Obamacare. But that decision was out of his hands due to his administration’s incompetence. The only choice before him was whether he would get the blame for the delay or if the Republicans would.
Why Obama didn’t do this and why it didn’t occur to him are good questions. Hubris obviously played a role, as it does in nearly everything this White House does. But the best answer is he didn’t know how terrible things were over at HHS. In other words, the chess master didn’t even know what pieces he had on the board, which is usually not something we associate with chess masters. It’s something we associate with people who don’t even know how to play the game.
Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online.