The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, March 19, 2014


How Obama Can Exploit His Own Weakness for a Long-Term Victory

Former boxing legend Muhammad Ali was a phenomenal combination of speed, power, and endurance in his youth – he could out-box, out-punch, and out-last any opponent.  His rise to the top was swift and unstoppable.  Alas, age takes its toll on even the greatest and eventually Ali began to lose aptitude in each category.  To stretch out his years as champion, Ali needed a new trick or technique to allow him to outlast younger opponents with less talent but more stamina.  Thus, the rope-a-dope became the trademark of Ali’s later career.

Ali would assume a protected stance, lying against the ropes, and allow opponents to pummel him, fighting back just enough to avoid the referee taking points.  The ropes’ elasticity absorbed most of the force of opponents’ blows.  Eventually, opponents would “punch themselves out.”  Then the rested Ali would suddenly explode, quickly hurting or finishing off the now tired and mistake-prone contenders.
Is a political version of  rope-a-dope
Obama’s best bet to deal with
Republicans on the ACA?

The technique was risky but brilliant.  Ali purposely put himself in what appeared to be a losing position with the aim of becoming the eventual victor.  It almost always worked.  Although Ali made the technique famous he was not the only, or even the first, boxer to employ it.  A fighter needs intelligence and patience to make the rope-a-dope work to his advantage.

If President Obama has anything in common with Ali, it is surely his rapid rise in national politics.  Also like Ali, Obama has been feared down for the count in his Presidency, only to rebound in popularity and influence.  Finally, he has repeatedly demonstrated endurance and imperturbability when dealing with opponents.

Now he finds himself on the ropes yet again over problems with the rollout of his signature legislative accomplishment – the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  Republicans just won a special House election in Florida using repeal of the law as their sole issue.  The Democratic challenger embraced rather than ran away from the ACA.

A recent Wall Street Journal editorial exults, “The mend-it-don't-end-it strategy now looks more perilous.”  I agree with this assessment.  Friends and advisors are warning the President that Democrats may lose control of the Senate.  I also agree this is very possible.

Obama and the Democrats will spend between now and November trying to punch their way out of trouble.  But supposing the unthinkable occurs and Obama faces the prospect of a Republican Congressional majority in his last two years, already lame duck territory for any sitting two-term President.  How does he come through these final rounds without looking completely bruised and defeated?

The answer may be a political form of the rope-a-dope.

Obama has some reason to believe he can play immovable object to the GOP’s irresistible force of repeal.  First, he believes the ACA has already received enough enrollments to achieve a kind of critical mass.  Writing in Forbes magazine, Bruce Japsen thinks he might be correct.  “Some experts seem to agree with Obama that enough have enrolled  . . . even though there could be up to two million fewer Americans covered than the White House had hoped . . . health insurance companies have said the enrollment is trending younger and there have been few surprises that would require them to pull out of the program.”

Moreover, Obama will retain veto power over any repeal votes and it is unlikely that even generous gains will give Congressional Republicans the ability to override him in both houses.

The unspoken question about the rope-a-dope strategy is why any opponent would possibly be willing to play along?  In the case of Ali, the chance to flatten the champ when he seemed weakest proved irresistible to challenger after challenger, even as they realized they were being played.  Given their acrimonious relationship over the past six years, Republicans in Congress seem equally unable to restrain themselves from attempting to land a fatal blow to Obama.

In many ways, they have been playing rope-a-dope themselves where health-care reform is concerned, allowing Obama and Democrats to own the issue entirely.  Discipline was relatively easy to maintain when any sign of compromise or cooperation with the President was seen as weakness by the conservative base.  Republicans have played a waiting game; sure that public discontent would eventually sweep them back into power.

Now that they sense a return to power is imminent, many on the right are suddenly arguing not for repeal but for gradual, modest reform that attempts to fix problems the ACA’s rollout has exposed.  Many of these are changes that Obama – although not necessarily Congressional Democrats – could probably live with.  Republican leaders feel safe to trot them out because they no longer look like compromise but rather mandates forced upon a weak President.  A smart and patient Obama might do well simply to lean against the ropes and take them, along with the commensurate GOP gloating.

With every body blow they (fail to) land, Republicans will be increasing their ownership in the ACA.  Simply by postponing repeal for two years, Obama’s rope-a-dope might be sufficient to entrench the new law as a permanent part of the social safety net, along with Medicaid and Social Security.

Obviously, Obama would probably prefer to fight from a position of strength.  Yet he has been trying that for six years now without showing the will or the power to land the final blow.  Republicans have generally erred in the past by underestimating Obama when he appears weakest.  Once they have him on the ropes, they may find they have the President exactly where he wants them.

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