A reader writes:

Okay, I completely agree with your point about Obama, but the metaphor is killing me. "Mushy steel?" It makes my head hurt. Steel that was mushy wouldn't have the primary characteristics that you're trying to convey -- sharp, deadly, unyielding.

The closest metaphor to this that actually works is usually "iron fist in a velvet glove," but that misses here, because it implies a polite veneer covering ruthlessness, which isn't quite the same. I would rather propose, closer to "mushy steel," the "sheathed sword."

To wit, in order to demonstrate power, Bush "drew the sword" early and often, both in domestic politics and in foreign military engagements. To him, to leave the sword sheathed was a sign of weakness, in all cases.

Obama, on the other hand, keeps the sword in the sheath and a smile on his face well into the conflict, to the point that you either think he's weak, unnerved, or naive.

Opponents generally have two reactions -- either they think it's naivete, or weakness, and then you get what you've called the "beep beep" moment, except in my metaphor, it's when Obama, like Cyrano composing a poem as he fences, effortlessly cuts the opponent to shreds.

The other alternative is that the sword, unseen so much of the time, starts to take on a larger-than-life quality, and opponents back down for fear of it coming out. We're not to that point yet -- Obama needs to cut up a few more opponents for that effect to really come out. But once the reputation is established, the longer the sword stays in the sheath, the scarier it gets.

As an aside, I think the direct application of this to American military involvement is extremely apropos. The extended conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have provided the textbook on how to fight the US military. Our military power was far more terrifying when its use was reserved to swift, decisive actions. Now, our threats still have weight because of our ridiculous advantages in technology and capacity, but lack the aura of invincibility we once had. The sword in the sheath is both an offering of peace and a veiled threat, both in international military tactics and in domestic politics.

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