Mr. President, Should What Happens In Vegas Stay There?

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During the 2008 campaign, Michael Weisskopf and I wrote a story that argued that if you wanted to know how John McCain and Barack Obama would govern, you need only look at how they gambled. McCain, a craps player, loved thrill, risk, long shots and yawping tables. Obama, a poker player, was cautious, cagey, calculating, isolated.

We found out later that McCain’s penchant for risk would define his campaign. As Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson reported after the election, the moment when McCain decided to roll the dice on a little known Alaska Governor came down, in many ways, to McCain’s own admitted gambling disposition.

“What’s your bottom line?” McCain asked. [McCain Campaign Attorney A.B.] Culvahouse later told an audience that he responded, “John, high risk, high reward.”

He said McCain replied, “You shouldn’t have told me that. I’ve been a risk-taker all of my life.”

Which returns us to Obama, the calculated card counter, sitting in a corner trying to game out his adversaries. It may still be too early to know if this trait will define his presidency, but we can say that Obama has already made perfectly clear that he doesn’t much like risk. Here is Obama yesterday, at a Town Hall in New Hampshire, again turning his presidential furor on the ways of Las Vegas, which has long been a White House metaphor for Wall Street (or government) excess.

Responsible families don’t do their budgets the way the federal government does. Right? When times are tough, you tighten your belts. You don’t go buying a boat when you can barely pay your mortgage. You don’t blow a bunch of cash on Vegas when you’re trying to save for college. You prioritize. You make tough choices. It’s time your government did the same. (Applause.)

Pretty mild stuff, unless you are from Vegas. The backlash has been swift, led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and last night Obama was forced to walk back his comments in a letter to Nevada’s senior senator.

I hope you know that during my Town Hall today, I wasn’t saying anything negative about Las Vegas. I was making the simple point that families use vacation dollars, not college tuition money, to have fun. There is no place better to have fun than Vegas, one of our country’s great destinations. I have always enjoyed my visits, look forward to visiting in a few weeks, and hope folks will visit in record numbers this year.

Sure, Mr. President, whatever. No one thinks you have anything against the place, or the idea of tourism in Nevada. But who can doubt that deep down you basically detest the sort of excess, waste, chance and debauchery that Vegas has long embodied, not just in practice (see: Tiger Woods) but in the American subconscious? No letter is going to walk that back.