I’m sitting down at a game of hold ‘em, one on one with another player. On the table are three spades, giving the other player an obvious flush draw. I’ve got two pair and he just slid a modest stack of chips into the pot. Any bet I make will be a semi-bluff. At this point, there’s the very real (and very likely) possibility that I’m in over my head. Of course, in the other player’s mind, the odds I have the better hand are just as likely. Even if he hit a flush draw, he doesn’t know if I have a better high card.
Do I fold, call, or raise?
At this point, personalities mean a great deal. Is he aggressive? Does he play tight? Does he fold easy? Will he call anything, just to keep me honest? Is he rash enough to go all in, just because? Am I willing to risk it?
Often times, politics is a lot like a card game; two men staring across the world’s stage waiting to see who will blink first.
What kind of player you are matters a great deal. The other players will adjust their strategies based on their observations about you. You have to adjust your strategy when dealing with different players. Knowledge is useful, experience is key, and instincts are everything. You have to have a feel for it.
Richard Nixon carefully cultivated his international image. He called it the “Madman Strategy.” It changed the equation. It sent a simple message. He will call you. He will always call you. Don’t raise. Don’t ever raise. He’s always all in. He’s insane. He’ll do it. He’ll totally do it.
He wanted the Russians to know he was insane. He wanted them to know he was a madman. He wanted them to know that if push came to shove, he’d ride the bomb all the way down. He ordered diplomats in the service to “leak” stories about just how crazy he really was. The Russians didn’t dick around with Richard Nixon.
Knowing your opponent is just as important. What kind of cards is he holding? Is he aggressive? Tight? Does he bluff often? When called, does he fold? Are you really going to have to play the hand all the way out?
You are who you are. Certain people play a certain way and make certain decisions. We all know this. I’m going to do what I’m going to do and there isn’t a whole lot else that goes into it for me. The trick is to cultivate an image that lets you get away with it. Some people play conservatively and are considered nervous or skittish. Another person can play the exact same way and be called tight or prudent or cautious. Some people are big bluffers you always call. Some people are aggressive bullies you have to watch out for. Same play style, different image. Sometimes it’s not even about what you say, but how you say it.
President Obama seems to have missed this lesson in life somehow. He is perceived as weak. He is always talking, rarely doing, and when he does it’s always seen as backing down. Even when he announced he was sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, the narrative was not “strong leader announces troop surge.” The narrative was, “weak president surrenders to demands for more troops.” He isn’t reconciliatory. He’s an appeaser. He isn’t bowing to show respect – he’s just making a sign of submission. He isn’t seen as owning up to the mistakes of the past and taking responsibility for them. He’s seen backpedaling on the previous administration and distancing himself from his predecessor.
Other people see this. It has not escaped their notice.
When you stare across the table at a weak player, there is only one play: raise. Every time. Every play. Raise. Even if you don’t have anything, you have to raise. He’ll blink every time until he’s sure he has a full house, and then you just lay down the hand, coming out well ahead in the chip count.
I think that by and large, most actors on the world’s stage are rational people with a relatively level head and a healthy sense of self-interest, but even the most rational of people will jump at the chance to score a few points when they see an opportunity.
In Obama, they see opportunities. Lots of them. And they’re calling.