Obama, Tiger, Golf and Politics
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
Published: August 23, 2011 New York Times
Despite the carping by critics, I’m glad the president went on vacation because one of the most useful things he could do right now is play golf — a lot of golf — but not that friendly foursome thing with his aides that he usually does. No, real golf: Match play, head to head, with real money on the line. Match-play golf is a great teacher. As any good golfer will tell you, the first rule of match play is this: Never play not to lose. Do not wait and hope for your opponent to make a mistake. Always play the course, always play to win and always assume your opponent will do well — will make that long putt — so you have to do better.
For months now, Obama has been playing not to lose, keeping his own plans for a “Grand Bargain” on debt, deficits, taxes, jobs and investment vague, while waiting for the Republicans to say crazier and crazier stuff — like promising the return of $2-a-gallon gasoline, or insisting that climate change was made up by scientists to get research grants (but politicians taking millions from oil companies can be trusted to tell us the truth on this issue), or that Texas has a right to secede. But while the G.O.P. candidates have been obliging the president with their nuttiness, it has not helped Obama’s poll ratings.
Many Americans can see that most of these G.O.P. candidates are closer to professional wrestlers than politicians — with their fake body slams and anti-Obama bluster. All they are missing are the Tarzan outfits. This is the silly season. But I would not assume that Republicans won’t come up with more serious candidates when it counts, or that some of these candidates won’t move to the center. I would definitely assume that they’ll do better.
That’s why the last few months have been so worrying to Obama supporters. Obama surprised everyone by broaching the idea during the debt negotiations of a “Grand Bargain” — roughly $3 trillion in spending cuts over the next decade and $1 trillion in tax increases — as a signal to the markets that we’re getting our fiscal house in order. It was absolutely the right idea — as long as it is coupled with investments in infrastructure, education and research — but House Speaker John Boehner could not deliver his Tea Party-led G.O.P. caucus.
Yet rather than flesh out his Grand Bargain in detail and take it on the road — and let every American everywhere understand and hear every day that he had a plan but the Republicans wouldn’t rise to it — Obama dropped it. Did he ever try to explain the specifics of his Grand Bargain and why it was the only way to go? No.
This left his allies wondering whether he was committed to it — and really did have his own party on board for it. And it left his opponents thrilled and setting the agenda themselves. It is why Obama’s recent bus tour fell flat. People don’t want to cheer just the man anymore. They want to cheer the man and his plan — a real plan, not just generalities and tactics to get him re-elected with 50.0001 percent and no real mandate to do what’s needed to fix the country now.
Without his own Grand Bargain on the table — imprinted on the mind of every American — Obama has been left playing defense, playing to get the least-bad deal, or playing not to lose. That’s what’s producing all the “What happened to Obama?” talk and its silly variants. (He’s a loser; he’s not very bright; he’s Jimmy Carter.)
It’s all nonsense. Obama is smart, decent and tough, with exactly the right instincts about where the country needs to go. He has accomplished a lot more than he’s gotten credit for — with an opposition dedicated to making him fail. But lately he is seriously off his game. He’s not Jimmy Carter. He’s Tiger Woods — a natural who’s lost his swing. He has so many different swing thoughts in his head, so many people whispering in his ear about what the polls say and how he needs to position himself to get re-elected, that he has lost all his natural instincts for the game. He needs to get back to basics.
It’s crazy what’s happening in America today: We’re having an economic crisis and the politicians are having an election — and there is almost no overlap between the two. The president needs to bring them together. But that can only happen if he stops playing not to lose and goes for broke himself. Our problems are not insoluble. We need a Grand Bargain — where each side gives something on spending, taxes and new investments — and we’re on our way out of this.
Run on that, Mr. President: At best you’ll generate enough public pressure (now totally missing) to shame sane Republicans into joining you, and we’ll get a deal, and at worst you can run in 2012 on a platform, which, if you win, will actually give you a mandate for the change the country needs.
Meanwhile, Mr. President, on a rainy day, rent the movie “Tin Cup.” There is a great scene where Dr. Molly Griswold is trying to help Roy “Tin Cup” McAvoy, the golf pro, rediscover his swing — and himself. She finally tells him: “Roy ... don’t try to be cool or smooth or whatever; just be honest and take a risk. And you know what, whatever happens, if you act from the heart, you can’t make a mistake.”