Posted by: mutantpoodle | October 13, 2009

The power of the soft martial arts

I’m done with pundits on the left saying Barack Obama needs to get tough. (Since folks on the right claim he’s creating re-education camps, they, at least, haven’t jumped on this idiotic bandwagon.)

If people haven’t figured out Obama by now, I don’t know what to tell you.  He will never play the boisterous, in your face, my way or the highway character that some liberals dream about.

Last fall, Maureen Dowd loaned Aaron Sorkin her column inches, and had him channel Jed Bartlett to give Obama advice. Unsurprisingly, it was to take the gloves off:

OBAMA: What would you do?

BARTLET: GET ANGRIER! Call them liars, because that’s what they are. Sarah Palin didn’t say ”thanks but no thanks” to the Bridge to Nowhere. She just said ”Thanks.” You were raised by a single mother on food stamps — where does a guy with eight houses who was legacied into Annapolis get off calling you an elitist? And by the way, if you do nothing else, take that word back. Elite is a good word, it means well above average. I’d ask them what their problem is with excellence. While you’re at it, I want the word ”patriot” back. McCain can say that the transcendent issue of our time is the spread of Islamic fanaticism or he can choose a running mate who doesn’t know the Bush doctrine from the Monroe Doctrine, but he can’t do both at the same time and call it patriotic. They have to lie — the truth isn’t their friend right now. Get angry. Mock them mercilessly; they’ve earned it. McCain decried agents of intolerance, then chose a running mate who had to ask if she was allowed to ban books from a public library….I don’t know whether or not Governor Palin has the tenacity of a pit bull, but I know for sure she’s got the qualifications of one. And you’re worried about seeming angry? You could eat their lunch, make them cry and tell their mamas about it and God himself would call it restrained. There are times when you are simply required to be impolite. There are times when condescension is called for!

Obama, of course, didn’t go that route.  How’d that work out for him?

Look – the first problem with people who want Obama to morph into the Incredible Hulk is, quite simply, that’s not who he is.

The second problem is that people too often equate bluster with strength.  But ask anyone whose worked in bars before – the guys to worry about aren’t the blowhards – it’s the guys who say nothing but don’t back down.

After a full election campaign where Obama deftly let his opponents trip themselves up with their own momentum – just as Aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba does in the clip above – Obama’s methods should be totally clear. He allows his opponents to propel themselves, with whatever combination of hyperbole and hysteria they choose to offer, past reasonableness, and then gives them a little effortless nudge – all the while leaving the door open for conversation and, dare I say it, bipartisanship, with those on the other side.

In short, he lets his opponents use up their energy attacking, and then steps in and finishes them.

The irony is that we are a culture that values toughness and yet fails to see it when it’s right in front of us. Ta-Nehisi Coates nailed it a year ago:

This is a war, and you don’t lose wars because of abstract principles, but because of hard immovable facts. Is your army bigger than theirs? Are you attracting more recruits? Are you deploying in the right places? Who has more resources? Who has the technology edge? These are the reasons I voted Obama in the primary. I didn’t think he was “more principled” than Clinton, nor did I really care. I thought she was tough, but I knew he was tougher. I thought her campaign was smart, but I thought his was smarter. I thought one person was talking about being a fighter, and another was out there actually being a fighter. The general is bearing all of this out, because right now, Barack Hussein Obama is beating John McCain like he stole something–from Toot, no less.

I’ll admit, the process with health care reform hasn’t been pretty.  But the Senate Finance Committee – maybe the most reactionary committee in the Democratic supermajority Senate – just passed a health care reform bill 14-9. Those who screamed the loudest over the summer have largely run out of ammunition (after all, once you go down the Death Panels road, you’re bound to hit a dead end). There’s a long way to go, but no one’s gotten this close in nearly a century. All this from someone who people don’t think is tough enough.

I don’t know what form health care reform is going to take at the end of this godawful process.  But whatever it is, I think Obama will have gotten as much as possible out of a pivotal group of recalcitrant Senate Democrats. I am just as convinced that trying to beat people up to get more would not only fail to do better, it would probably wind up with less. And finally, I think that given that this is how Obama operates, and how skillfully he does it, asking him to adopt strategies and techniques at which he’s less skilled is dumb – it’s like picking up a girl because you have a thing for swimmers, and then being upset because she can’t play softball.

Obama’s mastery of his style is what made him an effective – and winning – candidate, and it’s his best hope for success as a president.  LBJ wasn’t on the ballot, folks. Move on.



  1. Love this post, and agree wholeheartedly.

  2. Well said!

  3. As I was reading I was thinking that LBJ is the liberal model of a successful president… and that sure is not Obama.

  4. I’m not sure I agree. Well, I agree in principle about Obama’s style. But I think the health-care reform process has been a mess, and a little more leadership from Obama would have been welcome.

  5. Maybe you’re right. But I’m not sure what “more leadership” would have looked like, and I’m not sure what it would have accomplished, given the massive petty egos of so many involved. The question at the end of the day is whether different tactics would have made the final bill better. Stay tuned.

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