Kung Fu, and the Presidency of Barack Obama

Back when President Obama was Candidate Obama one of his most commented on talents was his style of dealing with seemingly impossible political situations.
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"In combat, spontaneity rules; rote performance of technique perishes." -- Bruce Lee

Back when President Obama was Candidate Obama one of his most commented on talents was his style of dealing with seemingly impossible political situations. Turning negatives into positives, political traps into triumphs, pundits called it mojo, Birthers called it Voodoo. Many called it brilliant. But a few called it what it was -- Kung Fu.

Kung Fu is all about deflection, about using your opponents momentum against them, turning that defense seamlessly into attack. It's coaxing your opponent into attacking, slipping to the side, tripping them as they pass, and giving them a quick smack on the head for good measure. But most importantly to master Kung Fu you must be unpredictable.

"A martial artist who drills exclusively to a set pattern of combat is losing his freedom. He is actually becoming a slave to a choice..." -- Bruce Lee


"A guy named Hussein is running for President!"

Typical politician reaction:

Verbal attacks on muslims, and a promise to bomb something.

Kung Fu:

"That I have a chance to run for the highest office in this nation proves how great a country this is! And that so many people of different backgrounds support me shows how far we have all come in our understanding of what it means to be an American..."

"When my opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand."-- Bruce Lee

Attack: "He got a racist preacher!"

Typical politician reaction:

Throw preacher under the bus, deny existence of racism in America.

Kung Fu:

"I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother."


"Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze - a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many."

"The highest technique is to have no technique. My technique is a result of your technique; my movement is a result of your movement." -- Bruce Lee

Obama's Kung Fu was strong. While his opponents kept attacking the same old way, relying on him to respond the same old way, he deflected their attacks, used their weight and momentum against them, and before they knew it they were on their backs, gasping and confused.


"Pull the troops out of Iraq? He wants to surrender to the terrorists!"


"Our mission in Iraq is over, and we must not shed any more of our children's, father's or mother's precious blood there. We must focus on where those who actually attacked us still are."

This was the Kung Fu Master people voted for, and we were crowding the arena to see him kick conservative butt just like Bruce Lee did to that dude with the face scar in Enter the Dragon! Sensei Obama was going to flip, clip, dip, dazzle and finally change Washington into a place where the People, not the evil business lobbyists, control the Nunchucks of Power!

"Be like water..."-- Bruce Lee

But when this Dragon finally did Enter Washington, there was something suddenly not so martial about his art. Suddenly he seemed as yielding as water. "Water can yield, it can also crash!" said Bruce Lee. Great! But where was the crash? Once in office Obama seemed to be the one doing all the contracting, while his opponents were expanding like toads! To please critics he fired supporters and took advisors who disagreed with his stated opinions. He adopted policies he'd attacked months earlier. Bankers got bonuses, homeowners got shafted, Wall Street got bailed out, Main Street got left out, nobody got a Public Option, and Guantanamo... well, it's still open for business.

Some said he was unprepared for the office, others that he was bidding his time (waiting for the right moment to unleash his awesomeness) Others said he had to make decisions based on new political realities. Some simply said he lost his mojo. But I think it was much worse, much more fundamental. I think he lost his dojo.

"One should not respond to circumstance with artificial and "wooden" prearrangement. Your action should be like the immediacy of a shadow adapting to its moving object." -- Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee always said that if your Kung Fu becomes predictable, you will lose -- and Obama's Kung Fu became exactly that. Despite his willingness to deal with difficult problems, he had a weakness which allowed his opponents to dictate his reaction, make him predictable, and ultimately defeatable. And the weakness is that Barack Obama desperately needs to be seen as fair, above the political fray, as not using his power to stifle or oppress his opponents. Once those opponents realized that an accusation of partisanship would incite a predictable shift on the President's part toward bipartisanship, that they could easily maneuver into a position where compromise became his goal rather than winning, they had him.

And that was that. His Kung Fu was negated, because he was easily coaxed into a predictable response. Simply accuse Obama of being too partisan, of not being willing to work with you, and he will sacrifice his strategic advantage and cut himself off from his allies to prove he is willing to compromise. Now, compromise is an important option in every fight - you might be evenly matched and have to reach an understanding. But Obama became defeatable when the mere accusation of his not being willing to compromise meant he would have a predictable, automatic response. All it takes is a loud "You're trying to pass this over the will of the Minority" as we heard in the recent extension of the Bush Tax cuts for the wealthy, and before the fight begins White House compromise becomes the deal of the day. Obama's Kung Fu was beaten.

"If you always put limit on everything you do, physical or anything else, it will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them."
-- Bruce Lee

At the end of Enter the Dragon Bruce Lee is fighting against that freaky guy with the swapable metal weapon hands in a hall of mirrors, the two of them hunting each other through the narrow passages, with Lee punching at reflections. Obama is also caught in a hall of mirrors, with his enemy coming at him from all directions. But when Obama looks in the mirrors he sees himself in a fighting stance, rejects that image of himself, and lowers his fists. And each time he does he gets punched or kicked again. In a trap created by his enemy he has decided that the most important thing to do is not reflect the posture of someone willing to fight. Ultimately Bruce Lee defeats his enemy by making the unpredictable choice -- he smashes the mirrors, reveals the true location of Kung Fu Cap'n Hook, and kicks him into a conveniently placed spear. And if Barack Obama is going to regain his Kung Fu mastery he must first recognize that his technique is being used to manipulate him, then smash the mirrors that are confusing him so he can concentrate on his actual opponents. He cannot wait for some perfect circumstance where his own fighting can't be used against him. He must fight to win. Is that possible? I don't know, but I do know we cannot wait any longer.

"To hell with circumstances; I create opportunities."
-- Bruce Lee

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