In Foreign Policy, Obama Turns to Sports Heroes

(CBS/ AP)Looking to strike a familiar note with Chinese officials this morning, President Obama turned to a sports hero. "I have learned from the words of Yao Ming," said Mr. Obama, referring to the Shanghai-born basketball star now playing with the NBA's Houston Rockets. In remarks to the opening session of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, the president quoted Yao Ming: "No matter whether you are new or an old team member, you need time to adjust to one another." It was an effort by Mr. Obama to illustrate the intention of his new administration to improve relations with China. "I'm confident that we will meet Yao's standard," he said. It's become something of a habit by Mr. Obama to reach out to foreign nations with the help of a sports figure familiar to them. Earlier this month in Moscow, he hailed the contributions Russians make in the United States, citing Alexander Ovechkin, the Russian pro-hockey player signed to a 13-year, $124-million contract with the Washington Capitals. "We're very pleased to have him in Washington, D.C.," said Mr. Obama. Three months earlier, in a speech to the Turkish Parliament in Ankara, Mr. Obama won applause with two other sports figures designed to trumpet deepening ties between the U.S. and Turkey. "As a basketball fan, I've even noticed that Hedo Turkoglu and Mehmet Okur have got some pretty good basetball games," he said, referring to two Turkish-born basketball players. Turkoglu plays with the Toronto Raptors, Okur with the Utah Jazz. Even in the U.S., Mr. Obama isn't shy about basking in the reflected glory of a legendary ballplayer. That was the case last Thursday at a million dollar Democratic Party fund-raiser in Chicago. "I guess today everybody is a White Sox fan," he proclaimed, just hours after pitcher Mark Buehrle threw a perfect game against Tampa Bay. "That was extraordinary," the president said as he told his audience about the congratulatory phone call he made to Buehrle from Air Force One. "That's one of the privileges of the presidency," he said. The practice of embracing or just referencing an athlete to make a connection with an audience didn't start with Mr. Obama. In Dallas in 1986, just before the Republican National Convention, President Reagan got cheers at a rally by hailing the Dallas Cowboys as "America's Team." "By the time this convention ends," Reagan was quick to add, "the Republican Party will be on its way to being America's party." A rhetorical stretch, but he made his point. Running for re-election in 2004, President Bush appeared at a rally in Michigan with that state's retired, but no less beloved college football coach, Bo Schembechler. "What a great man Bo Schembechler is," said Mr. Bush, welcoming any additional support his appearance with Bo would bring. Mr. Bush may have learned the technique from his dad. Visiting Poland in 1989, the first President Bush was reaching out to some Little Leaguers in Warsaw and tried to strike a connection more compelling to Polish kids than the mere presence of the President of the United States. He dropped the names of Carl Yastrzemski, Al Simmons, Stan Coveleski and Stan Musial, Polish-Americans all. He quoted Musial to the youngsters: "My greatest thrill was just putting on my uniform every day." Looking to knock one out of the park with the kids, Mr. Bush told them: "I'm going to see some of you guys in the big leagues in the United States." Maybe not. But it didn't cost anything to say it.
Mark Knoller

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