It's time to stop treating politics as a sport

The reality in Washington is far more complicated than lazy comparisons to football might have you believe

President Obama
(Image credit: Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images)

The Beltway's media royalty is having a bit of a dust-up about President Obama's leadership skills — or lack thereof. Critics like Maureen Dowd, Dana Milbank, and Ron Fournier have recently dinged Obama for failing to whip Congress into shape, while defenders such as Jonathan Chait and Greg Sargent are countering that there's little the president can do with so intransigent an opposition. These arguments themselves, however, are less interesting than the issue of how this discussion sheds light on our flawed political mentality.

The emphasis of this debate is on a supposed lack of leadership, as if this vague, intangible quality were an attribute one could gauge. And if leadership can be measured at all, it is done so in a dissatisfying post-hoc way. If Obama wins, then of course, he must have shown leadership to get there. If he loses, we must chalk it up to a failure of leadership.

The win/lose narrative is so firmly embedded in our political dialogue that we barely even notice it anymore. And yet, it's so prevalent that political analysts often crutch along comparing politics to another part of American life with clear winners and losers: Sports. Here's Fournier: "Obama needs a coach to look him in the eyes and say, 'Mr. President, I'm not excusing the other team. They suck. But you need to beat them, sir. That's your job, because if you can't stop them, we lose. And there's no excuse to losing to such a lousy-bleeping team.'"

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Fournier is about as well-informed as political analysts come, but his sporting metaphors are troubling. The more we continue to consider politics a game of sports, the worse the logjam in Washington will get. The reason Republicans in Congress won't work with Obama is because they don't want to hand him a "win," we are frequently told.

Things are surely not this simple, but it's true that we in the media exacerbate today's historically bad polarization in Washington when we simplify politics to a contest between two confrontational forces, at the expense of explaining to our readers the messy, complex process from which actual results come.

In both cases, sports and politics, Americans are observers with a stake in the outcome but no power to affect it. In neither case are we the primary beneficiaries of the game's result. In politics at least, that is not the way things should be.

If the president is looking for some advice, though, he could do worse than listen to Steven Soderbergh. The filmmaker best known for his remake of Ocean's Eleven gave a speech this week at the opening of the San Francisco Film Festival, at which he spoke about the economics of cinema in the current age. The entire thing is worth reading, but his smart take on the politics of movie-making is especially noteworthy:

It's obvious from the news, we have a little bit of a problem with problem-solving. In my experience, the main obstacle to problem solving is an entrenched ideology. The great thing about making a movie or a piece of art is that that never comes into play. All the ideas are on the table. All the ideas and everything is open for discussion, and it turns out everybody succeeds by submitting to what the thing needs to be. Art, in my view, is a very elegant problem-solving model. [Via Deadline]

Now, I'm not suggesting Obama pick up a paintbrush. But the concept of everyone succeeding by "submitting to what the thing needs to be" is something we can all learn from. On some issues, our parties disagree on what the "thing" is, and what exactly it needs to be. But in general terms, we're all pulling towards the same goal — a better economy, a way to live happily and in comfort, a bright future for our children. Soderbergh's ideas about movie-making also suggest a more encouraging metaphor for how the political process might work: The White House as the movie director with the big ideas; Congress as the producer holding the purse-strings and keeping the bigger ideas in check; government as the actors and production staff that actually make the thing work; and the American people as the audience, for which the whole thing is being made.

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Dan Stewart is a senior editor at The Week magazine. Originally from the U.K., he has been living in the United States since 2009.