Friday, October 17, 2008

Cool We Can Believe In: The Political Artistry of Barack Obama

"Float like a butterfly/sting like a bee"
--Muhammad Ali


One of the things that I most admire and respect about Barack politically is his consummate ability to stay cool, focused, and disciplined no matter what the external circumstances happen to be. Like one of his major idols--Muhammad Ali--Obama has the poise, shrewdness, insight, and self confidence to realize that one's own vision and agenda (and thus behavior) is not dependent on what one's opposition says or does, but is established and carried out by one's own disciplined adherence to those ideas and values that one is independently motivated by. It's an important and fundamental political lesson that many progressives and radicals could and should learn from no matter what they may otherwise think of Obama or his politics...


October 16, 2008

Staying Cool and Irritating Your Opponent
New York Times

From Bill Clinton to John McCain, Senator Barack Obama has proved adept at driving very smart politicians out of their comfort zone, leading them to make comments or embrace tactics that end up backfiring.

Maybe it was one tsk-tsk too much, but at Wednesday night’s debate, something seemed to snap inside Senator McCain after listening to Senator Obama’s cool, high-minded lecture about inappropriate conduct at Republican rallies.

“What is important is making sure that we disagree without being disagreeable,” the 47-year-old freshman Democrat told the 72-year-old four-term Republican. “What we can’t do, I think, is try to characterize each other as bad people.”

Mr. McCain, who had appeared composed and confident up to that point, responded by veering into heated denouncements of Mr. Obama’s loose ties to Bill Ayers, the former Weather Underground leader, and the community organizing group Acorn, which has been accused of voter fraud. Mr. McCain did not explain what Acorn was, probably confusing many viewers, and he never regained control of the debate.

“All of these things need to be examined,” Mr. McCain said about Mr. Ayers and Acorn.

To which Mr. Obama delivered a final hit that reflected that many Americans are more concerned with the economy than with Bill Ayers.

“I think the fact that this has become such an important part of your campaign, Senator McCain, says more about your campaign than it says about me,” Mr. Obama said.

While Mr. Obama is known for giving stirring speeches before stadium-sized crowds, less recognized is his shrewd oratory against his opponents. He has been able to turn a relative weakness — his inexperience in government and politics — into a strength: Messrs. Clinton and McCain and their aides have held Mr. Obama in low regard at times, seeing him as an untested upstart, and so his easy-going manner and ongoing success have unsettled them that much more.

“Never let ‘em see you sweat: Barack Obama has mastered that concept, and it has thrown off political opponents for the past 20 months,” said William O’Reilly, a Republican political consultant in New York. “It prevented John McCain from knowing when he was scoring points last night. McCain needs to trust his instincts. Senator Obama will never look wounded, but that doesn’t mean he’s invulnerable.”

The Clintons came to believe that during the Democratic nomination fight, their advisers say, but it did not stop Mr. Clinton from lapsing into some undisciplined behavior.

Mr. Obama spent 2007 and the winter of 2008 getting under Mr. Clinton’s skin, prompting any number of missteps by a former president who is regarded as a master of politics. Mr. Obama repeated so often that he had been against the Iraq war from the start — unlike Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, his rival for the Democratic nomination — that Mr. Clinton finally let loose in New Hampshire with a rant that the Clinton campaign had not authorized, about how Mr. Obama’s claims were a “fairy tale.”

Many Democrats were disgusted with the remark, including many black voters who supported Mr. Clinton but were offended that he would challenge the narrative of one of their own. Soon after, Mr. Clinton started attacking Mr. Obama in South Carolina — again, to the Clinton camp’s dismay. Mr. Clinton said it was “understandable” that people would vote along race and gender lines — a comment that some voters said was condescending — and he said that Mr. Obama had “put out a hit job on me” once.

After Mr. Obama won the South Carolina primary in a landslide, Mr. Clinton compared the victory to Jesse Jackson’s wins there in 1984 and 1988 — the last straw for some Democrats and black voters, who said Mr. Clinton was belittling Mr. Obama in a patently racial context. Mr. Clinton has adamantly denied doing so.

The fact is, Mr. Obama probably won points with voters by keeping his cool throughout the various Clinton episodes. And there is no question that he goaded Mr. Clinton and his wife’s campaign into making some questionable tactical moves, such as going to war with some reporters and media outlets. At times it seemed like Mrs. Clinton was the only one keeping her cool in her camp.

Had Mrs. Clinton won the nomination, she planned to run against Mr. McCain with a similar strategy that Mr. Obama has pursued: Portraying the Republican nominee as a like-minded handmaiden to President Bush. But one could easily suggest that Mr. Obama is getting under Mr. McCain’s skin with this argument more than Mrs. Clinton would have; Mr. McCain respects Mrs. Clinton quite a bit, while he could barely bring himself to look Mr. Obama in the eyes or treat him with any deference in their first two debates.

Mr. Obama’s pokes, indeed, have had the effect of drawing patronizing comments from Mr. McCain. In May, for instance, Mr. Obama taunted Mr. McCain for his lack of support on a veterans’ benefit bill in the Senate, causing Mr. McCain to invoke his and others’ military service compared to Mr. Obama’s — something the Republican candidate had indicated he would not do.

“I will not accept from Senator Obama, who did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform, any lectures on my regard for those who did,” Mr. McCain said in a statement.

On Wednesday night, Mr. McCain also “categorically” defended the people at his rallies after Mr. Obama mentioned the nasty comments by a few. Mr. McCain said that people who have used harsh language -- one news report said one person yelled “kill him,” referring to Mr. Obama, at a Florida rally -- were among the “fringe people” who come to any huge rally. Then he turned to Mr. Ayers and Acorn and Mr. Obama’s work was done.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company