Choosing the Right Sports Metaphor

On his return to Washington after concluding a week-long visit to several Asian countries although, notably, not China, President Obama summed up the diplomatic tour with a sports metaphor:

The Asia trip didn’t produce a blockbuster trade deal, or bring an end to North Korea’s nuclear threat. The U.S. won a smaller-scale agreement to station military forces in the Philippines. And it polished its newfound ties with Malaysia. This is the kind of workaday diplomacy that President Obama says is not sexy but pays off in the long run.

“That may not always attract a lot of attention, and it doesn’t make for good argument on Sunday morning shows. But it avoids errors. You hit singles; you hit doubles. Every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run. But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.”

The punditry has reacted to the president’s formulation with a certain amount of dismay. Maureen Dowd whinges:

Mr. President, I am just trying to get my paragraph right. You need to think bigger.

An American president should never say, as you did Monday in Manila when you got frustrated in a press conference with the Philippine president: “You hit singles; you hit doubles. Every once in a while, we may be able to hit a home run.”

Especially now that we have this scary World War III vibe with the Russians, we expect the president, especially one who ran as Babe Ruth, to hit home runs.

while Richard Haass chides:

The concept that should inform American foreign policy is one that the Obama administration proposed in its first term: the pivot or rebalancing toward Asia, with decreasing emphasis on the Middle East. What has been missing is the commitment and discipline to implement this change in policy. President Obama’s four-country Asian tour in recent days was a start, but it hardly made up for years of paying little heed to his own professed foreign-policy goals.

I think the president has selected the wrong sports metaphor. Batting is the epitome of individual performance within the context of a team sport. You can bat .400 only batting singles. That might be enough to get you into the Hall of Fame but it won’t necessarily win ballgames because baseball is a team sport. Winning baseball games requires more than hitting singles and avoiding errors. It takes pitching, fundamentals, and, as Earl Weaver noted, hitting an occasional three-run homer.

A better metaphor for gradual progress towards victory might be from football: “Three yards and a cloud of dust.” The question then becomes, as Mr. Haass points out, to what end? Running out the clock?

Most presidents don’t select foreign policy. It happens to them and, frequently, overwhelms their other objectives including those they ran on. That is the nature of the job.

Launching into my own avalanche of sports metaphors, it’s the president’s football. If he believes that the best way for the U. S. to make its way in the world is by his hitting singles, that’s his choice. That, too, is the nature of the job. Having inherited most of his foreign policy problems from his predecessor who inherited most of his from his predecessor and so on, in two years he will turn most of the problems he inherited over to his successor whoever he or she might be who will ultimately turn them over to his or her successor, etc.

In the memorable words of Yogi Berra, the game ain’t over ’til it’s over and, unlike baseball, the game of foreign policy is never over.

FILED UNDER: Middle East, , , , , ,
Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.


  1. Tillman says:

    He should’ve used a curling metaphor. That would’ve thrown everyone off.

  2. michael reynolds says:

    Obama was right, and the whining is silly. It is ridiculous to expect the perfection of a home run on every at bat. His metaphor was apt.

  3. Gavrilo says:

    Obama’s foreign policy batting average is below the Mendoza line.

  4. stonetools says:


    Or cricket. “You can’t score a triple century every time out, but at least you can make a 50.”

    Or soccer. “You can’t score a hat trick every time out , but you can score one goal.”
    Or track and field.” You can’t win gold every time out, but at least you can medal.”

    And so on.

  5. stonetools says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Actually you can compare Obama’s vision of incremental improvement with what Kerry on his own initiative tried to do in the Middle East. Kerry tried to go big by going for the biggest foreign policy triumph of all, the foreign policy Holy Grail: an Arab-Israeli peace settlement. After nine moths of earnest negotiation, what hhas Kerry achieved? Nothing.
    At least Obama got SOMETHING out of his Asia policy, even if it wasn’t a “just and lasting peace” in East Asia.

  6. Matt Bernius says:

    @michael reynolds:
    Not only that, but I give him credit for being able to get a sustained sports metaphor correct.

    Again, this is a great example of “Obama can never win.” When he actually participates in a sport he’s usually portrayed as a failure* (see bowling, throwing out pitches) or uncaring (golf). And when he uses a metaphor correctly and in a sane way, he’s told he chose the wrong sport.

    *- Smartly most commentators say away from discussing his love of basketball. Given the general sensitivity of the people who go after him on sports, I think this move is the best option for all involved.

  7. Tillman says:

    @Matt Bernius: What would be the appropriate basketball metaphor anyway?

  8. David in KC says:

    I think it’s a good metephor, if you keep hitting single and doubles, you’ll get that touchdown before the pins are reset.

  9. stonetools says:


    ” You can’t always hit the three pointer or go in for the spectacular dunk. Sometimes you just go for the layup”.

    How’s that?

  10. dazedandconfused says:


    “Work patiently for the open mid-range jumper.”

    Anybody else suspect Maureen Dowd has lost her bloody mind?

  11. michael reynolds says:


    Dowd is a sad creature, as are most of the NYT columnists. She had her moment, and then it was over, and now she lacks the grace to get off the stage. She’s had nothing to say for a decade now, and not much to say before that. She’s a burn-out.

  12. mike shupp says:

    @Tillman: Sometimes you get a three pointer, sometimes a two pointer, sometimes you have to settle for the rebound.