How Obama’s playing it

Gideon Rose is managing editor of Foreign Affairs.

After 100 days, it seems that President Obama is that rare creature, a responsible gambler. Bill Clinton took large risks personally but not as a policymaker. George W. Bush took lots of risks, but they were reckless and irresponsible ones. Obama is unlike either of his predecessors. Inheriting a dramatically reduced stack of chips, he finds himself with little choice but to bet heavily again and again -- but he is doing so with the odds rather than against them, taking sensible, calculated risks that may well pay off.

Coming to the presidency after the end of the Cold War, near the beginning of a long boom, Clinton could afford to play it safe, and he generally did. A superb politician, he was always careful to stay within the bounds of what the domestic political market would bear. His “New Democrat” approach relied on giving most of the people most of what they thought they wanted, steering a middle course between the Republican right and the “Old Democrats” in Congress. The economy grew, the world seemed calm, and his reelection went smoothly, greased by such landmark policy innovations as increased use of school uniforms. Whatever chance there might have been for boldness in his second term was finished off by the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the impeachment crisis, as Clinton deployed vast amounts of attention, energy and capital to running in place.

Bush took office determined to forswear what he referred to dismissively as “small ball,” and after 9/11 he did just that, taking large risks in pursuit of large goals. Unfortunately, he did so almost carelessly, without seeming to much consider what he was doing and why. Few knowledgeable people thought Iraq was connected to 9/11 or that toppling Saddam Hussein would swiftly and painlessly usher in a new era of democracy in Iraq itself, let alone the rest of the Middle East. Many would have had grave reservations about institutionalizing torture as a core component of the U.S. “war on terror” (had they known that was what was being done). Most felt that the country’s increasingly strained financial position and global climate change were problems worth taking seriously. No matter -- relying on his gut and the advice of a small circle of ideologically extreme advisors, Bush plunged ahead, staking his fortune (and the nation’s) on long-shot bets that, not surprisingly, came a cropper.


Obama has reaped Bush’s whirlwind, taking over a domestic and global economy in crisis, two ongoing wars and a host of abysmal trends. Unlike Clinton, he hasn’t had the luxury of playing it safe. Unlike Bush, he’s had no margin for error, no surplus of power or authority beyond his own popularity, with few resources to burn by playing hunches.

So what has he done? So far, interestingly, Obama appears to be combining the best of both of his predecessors while avoiding the worst. Forced to gamble for high stakes, like Bush, he has made his bets based on solid policy wonkery, like Clinton.

Obama recognizes that the economic crisis has to be the first priority and that it calls for boldness, both on its merits and for political reasons. So he has mortgaged what is left of the government’s credit to support a major stimulus program, taken over entire industries and more. At the same time, he’s trying to fundamentally reorient U.S. politics in a more progressive direction, with large new expenditures for healthcare, education and other social programs. Meanwhile, to avoid distractions and buy time for his domestic programs to work, Obama has pulled back from the Bush administration’s bullying approach to the world while renewing and slightly increasing Washington’s commitment to one particular suppurating wound, the situation in Afghanistan.

Each one of these choices can be -- has been -- criticized, and some of them may turn out badly. But unlike Bush’s choices, Obama’s are generally based on prudent calculations of risk and reward rather than on wishing on a star. If his bets work out, he will reap extremely large rewards both in popularity and in historical impact. If they do not, his will be another failed presidency.

The irony is that for all the wonkery, nobody can know yet what the outcome will be. Whatever image he may want to project, “no-drama Obama” is now like one of those stone-faced players in shades at the final table of the poker tournament: He’s gone all in with decent cards, and he’s waiting for the flop.