All in the Game

Inside the mind of Barack Obama as he sets forth on his first term as president

All in the Game

And so you woke up one morning and it was finally over. Victory. A triumph. Your acceptance speech was deliberately subdued, more effective in its withheld power than the barn burners of the early days. The crowd surged and wept. Your wife and daughters exited the windswept stage smiling, leaving you there, tall and handsome, a new man for a new millennium.

And what you thought then was not what people think. It was not the relief or joy of having won. It was not the burden of that same win. It was not even a mixture of the two, the smart pundit’s comment of choice. He’s got a lot on his mind now, Anderson. The reality is starting to sink in, Tom. Heavy lies the head, Campbell.

It was none of that. Instead, you kept thinking of that moment on the late-night talk show, the funny one, when you were asked to recite random text as if it were a speech. And you did that, because it was the funny one, and it’s important to show you have a sense of humour and you’re not stiff or elitist or dull. You did it. And it was weird, it was eerie, it was actually kind of creepy. The banal words came out of your mouth with the same intonation, the same building crescendos of inspiration, that floated hope and change and yes we can across crowds and screens, and that made people, even hardened cynics, tear up a little, because even they believed it might be true or just really wanted it to be true. Or maybe because of some mysterious neurobiological response from a deep part of the primate brain that responds, physically and emotionally, to certain rhythms and stresses, recalling the happiness of dancing, the beatific content of polyphonic harmony or Fibonacci curves, the line of beauty. As basic and as meaningless. As content free.

No, worse — not content free, content neutral. You could say anything at all, and if it was said right it would sound right. It would be right. There you were, reciting the phone book or whatever, and it sounded awesome. And the host was kind of freaked out, and you were a bit freaked out too. Because what was going on anyway? If inane sentiments, random word strings, could sound almost as certain, almost as impressive and commanding, as your real message, your message of hope and change and yes we can, what was that? Your message was real. The other wasn’t. And yet they sounded the same.

But now, making another speech, accepting the office, inaugurating the new era, you thought: wait a second. This is crazy, you thought, there on the stage in front of the people shouting and waving and weeping at the mere sight and sound of you. The difference is obvious, it’s obvious. Anyone watching you, hearing you, recite the phone book or whatever could tell the difference — that was what made it funny, the incongruity of making the meaningless sound meaningful, the contrast between appearance and reality, between acted and meant, between insincere and sincere, fake and authentic. Anyone, everyone, knows the difference. The difference is obvious!

And in fact, in fact, look how smooth you are, playing with this difference in such an assured way, meeting objections that you are an underqualified rhetorician, a pretender, by turning right around and taking them head-on, showing off your rhetorical skills to put them in their proper place. Not with the truth. Not with the message. Just the technique. Just the vehicle for delivering the message. One cool customer, you thought briefly to yourself there on the stage, one deft operator, being able to play around like that, to be so comfortable, so at ease with the difference that you could jump over the difference and back. You had command. It was obvious.

Was it really? Yes it was. Of course you had it, it was in your grasp, you knew in your heart, your faith was strong, your purpose true, your aims noble, and your character fine. Of course they were. You had it. Everyone said so. Everyone agreed. Everyone celebrated your command of the difference. But did you really have command? You kept wondering, and the wondering was hard to quell, because that wondering was part of your having it. Your certainty came from doubt, your courage from trial, your resolve from pain. The command was earned, you’d been trying to show that for months and months now. And everyone agreed, everyone said so. The wondering remained, though, and you wondered in turn about that. If you had, if everyone said so and everyone agreed, how come you kept wondering, how come you had moments of doubt that did not resolve into certainty, moments of trial that did not bolster courage, pains that would not go away because they were part of you?

Okay, okay — just a human being here. Not a saviour. Not a god. Not a devil either, or an evil genius. Just one man, risen to the top. Risen to the top of a system where the oneness of one man, the oneness of one woman, was the whole idea. Each one counts for one. That’s the basis of the whole shebang, that’s the fundamental tenet. Six billion of us, more, and in theory every single one counting for one. Everything flows from that, everything. Even though right now it was just 300 million or so, the ones with the right photo ID and bank accounts.

We actually know it’s not true. It’s a fiction, this counting for one. A necessary fiction, you thought, standing there. It’s one of those fictions that serve a crucial purpose and therefore are accepted, their untruth converted to value. You might call it a noble lie, a lie with moral sanction. Because nothing would work without it. The whole system would crash if we stopped agreeing to suspend disbelief about this one thing, this basic idea. The whole business would come tumbling down. One counts for one. Even though it doesn’t. And it doesn’t because we’re not equal, in opportunity or access to justice, let alone wealth, any more than in talent or good looks. Because nobody without millions of dollars to spend could even think of standing where you were now. Because one man with dark skin was not about to change the fact that who your parents were accounted for most of what your life would be like, despite the constant claims directly to the contrary.

Those claims had to keep coming, though, and we had to go on believing them, or else everything would falter. You wondered: did we play at democracy the way we play at cards or dice, evening out differences with the mechanisms of chance, with fictional order and accepted rules? Or perhaps as children play, imagining and taking on roles, switching them around, acting them out, pretending? A magical system, a brilliant invention, the best one so far?

People talked a lot about cheating as a threat to the game’s sanctity. It wasn’t really. Whether we like it or not, cheating is still a way of playing the game. Cheating is second-order pretending within the first-order pretending of the game itself. Cheating is pretending to play the pretending which is the game itself. Cheating is entirely compatible within the game, maybe even called out by the gamesmanship of the game. That’s why those congressional harangues of hypo-happy baseball players sometimes seemed so bizarre: they were just acting the way the game encouraged them to act. Which is good, or anyway convenient, since cheating seemed pretty common in this largest game, the game of the system. Sure, people disagreed about what counted as cheating — but that was actually a big part of the game! You couldn’t assassinate your opponent, no, but was it cheating for two political parties to burn through $2.4 billion in order to enact the two-year drama of decision, the endless narrative of mandate, that got you here? You didn’t think so, or at least you weren’t prepared to say so.

And was it cheating for the nation’s treasury to toss more than $1 trillion after the failing health of financial ventures, those losing bets they called “institutions” or “pillars” of the economy? Or billions for the myopic makers of automobiles, the crystallized worst selves of your nation, the supercharged producers of consumption, the great demons of desire? Was that cheating? It had better not be, because in a few minutes it would be you standing there, holding the ticket, guarantor of the loan, chaser of your predecessor’s cheques, pre-compromised, shameful, the biggest mark in the whole game. A projected deficit of $1.2 trillion. A debt of $10.6 trillion. How easily the word trillion, the concept of a trillion dollars, rolled around the mind and off the tongue.

But even if any of that was cheating — which it wasn’t, you thought, standing there, not really, maybe incompetence and poor judgment but not cheating — the main thing to remember was that it was still inside the game. What nobody could do, least of all you, now, standing there, was spoil the game by acknowledging the fictions at its heart. To refuse the collective illusion of the game is not to cheat; it is much worse — it’s to be a spoilsport.

“It is curious to note how much more lenient society is to the cheat than to the spoil-sport,” you recalled reading, or having quoted to you. “This is because the spoil-sport shatters the play-world itself,” while the cheat “pretends to be playing the game and, on the face of it, still acknowledges the magic circle.” The word “illusion,” you realized then, or perhaps later, actually means “in play.” They said irony was dead. It is not, you thought, as long as we keep playing at this endless round, this generalized confidence game, we call democracy.

And so you held firm to your belief as you stood there, risen to the top, the bearer of the message, commander of the difference, tall, handsome harbinger of change and hope and yes we can.

Not to gratify your ego. Not to aggrandize yourself. But to serve. To serve a great nation and a great people, one perhaps lately fallen on hard times and bad decisions, and to remind them of their greatness, the sweet promise of their republic. You thought fleetingly of Whitman, though you never quoted him in speeches — too difficult, too weird, too gay. “Here at last is something in the doings of man that corresponds with the broadcast doings of the day and night. Here is not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations. Here is action untied from strings necessarily blind to particulars and details magnificently moving in vast masses. Here is the hospitality which forever indicates heroes.”

You wanted to be that hero, the hero of openness. To embody the endless hospitality of a nation that has always, always — well, always until now, until these late dark days — made a place at the hearth for the stranger, the unaccommodated, the barren and rootless. “The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it,” the poet concluded. And you wanted to be that poet, thought perhaps you could be that poet. You wanted to be absorbed in just that way. You had the command, everyone said so, everyone agreed.

But then the wonder, the doubt. Were you perhaps a poet the way an advertising copywriter is a poet? A genius of desire? Not merely a shill, not a crude hawker. Not some tired drummer rapping on doors or peddling knife sets and shammies at state fairs and travelling midways. Rather a purveyor of aspiration, a dream merchant, a wizard of longing and its satisfaction. They projected their desires onto you, the good ones and the bad ones, and you mirrored them back. Yes! And yet you knew, somewhere in the back of your fine, subtle, highly trained mind, that the only way to satisfy one longing is to replace it with another, to shuffle the dreams and desires along with the skill of your ideas. They weren’t just any ideas, empty ideas. They were good ideas, ideas of substance! Big and moving ideas, about hope and change, about justice and truth.

There was another writer, also dead. He had covered your opponent’s campaign in an earlier election, how strange, and he killed himself exactly seven years and one day after the terrorist attacks that brought such power to the executive you were ousting. The same executive your current opponent had failed to best for his party’s nomination eight years ago. The writer was a young man still when he took his own life — only a little younger than you, with a mind as fine, as subtle, as highly trained as your own.

He had said this about political writing: “The rhetoric of the enterprise is fucked. Ninety-five percent of political commentary, whether spoken or written, is now polluted by the very politics it’s supposed to be about. Meaning it’s become totally ideological and reductive: the writer/speaker has certain political convictions or affiliations, and proceeds to filter all reality and spin all assertion according to those convictions and loyalties. Everybody’s pissed off and exasperated and impervious to argument from any other side. Opposing viewpoints are not just incorrect but contemptible, corrupt, evil.”

He went on: “There’s no more complex, messy, community-wide argument (or ‘dialogue’); political discourse is now a formulaic matter of preaching to one’s own choir and demonizing the opposition. Everything’s relentlessly black-and-whitened. Since the truth is way, way more gray and complicated than any one ideology can capture, the whole thing seems to me not just stupid but stupefying.”

He went on: “[This] simply abets the uncomplicatedly sexy delusion that one side is Right and Just and the other Wrong and Dangerous. Which is of course a pleasant delusion, in a way — as is the belief that every last person you’re in conflict with is an asshole — but it’s childish, and totally unconducive to hard thought, give and take, compromise, or the ability of grown-ups to function as any kind of community… Implicit in this brief, shrill answer, though, is obviously the idea that at least some political writing should be Platonically disinterested, should rise above the fray.”

You remember reading that, or having someone tell you about it on the plane, or anyway knowing it was there, and you thought: you could be that disinterested voice, that focus for dialogue. That could be your role, your part to play. You had, to be sure, said some things during the campaign that were ideological and reductive, spun, and even demonizing. But that was part of playing the game, moving the agenda forward, contesting the mandate. Now we could move toward justice and the truth, and the hope for change would be justified. But right away you wondered: How would you know? How would you ever know that your dialogue was tracking the truth, moving toward justice, unless you already knew what justice and truth were? And knowing those things, or claiming to know them, would put you right back into the frame as right versus those who were certainly wrong, if not necessarily contemptible, corrupt, evil.

In fact, you thought, standing there, isn’t the idea of Platonic disinterest really a contradiction? Right? Because the Platonic philosopher knows things, he doesn’t just suspect or hope about them. He’s in possession of the truth, about truth and justice and all the rest of it. Possession, knowledge; not hope, not belief. In fact, he’s the only one who does know. That’s what makes him the right person — the one and only right person — to be in charge. And yet you don’t buy that really, do you, even if you do think you’re the right answer for right now? That idea of the transcendental telescope, the possession of the ultimate truth. That was not the command you claimed. You were not a philosopher king, even if some people accused you of believing it, of craving that status. No, your command was over something else: a story, a narrative, a sense of possibility.

That’s why you peppered every speech, every rhetorical moment, with a fistful of mini-narratives, about ordinary people and their ordinary desires. The single dad working two jobs. The mom and pop trying to make their small business grow. The laid-off steelworker trying to learn how to be a daycare provider. You gathered those lives and compressed them into bites and sent them back out into the political ether, and it was good. It was good because everyone said so, everyone agreed, they were uplifting and human and engaging. The way a philosopher could never be. And when people derided you and said you had only stories and no real ideas or proposals, you told them about the idea of justice that was buried in those stories, the hope for change that the narratives carried. The stories were the ideas, the narrative was the justice.

Justice. You weren’t about to define it in terms of some Big Idea, some capital-J vision. Because that would trap you, it would hold you back in your way of playing the game, your strategy of post-partisan pragmatism, a phrase everybody seemed to like, seemed ready for. Also it would risk seeming like a Platonic claim after all, to have knowledge of what justice is. A praised novel of the day expressed the spirit of the times clearly, if a little brutally — more brutally than you would. “After the ruinous experiments of the lately deceased century, after so much vile behaviour, so many deaths, a queasy agnosticism has settled around these matters of justice and redistributed wealth. No more big ideas. The world must improve, if at all, by tiny steps. People mostly take an existential view — having to sweep the streets for a living looks like simple bad luck. It’s not a visionary age. The streets need to be clean. Let the unlucky enlist.”

You liked the idea that the previous century was deceased, making way for a new life, but the language of bad luck was not yours. Instead, after the fashion of your time and place, you spoke of faith. Faith in a providential Lord, and in the wisdom of your fathers, and in the greatness of the nation and its people. But most important, faith in markets and taxes. “The market,” you had said to the man with the notepad, “is the best mechanism ever invented for efficiently allocating resources to maximize production.” You also said, “There is a connection between the freedom of the marketplace and freedom more generally.” People asked you what your vision of the nation was, and the answer was simple and obvious: people should be free to do whatever the market allows.

But then, to make sure things didn’t get out of hand — which they had over the past few years, everyone now agreed, which they would if there were no constraints at all — you wanted to tax people. Yes, tax them. Everyone, but very rich people more than others. And that taxing would be just, would be all that justice meant. You didn’t like the word “redistributionist,” you had told the reporter, but now growth would benefit everybody again and everybody would be happy. They would be happy because their desires for things could be met, mostly, by the market’s genius at allocating resources. And then the new desires they had would spur them on to more and more things.

What was it for? What was it in the service of? Well, nothing, really. At least nothing beyond itself, nothing bigger than the desires themselves. Deep down, you thought that someone’s having a desire was enough to make that desire legitimate. You thought, standing there, that this was basic. That’s what you meant by freedom, and that’s why you thought markets were so good at doing what they do. That was your vision. In this vision, there is no beyond — that was the point of being free.

Well, there is God, obviously. You couldn’t imagine standing here without talking about God. Not even you, with your many gifts, of hope and charisma and racial novelty, could have been standing there had you not talked about God. This was, it’s true, a God almost entirely without program or demands, without risks or rewards, pretty much without content. This God offered comfort when you had to ask young men and women to kill the nation’s enemies, or when you and everyone else had to confront the finitude of life. Maybe not surprisingly in this land of the game, It or He seemed designed for pointing to after field goals or home runs — the doubled we’re-number-one gesture that defined the era. But that was about it.

You talked about faith, and you were sincere when you did, but the faith you talked about never sounded like the infinite task you had read about in old books, the kind of faith that may have been on the mind of that still-young man, the writer, when he killed himself. How hard it is, how not even possible, to remain convinced of the value of here, this nation and this earth, this mortality.

You were not like that. You were post-partisan pragmatic, after all, and in secret moments you figured people should not be surprised when those principles extended to God as well. The truth is just what works, pragmatism says, and what works better than that as an answer to any demand for the truth? Game on.

Your speech was almost over. It had been a good one, of course, uplifting but realistic, emotional but hard headed. You were really very good at this. You wanted everyone to know you were ready, that they had made the right choice. You promised oversight and stimulus and the double lever of free markets and higher taxes. You reminded the nation of the grave challenges ahead, the need for goodwill and courage. You called them to their better selves.

You did not specify what those better selves might be, except in general terms of family and so on, the usual stuff, because specificity would not respect the desires of this great democratic nation, where each one counted for one, where freedom was everything. Everyone here gets to dream! And if the dream is empty, that’s a good thing, that’s a positive. That’s what makes the dream everyone’s dream.

You realized then something that had nagged at your fine mind, your subtle mind, throughout the many months leading to this moment, to this speech. The hope you had spoken of, over and over, the change you called for, they were just like the dream. In fact, you saw now, they were the dream. And it followed that they, too, were free of content. They were empty categories, levers without purchase.

But now, you thought, now that you are in the big chair, that was okay. That, in fact, was your special genius. Not your height and good looks and racial category. Not your fitness and charisma. Not your fashion sense, your magazine covers, your comic book appearances, bobblehead dolls, and action figures. Not your ability to succeed where others had failed. Certainly not your will to change the system, or to articulate any bold new vision. None of that was going to happen. Not just because the system was too big for anyone to change it, though that was certainly true.

Yes, everyone was going to be disappointed. That was inevitable, you thought, not for the first time. The expectations were too great to avoid disappointment. You recalled, with an inward smile, the fake newspaper headlines in the parody issue of the New York Times. Remember? The one distributed the week after the election and dated July 4, 2009. Nation Sets Its Sights on Building a Sane Economy. Pentagon Ends Secret Budget. USA Patriot Act Repealed. Public Relations Industry Forecasts a Series of Massive Layoffs. Court Indicts Bush on High Treason Charge. Torture, Rendition “Not Such Good Ideas After All.” It was funny because it wasn’t true. And it wasn’t going to be true, not even close, though you couldn’t say that, especially not now, not here, you thought, standing there.

No, despite everything you had said, despite your command of the difference, your awareness that everyone said so, everyone agreed, your special genius was not change. Your gift was not even political — it was more metaphysical, more spectral. You saw that, oddly enough, you were bound to become a sort of philosopher king after all. Not in your decisions or actions, not because of your special vision, but by your example. In the very fact of you and your inevitable failure, the inescapable disappointment, the pre-compromised nature of the whole undertaking, the entire game. You didn’t tell the noble lie, you were the noble lie. Your special genius was to show that democracy is impossible but that we have to play it anyway.

“Hope” was the right word all along, because it is nothing more or less than the unresolved remainder of politics. Hope is that which will not submit either to policy analysis or to dialectic reasoning. Hope forever extends and remains, it is always not yet, always to come. You can make speeches about it, but you can’t bring it to the mat later on, you can’t implement it. There are no policy implications, no legislative measures, that move hope from theory to application. But — and here was the crux of the thing, the gist of the matter — without that hope, we would surely be lost to the same despair as the still-young man, the writer who took his life. The emptiness of our desires and our dreams, the paltry contours of our lives and efforts, the smallness of our vision, would swallow us up. Without hope, we would see that the bleakness of the world is not that it is unjust but that it is meaningless.

You would not change that. Nobody would change that, ever. No we can’t! But you would make your own specific failure into hope’s success. And then someone else, pointing up at another God, would have to try.

Mark Kingwell
Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto and a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine.