Be it Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, or Mike Tyson, every now and then, a new professional boxer comes along who seems to advance the level of the sweet science. Similarly, Senator Barack Obama is quickly being heralded as the latest political champion on the rise in the ring of politics.
Boxing skills seem very much at the essence of Obama’s strategies and tactics for winning the most powerful title on the planet. A young and gifted fighter needs a good corner and Obama has secured efficient and wise counsel. They have sheltered him well, kept his “behind the scenes” a mystery, limited any leaks that the opponents might be able to take advantage of, and made him the most inaccessible of all the candidates.
His corner men minimize the chances of a blunder. At the first sign of blood they move in and seal a cut. They have kept him not only physically fit but mentally prepared for a long and arduous path through November. (While he may smoke cigarettes, all boxers have some vice). Finally, they negotiate contest terms — debate schedules and issues, make ads, secure crowds, and produce the most professional of media savvy appearances, all seamlessly and without any trace that the fighter is manipulating the crowd or judges.
His corner also kept him focused and disciplined. Obama never had reason to believe the title would be given to him and he trained for the full fifteen rounds. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, perhaps because of her sense of entitlement, never prepared for caucuses and trained for a fight that would last only through Super Tuesday.
A new “great” fighter obviously needs to be adept at his sport and Obama has demonstrated skill as well as ease and fluidity. He has ducked most punches thrown at him. Clinton has been so frustrated that she has been reduced to wild flails. She takes and lands more shots on President Bush than she does on Obama.
Obama is also the quintessential counter-puncher. Every time Clinton throws a punch at him he immediately responds with an almost equally tuned and weighed counter of his own. Pavlovian though it may be, Clinton learned early that her negative campaigning only results in more pain for herself.
Obama has also controlled the ring. When near Clinton, he cuts off the ring for her. He makes his postions so close to hers that she can not get off a decent punch. What she does throw — lines about “Xerox,” “change,” “black presidents,” and pictures of Obama in Somali garb — have no power to them or fail to land. Equally impressive, when he has her on the defensive and struggling with the media, he stays away from her and is unreachable. Not just on Oprah did he demonstrate he has the floating dance skills of Ali or Leonard.
As the rounds advanced and he enjoyed more success, Obama perfected the maneuver of agreeing with her, eliminating her ability to demonstrate what a fighter she is. Whether it is on a range of domestic issues, most of their Senate votes, or using the leverage of opting out of NAFTA, Obama gives Clinton little space. He spends much of each round explaining that they are very similar on most issues, excepting that he is simply “better” than her. He steps away only with issues on which he knows he can land the harder blows — the vote on Iraq and perhaps his health care plan. The equivalent of tying up the other fighter by grasping them, this move helps him rest, eliminates the ability for him to get hurt, leaves him in control of the dialogue, and makes it virtually impossible for her to score any points.
Obama has the boxing wisdom as well. While never showing his opponents that he sweats, he has brilliantly mastered the well-tempered guise. He never shows weakness and never lets the others know he is hurt. He hides any anger or fury with a cool and even-tempered response. For those looking for cracks in the armor, Obama is unlikely to ever resort to the ear-biting antics of Tyson. To the contrary, he keeps his focus on the greater picture — the picture he is selling of himself as the cool, reasoned, thoughtful candidate acceptable precisely because he will not fluster in trying times. Notably, at the end of the CNN debate, when Clinton, out of nowhere, sprung her “I’m honored to be here with Barack” line, he went right at her with open hand to shake; a champion saying that once the fight is over, he will graciously restore his opponent’s dignity.
He also knows the judges well. Absent a knockout, a fight is ruled by decision. Just as Leonard would often rest to regain his strength in the first part of the round in order to pour it on at the end of each round (as that is what the judges would most remember), Obama picks and times his shots perfectly. Just as Leonard knew that rounds are won on a host of variables, not just how much “hurt” is foisted on the opponent, Obama wins debate points by focusing on style, humor, looking unflappable, rather than details and “being right”. He has left many of his opponents standing around wondering how they did so much while he buzzed in and out and stole the round. You only need to do and show enough to win — no more.
He invented his own form of “Rope-a-Dope,” going through much of the primary season sitting on the ropes without throwing much of anything with respect to details. He let Clinton and the others take their shots by outlining their plans. He then assessed those plans, adopted much of what some offered and threw few punches against them. He let the others burn themselves out; allowing them to fight straw men or each other while he simply advocated platitudes with which adoring fans could neither disagree nor reject. Having a limited history of Senate votes and national political actions, he leaves little open target area — much like Ali’s covering of his head and body while sitting back on intentionally loosened ropes allowed him to tire and frustrate the seeming shoe-in George Foreman.
Crowds influence a fight and he brilliantly modeled himself as the crowd-pleaser. Just as Ali and Leonard knew how to entertain and lead an audience, they each knew how to work their particulars. Many crowds love an underdog and given his heritage, Obama was positioned by the media as quite the underdog. Crowds, especially in boxing, love a long shot — as with Rocky — and Obama maneuvered equally well in that persona. And crowds love a fight story based around “hope” and well…
What also made the great fighters great was that greatness seemed to be there when they left the ring. There is a “cult” with personality here and it is a something that fits its time. Ali emerged in the civil rights era and symbolized for many all the struggles that were being grappled with. Ali showed the world that blacks had voices — very loud and unhampered voices — as well as courage and dignity and were just as capable as any white to stand up and fight for rights. He showed that the full spectrum of a black American’s personality had every right to be displayed.
While Leonard very much typified the pretty boy-media styled era of the 80’s, Mike Tyson (along with the resurrected George Foreman) brought back America’s vision of pure power. With the ability to step into a ring and annihilate an opponent, frequently before the end of the first round, Tyson re-invigorated American fantasy of its pre-Vietnam guilt, pre-Jimmy Carter days. Overlapping the Reagan era, Tyson’s imagery made beating the Soviet Union seem more than a one time Olympic hockey event. Here was power that did not care about anything — ring fashion, excessive verbiage, wasted battles — other than pure efficiency. We longed to feel our power again and Tyson helped us.
Obama has stirred himself into the pot of today’s popular fantasies as well. When much of America’s left believes that America has disgraced itself with its allies, fantasizes that even America’s enemies may cease to be such if only America changed its “evil Bush-Cheney” ways, rationalizes that America owes the rest of the world recompense for the Bush years, Obama is precisely the contender to satisfy these reveries. If America believes that the long hard slog with its enemies is too long and hard, and prefers to drop the fight, sit down, talk with its enemies, and take the best it can get, Obama is a good talker. If America is saying “Please love us again”, Obama can probably best land the knockout.
On the other hand, this is the presidency, not a boxing match. America had better be sure it is satisfying the right and proper fantasies before it elects someone to do so.