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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Barack Obama: Ready or Not?

Barack Obama made a big impact in the media in mid-October, including a David Brooks column (Run, Barak, Run), the Charlie Rose show airing 10/19/2006 and Meet The Press airing 10/22/2006. The big story to emerge from the blitz was his statement that he was now considering a run for the Presidency in 2008 where he had previously stated unequivocally he would serve out his first term as Senator.

Wow. (yawn). A Senator who actually is considering running for President. Shocking.

Much of the supportive coverage of the appearances might be best characterized as "The Second Coming" meets "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." People in this camp view Obama as a rising star destined for greatness coming from nowhere just in time to save the Democratic Party and quite possibly the country from political disaster.

Much of the negative coverage would probably be best characterized as "Mr. 1/3rd Termer" or "Senator Who?". Honestly, Obama really hasn't gotten much if any negative press per se. His non-positive coverage really amounts to benign, somewhat dismissive comments from people who believe a few terms in a State Legislature and two years as Senator provide little from which to extrapolate Presidential readiness. Much worse could be said about someone with obvious Presidential ambitions.

Like everything else boiled down to simplistic old school / new school or left / right dichotomies, the truth is somewhere in the middle, probably a few miles north of center. The buzz generated by Obama says less about his individual communication skills, leadership qualities and policy stances than it does about the depths to which our political process has sunk.

It's All Relative

The Charlie Rose and MTP appearances had distinctly different tones -- Rose was a bit more fawning while Russert was, well, Russert. Obama did exceptionally well on both. Whether viewed as appearances or performances, it only takes five or ten minutes of watching him in an interview to realize he has communication skills that are ideally suited to the current media environment. These skills certainly differentiate him from any of the obvious Democrat competitors and any Republican candidate if any came to mind.

A Tin Ear Versus Perfect Pitch -- Probably the easiest stereotype to stick on Hillary Clinton is her occasional political tin ear for communication. The November 2006 issue of The Atlantic Monthly has a cover story that states Clinton has made amazing progress forging relationships within the Senate and becoming very much a cooperative team player, albeit in support of a very ambitious longer term goal. Her problem is that only 99 other people are likely to appreciate the "New Hillary". The rest of the world will be easily reminded of the "shrill Hillary" famous for comments about baking cookies and Tammy Wynette or attempting to reinvent healthcare behind closed doors. If she can survive that round of negative ads, voters will then be reminded how she had to conduct a "listening tour" in 2000 to convince voters she had a clue about concerns of real New York voters while running for her first term.

In contrast, Obama seems to have perfect political pitch when addressing even the most sensitive of topics. Charlie Rose asked him about his attitudes about religion. Obama doesn't convey a traditional evangelical, fervent faith and he makes no attempt to fake it. In a climate where evangelicals virtually demand profession of a born-again devotion to some deity, that background doesn't exactly scream electability. How does Obama describe his own take on religion and its influence on his public role? Here's an excerpt from his response (see 30:55 in the show):

I didn't grow up in a religious household. I talk about my mother who was an anthropologist so she would take me to church once in a while, then she would take me to the Buddhist monastery then she would take me to a mosque.. Her attitude was that religion was fascinating and an expression of human attempts to understand the mysteries of life but she was never herself particularly religious and that's how I grew up. Respectful, but not part of a religious tradition.

I came into religion through the black church. I think that presented a different model. The black church historically has been a little less judgmental. There's always been the tradition that the line between sinner and saint is a little blurry. The folks that run the juke joint on Saturday night are in church on Sunday. You know, the musics are blending together. There's always been a clear sense of the need for the black church to minister to the whole man and to be an agent for social change not just spiritual change. That I think appealed to me deeply. That's how I came to Christianity.

My sense is we live in an enormously religious country. 90% of people believe in a higher power… Here's the thing. Religious people are far more tolerant than I think the popular culture gives them credit for. Conversely, secularists are far more interested with morality and ethics than the right wing would portray them.

A response that states his own view without sugarcoating ideas that may not be popular while at the same time expressing a positive idea about people on opposite ends of the spectrum looking for extremism in those at the other end. Perfect pitch.

Condescending Versus Inclusive -- Few would debate that Al Gore is an extremely intelligent and articulate politician. Gore also typically did a good job finding phrases and explanations that came across as straightforward and direct to his audience. Gore's problem was that he failed miserably at finding a tone and "meter" to his speech that avoided sounding condescending. The average voter listening to Gore address a serious issue heard a politician ssssslllllooooowwwwiiiinnnnggg doooooowwwwwnnnn his rhythm in a way that made it sound like he was consciously talking down to his audience, almost like a moron who, when told the person he is trying to talk to is deaf, talks louder and slower. If there is one thing American voters hate more than being lied to, it is the feeling of being condescended to. By a politician.

In contrast, Obama never seems to dumb down his vocabulary for the audience, he never begins dropping his g's to sound folksy, and he STOPS TALKING if he's composing a thought on the fly, rather than stretching or spacing out words, or UMM-ing or UUU-ing the audience to death. Most smart politicians come across as someone who believes their ideas and insights are so powerful and unique that us mere mortal voters can't really be expected to understand them and that we just need to trust them because they know the real story and know what's best. Obama seems to come across as someone who believes he may have access to information most of us don't get to see but that it is his job to convey that information to the voters so everyone can make informed decisions about what we should do as a country.

Instinctual Versus Thoughtful -- One theme that has emerged from all of the recent books on the planning and execution of the war in Iraq is that the initial decision to go in and the planning for that invasion constitute the single biggest "faith based initiative" of the Bush presidency. In some sense, the entire Bush presidency started as a faith based initiative. After winning re-election as Texas Governor in a landslide, Bush heard a sermon in a traditional service held the morning of inauguration that he felt called him directly to higher office to lead the country. (#3) The decision certainly wasn't based upon a careful review of the country's problems, opportunities and his unique knowledge and skills. It boiled down to: Hey, I just won re-election in Texas in a landslide, I could probably do the same thing in a Presidential bid. Let's do it.

Obama seems to demonstrate many of the same decision making processes as Bill Clinton. In any conversation about policy, Obama seems capable of not only describing four or five first tier alternatives for a solution but can also take each of those alternatives and follow it through several layers of subsequent decisions and summarize the pros and cons and cons of the pros, etc. As with Clinton, this approach to thinking and communicating may eventually get branded as "slick" or manipulative. However, after seeing the results of our mis-adventure in Iraq, it's likely more voters will be able to appreciate the value of someone who thinks through multiple layers of potential consequences when making big decisions.

Obama on an Absolute Scale

Are communication skills light years ahead of established contenders for President or current Presidents sufficient qualifications for becoming President? Ideally, the answer should be no. In the American political process distorted and corrupted by two flawed political parties, the answer may be yes.

The main criticism of his book and of his recent appearances is that the style is flawless but the substance is lacking -- a legitimate criticism. Cynics in the Democratic Party are happy and cynics in the Republican Party are frustrated for the same reason. A lack of history limits the supply of material for negative ads highlighting the inevitable tough choices between supporting a bill that funds snuggle toys for orphans but earmarks five million dollars for a corn cob museum in a major agricultural state. Or more seriously, a choice between supporting a bill that provides funding for body armor for troops in harm's way but also allocates billions in funds for out-of-control projects handed out on no-bid contracts to corrupt defense contractors.

So if communication and style points are all voters have to go on, is that enough to go on to avoid a disaster in the voting booth? Recent history would seem to say it is. You can't submit to multiple 30 minute or 60 minute interviews, use zero notes or talking points on index cards, and nail every question without having something on the ball. Here's how Obama looked ahead and described his impression of the responsibility of being President:

When you decide to run for President, that's some serious business. I write about in the book my first meeting with President Bush -- I find him a pretty decent person. I think about how he must have felt the morning of September 11. The first attack on US soil and all this information is coming in, nobody knows what's going on, you've got to make all these decisions about how to act. Some of those decisions were good, many of them, Iraq in particular, turned out to be very bad. It makes me mindful of the sense that when you decide to run for President, unlike any other office I think in the country, you are saying to the American people, "I am giving my life to you. That my problems, my issues, my fears, my doubts, my quirks, my idiosyncrasies are not relevant. What's relevant is whether or not I'm making the country safe, giving you more opportunity, making sure your children have a better shot at life." That's not a decision I think you can or should make solely based upon ambition.

Contrast that with this comment from candidate George W Bush, when asked in 1999 by Tim Russert if he had any take at all on Vladmir Putin, leader of a relatively important country, Russia:

I really don't. I will if I'm the President. (#4)

That seems to encapsulate the mental approach of the Bush Presidency. The Just In Time approach to leadership and thought.

When the bar is set that low for serious thought about critical issues facing the country, nearly anyone comes across as a deep thinker. Maybe a better title for Obama's book would have been The Audacity of Competency.


#1) Charlie Rose Appearance: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=5456752353400414374

#2) http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/prem/200611/green-hillary

#3) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/jesus/president/spirituality.html

#4) The Bush Dyslexicon - Mark Crispin Miller