Michael KreponListon vs. Ali

Two visuals dominated the inner sanctum of Barack Obama’s Senate office in the Hart Building. One was a life-sized oil portrait of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. The other was a huge blow up of Neil Leifer’s famous ring-side photograph of Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston during their 1965 championship rematch in (of all places) Lewiston, Maine. Liston, a menacing figure with a shady past, was decked by a punch that didn’t seem that powerful. Ali stood over his fallen foe, challenging him to get up and fight. For good measure, Senator Obama showcased a pair of bright red boxing gloves signed by Muhammad Ali near his desk.

Offices say a lot about a person, and I have taken comfort from the core values reflected in Senator Obama’s inner sanctum. The man who taught constitutional law, who speaks reasonably and yet eloquently, has taken many punches growing up and has come up off the mat. He has good reasons to avoid hostilities, but he has competitive fire and tenacity. Barack Obama isn’t an accidental tourist in the White House.

The President negotiated poorly and was taken to the cleaners by Republicans in the Congress over the debt ceiling. He secured no added revenue from the one percent of U.S. households that hold 35 percent of privately owned wealth, while agreeing to painful budget cuts that will fall on people who are already hurting. During this elongated, belittling, hostage-taking spectacle, President Obama did not float like a butterfly or sting like a bee. He couldn’t rise above this fray. Nor did he play hardball. Occasional and belated speeches are insufficient to frame the terms of debate or to embarrass opponents for their most indefensible positions. (Also true, needless to say, for battles over arms control.) Playing rope-a-dope in this championship match did not wear out the Republican rank-and-file and their leaders on Capitol Hill. President Obama wound up on the canvas.

I’m not counting the President out. I trust that the trappings of the White House will not blunt his powers of introspection. I expect the President to be true to his wall hangings, to remember who he is, and how he got to the Oval Office – by fire as well as by tenacity and eloquence. He’ll need all three – especially the first – to be worthy of the heavyweight challenges he inherited.


  1. joshua (History)


    Interesting choice of metaphor. There might even be an arms control connection. The President’s basically conciliatory approach may have helped win New START ratification in 2010, which in turn may have helped to confirm him in that outlook. But he was working with the Senate and needed a supermajority, after all; there was no route to success without appealing to Republicans. Whether such an approach made much sense in dealing with the House in 2011 is another question entirely.

    But now we are drifting away from our main topic here.

  2. MK (History)

    Drift away.

  3. Scott Monje (History)

    Focusing on the structure of the bargaining situation, James Fearon questions how Obama could have been expected to do better in the debt-ceiling negotiations.


    Perhaps negotiations will turn out differently at the end of 2012, when a failure to come to come to agreement would mean the expiration of the Bush tax cuts.

  4. Don (History)

    This is why ACW is one of my daily stops on the interwebs. Thanks for the insight!