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Wikipedia has this to say about the Japanese martial art known as aikido:

Aikido techniques are normally performed by "blending" with the motion of the attacker, rather than directly opposing the attack. The aikidoist redirects the attacker's momentum, using minimum effort....

The term aiki refers to the martial arts principle or tactic of blending with an attacker's movements for the purpose of controlling their actions with minimal effort. One applies aiki by understanding the rhythm and intent of the attacker to find the optimal position and timing to apply a counter-technique. Historically, aiki was mastered for the purpose of killing; however, in aikido, one seeks to neutralise an aggressor without causing harm. The founder of aikido declared, "To control aggression without inflicting injury is the Art of Peace."

What do eastern mysticism and fighting styles have to do with Barack Obama?  I submit that the "Obama way of politics" bears many similarities to aikido.  

Obama's signature political style is to build the largest possible coalition -- a coalition often including some of his ostensible opponents -- in order to make his goals more achievable:

I want to push the envelope but make sure I have enough folks with me that I'm not rendered politically impotent.

This attempt to appeal to a broad public is sometimes mistaken by highly partisan progressives (a description which has been known to be applicable to myself, at times) for either weakness, or a lack of principles.  We have seen far too many Democrats who are unsure of what they stand for, and/or are easily intimidated by Republican bullying and manipulation.

Hearing Obama talk about reaching out to Republicans naturally makes many of us fear that he's another spineless, rudderless DLC Democrat.  But if you pay attention to how he works, you start to notice that this description really doesn't apply.  As I wrote previously:

Something important to note about his work with Republicans: It is not the all-too-familiar DLC model of endless triangulation and surrender.  Instead, Obama seems to form working relationships on particular issues with Republicans who hold moderate views (at least on the issue in question).  In other words, he builds issue-specific coalitions across the aisle, rather than selling our party out in the name of "compromise".  If anyone should be mad about this, it's the GOP -- because he seems to be very good at peeling off the moderates from the hard-core conservatives!

Obama's style is to harness external forces -- including the energy of his opponents -- and redirect those forces toward his goals, instead of directly and confrontationally attempting to use blunt force.

Below are three diverse examples.

Obama is generally confident in his views, yet not overtly combative.  Again, having seen too many wimpy Dems afraid of their own shadows, we may easily mistake a lack of fiery rhetoric for weakness.  But while not aggressive in his presentation, Obama rarely backs down from a position once he's staked it out.  Consider the brouhaha last summer after he said that we should be willing to talk to our enemies without preconditions.  The "foreign policy establishment" ridiculed him as hopelessly naive... but he stuck to his guns.  

And gradually people started giving his position a fair hearing.  Now Hillary Clinton is co-opting some of his rhetoric about the need for diplomacy (while still trying, with little success, to suggest that his openness to dialogue is a mistake).

From where I sit, Obama's willingness to engage in  unconditional dialogue with our enemies is one form of controlling aggression without inflicting injury -- in aikido terms, the Art of Peace.  And his continued, quiet certainty about this viewpoint -- which has increasingly become part of the conventional wisdom -- demonstrates that he can effectively withstand and counter political attacks without either backing down or becoming an aggressor himself.

Now let's look at another recent situation from the primary campaign.  Last month, Obama was faced with a barrage of sharp and, in some cases, racially tinged comments from Bill Clinton and other surrogates for Hillary.  But at a certain point, the wind suddenly seemed to shift, and the role of Bill Clinton in his wife's campaign became the focus of public scrutiny.  

I see two moves by Obama himself as being key in helping to cause this shift.  First, of course, he directly brought up the subject of Bill's role during the South Carolina debate.  But he also did something more subtle, when he made this comment:

I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.

Obama's remarks about Reagan and the Republican party (which, again, he has politely but firmly refused to back down from) contained an allusion to Bill Clinton that looked almost like a throwaway line.  I contend that it was very much an intentional provocation aimed at the Clintons -- and it worked exactly as Obama intended.

Both Clintons came out swinging against Obama's comments:

Hillary Clinton: "My leading opponent the other day said that he thought the Republicans had better ideas than Democrats the last 10 to 15 years. That's not the way I remember the last 10 to 15 years." ...

Bill Clinton, speaking of his wife: "Her principal opponent said that since 1992, the Republicans have had all the good ideas. I can't imagine any Democrat seeking the presidency would say they were the party of new ideas for the last 15 years. But it sounded good in Reno, I guess.... So now it turns out you can choose between somebody who thinks our ideas are better or the Republicans had all the good ideas."

Given that Obama's remarks were actually far more benign than the caricatured versions presented by the Clintons, Bill and Hill came off looking petty, extreme, and hypocritical, enforcing a shrill and self-serving political orthodoxy.

Since that final moment of overreach, attack dog Bill has been pretty much kept on a leash.  Obama understood the rhythm and intent of his attacker, and found the optimal position and timing to apply a counter-technique.  Touché.

My final observation about Obama's style of political aikido concerns the issue of health care mandates.

There's been much ruckus about the fact that the Obama health care plan doesn't seem to mandate that people carry health insurance, while Clinton's plan does.  Upon close examination, the difference between the plans may be less than meets the eye:

Take a closer look and even the candidates' positions on mandates aren't all that different. John Edwards has proposed to automatically enroll people in health insurance on their tax returns, but has said this mandate won't apply until premiums are affordable. Hillary Clinton says she favors mandates, but isn't sure there should be a penalty for noncompliance. Barack Obama favors an immediate mandate for children, but doesn't include one for adults. He says he's willing to revisit the issue after making health insurance more affordable and enrollment easier, and is also considering an automatic enrollment with an opt-out for those who don't want to be included.

As a practical matter, the difference between Sen. Clinton's and Sen. Obama's approaches come down to timing and sequencing. Mrs. Clinton wants a mandate first, believing that enrolling the younger and healthier will help reduce costs for everyone else. Mr. Obama thinks forcing people to buy health insurance before it's affordable isn't realistic. He wants to lower health costs first, and is willing to consider a mandate only if necessary.

Robert Reich's analysis makes sense to me -- mandating the purchase of insurance if it's not affordable is putting the cart before the horse.  But I suspect there's another reason that Obama has chosen not to emphasize mandates in his plan.

He has said that he'd be willing to eventually try mandates if young, healthy adults aren't signing up for his system in sufficient numbers to make the cost structure work. And let's be honest: the cost structure probably won't work nearly as well without a large portion of those folks in the risk pool.  

But firstly, we don't actually know if health insurance mandates really can bring about universal coverage.  Secondly, do you remember the years of Republican demagoguery on the "death tax"?  Only a tiny minority of the wealthiest Americans ever actually pay the estate tax.  Yet millions more have been falsely scared into thinking that it might affect them.  

Even if most Americans would not be subject to mandates -- because they'd already have health care, or would voluntarily enroll in it once it was available and affordable -- opponents of the plan could easily create fear, uncertainty and doubt over this issue, and torpedo the entire initiative.

Obama's approach is to instead move most of the country into the new health care system as painlessly as possible, with carrots rather than sticks.  Only then, when the majority of the public is on board and sees that it's nothing to be afraid of, will he -- if necessary -- apply pressure to the minority of holdouts.  

And most likely, much of the public and the punditocracy will be behind him -- in fact, they may be clamoring for a mandate by that time.  When, say, 85% of the public is already inside the Obama system, there will be plenty of support for getting the other 15% into it.  He will have the optimal position and timing to make truly universal health care happen -- and the insurance companies, HMOs, and Big Pharma will not be able to stop it.

This, at least, is my read of Obama's approach to the issue.

Perhaps my extended aikido metaphor is a stretch.  Perhaps I'm totally over-idealizing Obama's strategic brilliance.  But I do see in him an ability to skillfully harness external forces, instead of attempting to push through change on his own, that defines his style, and that makes him a unique political figure at this juncture in American history.

(Disclaimer: I dabbled in martial arts a bit in college, but not specifically aikido.  I am only familiar with aikido on a philosophical level, but I find its principles appealing.)

Have a great Super Tuesday!  VOTE HOPE!

Originally posted to MaximusNYC on Mon Feb 04, 2008 at 07:45 PM PST.


The essence of Obama's political style is:

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