Gates: Another Example of Obama Playing the Longer Game

April 7, 2009

It’s clear that not everything Obama has done has always been a masterstroke. He likely ceded a bit too much on the stimulus before negotiations began. There are some genuine concerns over the Geithner bank plan (concerns based on substance, separate from the hyperbolic tone so many adopt). Personally, I’m not a huge fan of his cap-and-trade plan, and – call me a sycophant of the New Yorker – but I’m strongly in favor of bold plans like swapping the payroll tax for the carbon tax and boosting the economy at the same time we fight global warming.

But, as my friend Greg likes to say, “it’s clear that Obama and his team play a longer game than anyone else.” That’s evident in many ways this week, particularly in the reaction of the pundit class to his first serious trip overseas. While the bloviators pound their chest and proclaim the trip a failure because Obama didn’t get specifically what he wanted on certain tactical matters, the Obama team rightfully ignored them. Axelrod was positively beaming as the trip concluded, giving a calm piece of insight into the administration’s strategy:

Before leaving Istanbul, W.H. senior adviser David Axelrod called Obama’s eight-day European trip “enormously productive”…but added that the results of the trip won’t be seen for some time.

“You plant, you cultivate, you harvest,” Axelrod told reporters. “Over time, the seeds that were planted here are going to be very, very valuable.”

Plant? Cultivate? Long-view? Actually work to improve relations and restore America’s image before starting to cash in those chips? All foreign concepts to the TV (and often blog) pundits of the world, and all the more grateful we should be to have a team that ignores them.

As time progresses – the reaction and analysis of the Obama administration is increasingly becoming a dividing line between what we once mocked as “serious” and “unserious” people. But there really is no better word to apply to this situation. Quite simply, a large number of the bloggers and online (and offline) pundits are just not serious – or more directly – to be taken seriously.

What makes someone “serious” isn’t if they instantaneously agree with the Obama administration – no no, let’s dismiss that straw man immediately, since we know the David Sirotas of the world will inevitably employ it.

No: what makes someone “serious” is whether or not they even attempt to dig into the substance of the issue – and whether or not they try to see the long-term strategy behind a move the Obama administration makes. Since we now know that the administration views everything through a long-term lens, wouldn’t it behoove pundits to at least TRY to determine what that lens would be? If they don’t even try, but react emotionally, tactically, or with a short-term view – what’s the point of even reading them anymore?

A perfect example: the decision by Obama to keep Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense. When it was announced in the fall, the outcry was completely predictable.

Poor Chris Bowers. It’s become all too easy to pick on him, but not without reason. And when it comes to the Gates issue, Bowers was the first and loudest out of the gates, screaming that keeping Robert Gates at the Pentagon would be a disaster that signals to the world that Democrats can’t be strong on defense and wouldn’t signify “change” at defense:

Secretary of Defense is the big enchilada. Arguably, due to the vast percentage of federal spending it receives, it is more important than all other cabinet secretaries combined. The President may be Commander in Chief, but it is the Secretary of Defense who is decides how most federal revenue is spent. We need change in the Department of Defense, and keeping Gates along with his entire team of advisors and assistants doesn’t fit the bill.

Within minutes, Meteor Blades at DailyKos jumped on that horse, citing Bowers’ argument. Indeed, the meme spread like wildfire amongst a blogospheric audience eager to demand “change!” without considering whether the bloggers who led this charge took a second to do even the smallest bit of reporting to see if, indeed, Gates might actually implement real change under a President Obama.

Well, someone did – in particular a diarist at TPM named FlyOnTheWall – who actually took the time to do some research on this issue:

The standard critique of the mainstream media, as the traditional press is derisively known in the blogosphere, is that it privileges process over substance. But on defense policy, at least, a similar charge could reasonably be leveled against these bloggers. Conspicuously absent from any of these laments is a detailed, substantive case against Gates. The argument is being conducted almost wholly on symbolic grounds.

Chris Bowers may be the most widely-cited online critic of this pick, so it’s worth taking a close look at what he’s written. Bowers points out that the Pentagon budget accounts for a huge percentage of our discretionary spending, and it’s entirely out of control. But is Gates the problem, or the solution? Bowers appears to have no idea. In fact, Gates and his team have attacked a series of previously-sacrosanct weapons programs. They’ve done so in the absence of any material support from the Bush administration, and in the face of fierce opposition from the Democratic congress.

He continues:

Richard Danzig is reportedly Obama’s choice for Deputy Defense Secretary, a role he is expected to full until he takes over for Gates. How does he feel about the Pentagon chief? “I think Secretary Gates has been a good secretary of defense,” Danzig told reporters back in October. “I think he’d be an even better one in an Obama administration…. Many of the kinds of efforts he’s made are in tune with what we’re trying to do.”

Substance. Strategy. Thinking long-term. Hyperventilators screamed that Gates wasn’t change. Well, guess what? He may have been better position to implement change than anyone else. Jump ahead to today, with the news that Gates wants to cut out old-DoD programs and reform the way the Pentagon does business.

Reaction from Yglesias?

This is the move that justifies the decision to keep Robert Gates on at the Pentagon. Any new Defense Secretary, no matter how brilliant, would have had to have spent his first three months in office building relationships with the top military commanders and focusing on filling out the DOD civilian staff. Only a Secretary who’s already been in office could have the ability to propose sweeping change. But only a president who’s brand new could have the popularity and honeymoon effect necessary to have any hope of driving the changes through congress. Hence the appeal of the odd alignment of new president and old defense secretary.

Reporting. Thinking through the long-term. Examining the substance of the issue. This is what separates the bloggers whose work you should read versus those who just aren’t “serious.”

Why is it important? Because the more these people put themselves out there as representatives of the left-wing blogosphere, the worse it makes us look. Soon the stereotypes of us as uninformed rabble-rousers, ideologues rather than pragmatic, well-educated citizens, will become true.

Obama’s playing a long game. That doesn’t make him always right. But it means that any analysis that fails to at least take into account the potential presence of long-term strategy should be dismissed. As should these so-called “analysts.”

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