Obama and the Art of Wu Wei

I keep hearing pundits say that McCain won the three debates “on points” but that Obama won “on style.” I think these guys were watching a different sports event from the one I watched.

The “on points” pundits were scoring a boxing match. McCain was more aggressive. He landed punches. He got in zingers. Last night Pat Buchanan compared Obama to a boxer in the late rounds who was sitting on a lead (doesn’t that mean he was ahead “on points”?) and was dancing around to avoid being knocked out while he ran out the clock.

What I watched was more like kung fu. In the martial arts, aggression for the sake of aggression is more likely to work against you than with you. The master knows how to use his opponent’s energy against him. He lets the more unskilled fighter beat himself.

Martial arts masters employ the principle of wu wei — the action of non-action. This sounds like passivity — it often looks like passivity — but it is the art of channeling the flow of energy around you to accomplish a task or defeat an opponent. Put another way, it is the art of letting action act itself, or letting movement move itself, while you go with the flow.

It’s also the art of knowing when not to act. If your opponent is beating himself up, don’t get in his way.

Those who think Barack Obama should have been more aggressive in his debates with McCain are, IMO, entirely wrong. If Obama had been more aggressive, he risked seeming angry or mean and giving McCain sympathy points. Instead, Obama masterfully let McCain beat himself and didn’t get in the way.

McCain, IMO, lost the debate when he got stuck in whiny, petulant mode and wouldn’t let go of statements by Congressman John Lewis — which were not spelled out in the debate, and I doubt most viewers had any idea what McCain was talking about — and Bill Ayers. Obama actually gave McCain several opportunities to drop the subject, and McCain would not. For that entire sequence McCain was, in effect, punching himself in the face, while Obama stood aside and let him do it.

This was skillful. It also took discipline — a lesser debater would have interrupted McCain to defend himself more forcefully, and I’m sure that’s what Pat Buchanan et al. thought Obama was supposed to do. But Buchanan and McCain are old-style Irish pugilists who stand straight up and punch away. Obama was in crouching tiger, hidden dragon mode.


I was struck by the pundits’ reactions to the abortion section of the debate. Granted, I was mostly watching MSNBC — sometimes flipping over to CNN — and I realize reactions may have been different elsewhere. But pundits I saw were shaking their heads over this part of McCain’s argument:

MCCAIN: Just again, the example of the eloquence of Senator Obama. He’s health for the mother. You know, that’s been stretched by the pro-abortion movement in America to mean almost anything.

That’s the extreme pro-abortion position, quote, “health.” But, look, Cindy and I are adoptive parents. We know what a treasure and joy it is to have an adopted child in our lives. We’ll do everything we can to improve adoption in this country.

McCain spoke of women’s health with a sneer on his face. He made “air quotation marks” around the word “health,” as if the mother’s health concerns were some kind of joke. He can’t stop whining about what John Lewis said about him, but women facing health complications in their pregnancies are just supposed to suck it up.

I realize the “criminalize abortion” movement routinely argues that “health of the mother” can mean a bad hair day, but in the real world pregnancies — including planned and wanted pregnancies — don’t always go well. I think most adults understand that. And most of the post-debate commentary I saw criticized McCain for the “health” comment.

Four years ago, in the Kerry-Bush debates, Bush had a simple message on abortion — he was against it. Poor Kerry had to put together more than two sentences to explain his position — that he opposed it personally but didn’t intend to impose his views on others. The post-debate commenters — including Andrea Mitchell, as I recall — said of this that Kerry doesn’t know how to talk about abortion. (What the hell was he supposed to say? “I’m for it”?)

But now it’s the Republican who doesn’t know how to talk about abortion. Times, I believe, have changed.

And I’m sure you enjoyed this bit —

MCCAIN: I would consider anyone in their qualifications. I do not believe that someone who has supported Roe v. Wade that would be part of those qualifications. But I certainly would not impose any litmus test

Um, dude? You just imposed a litmus test.

16 thoughts on “Obama and the Art of Wu Wei

  1. Good analysis, Maha.
    I just realized that last night’s debate was the only time I’ve willingly sat and watched a nasty man perform on television.

    Since our “health” is such a joke to McCain, I can’t help wondering just when his quote/unquote health records will be posted online as he’s so fired up about that for us all.

  2. My take also. I couldn’t believe the stuff McCain was saying about abortion. Also the way he harped on Ayers. I think all of this was for his base, who were probably on the edge of their seats, waiting for blood to be spilt. I don’t think he personally cares very much one way or the other about this stuff.

    I sense that McCain knows it’s over, and this aggressive stance is to stem his party’s losses.

  3. The master showed his skill by ensuring that McCain would talk about Ayers, giving him the opportunity to calmly explain what the facts were, complete with name-dropping St. Ronnie on the way to Annenberg, and making the whole charge seem just as silly as it is. And then McCain wouldn’t let it go!!

    Obama arranged a perfect example of McCain being out of touch, and stubbornly focussed on stuff that doesn’t matter. He used McCain’s attack against him, and fulfilled the adage “Show, don’t tell.”

    Skillful, master Obama is.

  4. Excellent analogy for Obama’s stillness during all three debates. There’s an old saying– I don’t know the origin, sorry:

    There are those who listen, and those who wait to talk.

    Obama listened. No matter how badly McCain rambled, no matter how off-base or inflammatory his remarks, Obama looked at him, listened to him, processed what he was saying, and then responded.

    Sometimes, McCain seemed as stuck in his own groove during the debates as Palin was in hers. The moderator’s questions were irrelevant; the opponent’s statements were irrelevant; the only thing that mattered was the happy shiny fake Disneyland in McCain or Palin’s head.

    I agree that we have no reason to expect a landslide victory, but I do think the presidential election is well and truly over. Now we need to pick up a solid majority in the Senate, so we can effectively work to clean up the GOP’s messes.

  5. Barbara, you summarized almost all the moments that I came out of my chair, yelling at the TV. But there was one more with me. I had No Earthly Idea that ACORN was a threat to the entire fabric of democracy on the planet. Wow. That was an incredible charge, and if you had not been following the issue in the blogs, you would have gotten nothing at this debate – he just dropped the line and ran on.

    He was supposed to attack Obama on his associations, and he did that. But it was an incredibly undisciplined attack, pretty much in keeping with his undisciplined campaign.

  6. Wu Wei is probably a better analogy than the one I was using, which was “rope a dope”. Obama didn’t suddenly explode and throw a knockout punch in the tenth round, he just looked better than his opponent. And not just better in the sense of more skilled, better in the sense of above, which I think was exactly what he was looking for.

    But I’m quite sure that Obama was hoping McCain would start with Ayers and ACORN, rope-a-dope is more fun to say. So, nyah.

  7. You are right about Obama’s debating style, he is very like a martial arts master. I studied martial arts for ten years and the ‘soft’ techniques – e.g. brushing an oncoming punch out of the way and stepping aside, or sweeping out one of your opponent’s feet to throw him/her off balance – are often far more effective (and less harmful to you) than meeting force with force. I understand that some people want the emotional release that would come from Obama getting more aggressive with McCain, but that’s plainly not his style and that’s a good thing. After 8 years of the Coward of Crawford’s childish “bring it on” belligerence, a contemplative sifu who knows better than to strike first is a welcome change and a perfect contrast for McCain’s undisciplined Bush-like aggression and petulance.

  8. I picture Obama and McCain kind of like Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, with Bugs (Obama) just holding out an arm while Elmer Fudd (McCain, obvs) swings wildly but doesn’t get any hits in.

    It was kind of interesting to watch CNN’s squiggly lines. As soon as McCain opened his mouth on the Roe v. Wade question, the orange line representing the women nosedived. (Nosedove?) And then Chris Matthews, of all people, went on and on in the post-game show about how badly that remark about health would be interpreted by the American public.

    But, yeah, from a debate perspective, it seems to me that Obama actually, you know, answered questions and picked apart McCain’s points, but McCain was aggressive and made snarky comments. How does that make McCain the winner on substance?

  9. great analogy, maha. (long time reader, seldom commenter here) The sneering response about the health of the mother hit me hard in the gut.

    I thought the other completely tone-deaf meme McCain was spitting out was his accusation of “spreading the wealth.” I wonder how many other Americans besides me think that “spreading the wealth” sounds like a pretty darn good idea these days.

    McCain is so wrapped up in his 1980s rhetoric that he doesn’t see that the boogiemen that worked so well for St Ronnie have lost a lot of punch after decades of republican economic policies and misrule.

  10. I think the problem with Obama’s debating style in regard to the Ayers remarks was that for Obama to be effective, a reliance on the intelligence of the American public is necessary. And at that point my confidence in being secure to have carried the issue would be greatly shaken.

    Personally I would have confronted MCain to speak out exactly what he was trying to say or imply. Vague assertions and innuendo is a cowardly act in communications, and Obama should have pinned him down to his ultimate goal of establishing Obama as a terrorist who can’t be trusted by the American people. When the truth has to be disguised among a bunch of verbal clutter and abstract possiblities, you can pretty much be assured you’re not hearing the truth.. but you’re hearing a lie.

  11. I wonder if Obama was up on the rumor that “Joe the Plumber” is a registered republican who operates without a plumbing license.

  12. Ditto on the martial arts analogy … for weeks, I’ve been thinking the same thing … Remember at the end of the first Maxtrix movie? Neo gets shot, the agents think he’s dead, but he rises; an agent charges and starts wailing away, but Neo blocks it all with one hand moving in slow motion all the while seeming bored and distracted. That’s been the O man’s debating style.

  13. gypsy howell – so glad that someone else thought spreading the wealth is a pretty good idea.

    erin – you thought of Elmer and Bugs and I thought of Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner.

    joanr 16 – I too had trouble following McCain as he rambled in and out of the Bush’s. My lawyer daughter’s, with whom I watched last night, final comment was something like well he’s (McCain) certainly not a critical thinker.

  14. Swami, #10,

    Thing is, Obama has based his entire campaign, since day one, on the intelligence of the American public, and he’s winning. And winning big.

    If nothing else, this election has actually restored a little bit of my faith in humanity.

    Not a lot, you understand, but some.


  15. I have sat and listened carefuly to the few debate snippets we have been privy to over here across the pond , and to be honnest the thought that McCain and Palin might get into the whitehouse is frightening . I dont suppose it is new to you that people around the world consider Americans to be brash and boisterous , however since seeing the composure of Mr Obama and his abillity to keep calm in the face of obvious racial and ethnic slurrs he remained every inch a statesman and a gentleman .
    He seems to have what most of your politicians and ours have lacked for a number of years common sense and decency , he wasn’t going to get pulled into a slanging match with Mccain he is better than that . Instead as you and readers have pointed out he allowed the man to hang himself with his own retaric and swing gentley in the wind of his own making .
    I dont know if many of you would agree but he reminds me of another of your politicians from the 60s , fair , resolved , steadfast in his beliefs , and a man that would not back down from any unjustified adversiary . I think most of you know who I am talking about .. he used to run a Naval P-boat with the same courage and audacity ,and I wonder what the world today would have been had his time in this world been longer . I seriously think that a man like McCain is the last thing the world needs in a seat of such immense power , he appears to be too exsplosive and undisciplined . From what I have heard here in this country the vast majority believe that a radical change is due in the Whitehouse and that Obama is tha needed change ..

  16. Style counts in debates. No arging with that. Indeed, style probably counts more than points. However. the pundit claim that this pol or that won on points is uusually bogus because pundits dom’t distiguish between valid debatig poits and zingers. In the pundit view whoever gets off the most zingers is the one who won on points, even if the zingers were falsehoods, even if the zingers were subastnce free, even if the zingers were just rhetorical tricks, ie; an aspect of style.

    The only way to evaluae the subsgtance of a debate is to judge who actually gav e acurate information in response to the wuestions and whose accurate answers seemed to be the best when considered against background knowledg of current events.

    The only people who evaluate debates that way are some of uws obsessed left bloggers.

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