Punch Drunk with Obama

The rhetorical use of metaphors by President Barack Obama for political purposes, particularly the "red lines" concerning Iran and Syria, is now well documented. An amusing commentary presented in the Danish Television show "Detektor" of March 2012 hosted by Thomas Buch-Andersen shows Obama's frequent use of another metaphor.

This metaphor, "punching above your weight," derives from the sport of boxing, where boxers are divided into different weight classes. Therefore "punching above your weight" is fighting above what can objectively be regarded as normal and expected. The phrase was apparently coined by Douglas Hurd, the former British Foreign Minister, in a lecture on January 27, 1993 at the Royal Institute for International Affairs (Chatham House). He had been Foreign Secretary during the Gulf War, and at the time spoke of the UK as a medium-sized nation with some good troops; in other words troops who were better than might be expected from a nation the size of Britain. The punching metaphor, frequently used by the British Foreign Office after Hurd's speech, has now been put to use by Obama.

In his radio show, "A Prairie Home Companion," the comedian Garrison Keillor welcomes us to the fictional town of Lake Wobegon in Minnesota. In the town "All the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average." Similar complimentary and flattering sentiments emanate from the non-fictional town of Washington, D.C.

The Danish television show of 2012 recounts the series of meetings in the White House between Obama and European and other leaders, in all of which he uses the same or very similar language. Meeting on October 20, 2011 with Jens Stoltenberg, prime minister of Norway, the president told him, "I have said this before but I want to repeat, Norway punches above its weight." With Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the first woman to become prime minister of Denmark, on February 24, 2012, he told her, "Danes have punched above their weight in international affairs."

At the meeting on November 29, 2011 with Mark Rutte, prime minister of the Netherlands, the president informed his guest that the Dutch "consistently punch above their weight on a whole range of issues relating to global security." Obama on March 19, 2013 made similar comments to Enda Kelly, Taoiseach leader of Ireland, which "punches above its weight internationally when it comes to humanitarian assistance, and peacekeeping," and to the leader of the Philippines which did the same thing.

President Obama also defined the American relationship with these countries when he spoke to their leaders. The U.S. had "an incredible bond between the U.S. and Ireland, and an incredible history with it." The U.S. had "no stronger ally" than the Netherlands. The U.S. also, as he told Julia Gillard, prime minister of Australia, on November 16, 2011, had "no stronger ally" than Australia. However, other countries differed somewhat. Poland was "one of our closest and strongest allies." So were Great Britain and Japan, both strong and close allies. But Germany, Italy, South Korea, and Israel were only "one of our strongest allies." France, as President Obama informed French President Nicolas Sarkozy in January 2011, was "one of our oldest allies and continues to be one of our closest allies." The U.S. did not have "a stronger friend and stronger ally than President Sarkozy and the French people." Obama told the Danish Prime Minister "how much we appreciate the great alliance and partnership that we have with the Danish people on a whole range of international issues."

President Obama has skillfully appropriated for diplomatic purposes the metaphor coined by the British politician Douglas Hurd. He also may implicitly have accepted the advice of a more important British politician, Benjamin Disraeli, "Everyone likes flattery; when you come to Royalty you should lay it on with a trowel."