New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman published an op-ed comparing Preident Obama to Tiger Woods. His thesis is that both men are natural winners, but external events have caused each to lose his swing.
Friedman is mistaken. Obama isn’t Tiger; he’s LeBron. He even said so. At the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama remarked, “I’m LeBron, baby. I can play on this level. I got some game.”
Consider the parallels. Both are remarkably gifted, precocious, African-American men. Both were raised by single mothers. Both had their oversized talents recognized at almost unbelievably young ages. Both tasted the success that predicts future triumph quite young. LeBron James did so by winning back-to-back state titles while in high school. Barack Obama graduated from Columbia University and matriculated at Harvard Law School.
Both were feted with accolades before any real prize had been won or goal accomplished. LeBron was nicknamed “King James” while still just a child. Obama was elected president of the Harvard Law Review, where not one item would appear listing him as author. Both started their professional lives at low rungs. LeBron was selected with the first pick of the 2003 draft by the perennially underperforming Cleveland Cavaliers. Obama settled in Chicago as a community organizer and lecturer. Both progressed rapidly, earning the adulation of their peers. LeBron was named Rookie of the Year in his first season and an All-Star the next. He was later named youngest ever league MVP in 2006. Obama was elected to the state senate only 5 years after arriving in Chicago and was running for the U.S. Senate by 2004, giving the keynote address at that year’s Democratic National Convention.
Both men have fallen prey to the trap of heightened expectations. Obama said upon his winning the Democratic nomination that “this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on earth.” LeBron was merely the guest of honor at a rally in Miami where he assured Heat fans that he would bring them “not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven championships. [meaning eight] And when I say that, I really believe it.”
The most compelling part of the Barack Obama–LeBron James comparison is the baffling way each wilts when the lights are brightest and the stakes highest. LeBron has now appeared in two championship series (2007, 2011) and an Eastern Conference finals (2010), where he played poorly and shrank whenever the game was tight in the fourth quarter. LeBron didn’t want the ball and played hot potato whenever the ball found its way to him. Similarly, Obama is said to be “leading from behind” when he dishes off health-care reform and negotiating the debt-ceiling agreement to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. Obama has passed responsibility for Gitmo policy and trials for terror suspects to Eric Holder, his attorney general. The buck has been passed to NATO for our military presence in Libya. At each crisis, Barack Obama hasn’t wanted to take responsibility for a decision, so he relied on his teammates in his cabinet and Congress to carry him.
This is another problem with Friedman’s comparison. Politics, like basketball, is a team sport. The president isn’t playing against a single opponent. Interactions with teammates matter. As in basketball, a balance must be struck between individual performance and the needs of the team. Just as LeBron passing repeatedly in the Finals hurt his team’s chances for a championship, Obama’s failure to strike a grand bargain hurt his teammates Reid and Pelosi and made their roles harder.
Consider this quote from the 2011 Finals about LeBron by Bill Simmons, ESPN columnist.
If you watched Games 3 and 4 in person, you knew Miami belonged to Dwayne Wade. That was the hardest thing to shake. We made so much fuss about LeBron and he’s not even the most important dude on his own team. Maybe he realized that, once and for all, during Game 3. Maybe that’s why he wanted to sign with Miami in the first place; maybe he didn’t want his own team. Maybe Wayne ’s Game 3 tirade affected him spiritually, broke him down, made him question himself. Maybe he’s more exhausted than he’s letting on. Maybe 13 months of intense scrutiny is finally starting to break him.
Now try it with a few tweaks. “If you watched Health Care Reform pass, you knew it belonged to Nancy Pelosi. That was the hardest thing to shake. We made so much fuss about Obama and he’s not even the most important dude in his own party. Maybe he realized that, once and for all, during the debt-ceiling debacle. Maybe the 2010 midterms affected him spiritually, broke him down, made him question himself. Maybe he’s more exhausted than he’s letting on. Maybe 13 months of Tea Party noise is finally starting to break him.” Doesn’t that sound like so many of the op-eds since the debt ceiling bargain was stuck?
Even their greatest triumphs are linked. In the 2011 Eastern Conference semifinals against the Celtics, LeBron James was magnificent. He averaged 28 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. He finally vanquished the Celtics, who had thwarted him so often throughout the years. Obama silenced critics of his own, who said he would be soft on terror, by ordering the Navy Seals to raid a compound in Pakistan and kill Osama bin Laden. The strangest part — Barack Obama gave the order on the day of Game One of the Heat-C’s series. Both were gutsy performances that showed the best of each man, and both, ultimately, were symbolic.
Take away the pressure and each man can soar to unimaginable heights. In January 2011, Obama gave an outstanding speech after the tragic Tucson shootings that won praise from all ends of the political spectrum. There were even a number of articles noting how unusually bipartisan the praise was. A mere six weeks later, LeBron finished the 2011 NBA All-Star Game with only the second triple double (after MJ) in All-Star history. His team lost. An exhibition game and a public eulogy were the high points of the year for our tragic duo.
Were both so filled with adulation when young that they now cannot bear to fail? Or can they only lose gracefully if the losses are not of their making? Do they really believe that Harry Reid and Chris Bosh are better options for them to succeed in the clutch than they are, themselves?
Presidents and star players cannot succeed by playing like role players. Neither is there to pass — to defer. They are there to create action and to score. We expect the president to face adversity by taking action against his problems, since they are our problems. We expect him to drive through traffic and get to the rim. Reagan played above the rim. Clinton drove the lane, knowing he would get to the rim or score from the line. Even if you dislike the guy, you know W. owned his presidency. He played to win. The failure of the presidency of Barack Obama is not just that he does not play to win. It is that he plays for any loss to not be his fault.