Reflections on A Promised Land by Barack Obama

Part III: From Seeking the Nomination to Candidate

Obama was not always lucky. After all, he was not Irish. But he did have Irish blood. His forefather had been a boot maker who lived only 5 km. from Joe Biden’s ancestors in Ireland and practicing the same profession. When he ran against Bobby Rush, Obama was plagued with bad luck. He lost by thirty points. Biden was more Irish, but he lost several races for the presidency. Irish luck has its limits.

Obama also had the benefit that he was a very fast learner, and the lessons he gained were many:

  • Lace speeches with humour
  • Wrap them in inspiration
  • Be open about yourself
  • Respect political nuts and bolts and attend to detail and the ground game
  • Be prepared for the unexpected
  • Resilience is an absolute necessity in order to handle inevitable setbacks
  • The importance of path dependency – it is not the end point or the final cause that is a major determinant of action, but the need to justify choices already made
  • Face it – ego and envy of others also play a role
  • Hire key aides who have mastered an encyclopedic knowledge of the local political scene in which they operate – Dan Showman in Illinois
  • Not addressing an audience but listening to constituents and their daily confrontations with the challenges they encountered was the most critical aspect of a successful politician – not necessarily in getting elected, but in delivering on policies that helped one’s constituents
  • Politics is a bridging not a dividing exercise
  • In American politics, money is what fuels a campaign; a candidate must demonstrate an ability to raise loads of it, in Obama’s case, without selling out his soul
  • The importance of magic – or what the Obama called magic beans – such as the reliance on earnings from a book that Obama would write but which was nowhere in sight. Michelle: “In other words, you’ve got some magic beans in your pocket. That’s what you’re telling me. You have some magic beans and you’re going to plant them, and overnight a huge beanstalk is growing to grow high into the sky, and you’ll climb up the beanstalk, kill the giant who lives in the clouds, and then bring home a goose that lays golden eggs. Is that it?” And it was. Barack Obama had magic beans in his pocket (or charms constituents gave him), only, in climbing the beanstalk, he had to displace a number of giants on the way and not just the one at the top.
  • Campaigns are NOT about the candidate; rather the candidate was the conduit for the frustrations, disappointments, challenges and hopes of his or her constituents
  • It is important not just to win more votes, but to win across the board from all demographics, from urban and rural areas and from all geographical regions
  • Cadence, your speeches have to have cadence, a flow, a pattern and a rhythm, and one that is unique to the speaker, just as a jazz player or an artist has a recognizable signature
  • In addition to cadence, there are seven other crucial c’s – confidence, conviction, commitment, consistency, cash, a coalition and a cohort of brilliant advisers and helpers
  • A candidate has to be able to feed off the energy and emotion of his or her audience
  • Appreciate, recognize, thank and, most importantly, listen to the excellent staff – policy experts, political strategists, speech writers, publicists, logistic managers, etc. – you must assemble and realize that they, more than yourself, are responsible for your victory
  • Watch your choice of words – you may oppose the Iraq War, but never assert that the lives of American soldiers lost in the war were “wasted” – the policy of invasion was undoubtedly wrong and Obama’s initial opposition was certainly right, but that did not mean that you could not recognize and appreciate the bravery of the men and women who died for their country; characterizing their lives as wasted was to disparage not only the policy but the people entrusted to carry out that policy
  • Timing – as Ted Kennedy told Obama, “you don’t choose the time. The time chooses you.”
  • Novelty may have more value than depth of experience, especially when running on a platform of change
  • Motive cannot be underestimated in assessing a candidate for public office, whether it is a sense of monomaniacal narcissism as Donald Trump displayed, or the final argument Obama made to Michelle to get her required buy-in for Obama to run for president – “Here’s one thing I know for sure, though. I know that the day I raise my right hand and take the oath to be president of the United States, the world will start looking at America differently. I know that kids all around the country – Black kids, Hispanic kids, kids who don’t fit in – they’ll see themselves differently, too, their horizons lifted, their possibilities expanded. And that alone…that should be worth it.” (77)

“Well, honey,” Michelle said finally, “that was a pretty good answer.”

Obama not only recognized the skills needed for a successful politician, but he built on his natural endowment and mastered those skills. He put them into practice. At key moments, he would rise to the occasion and deliver a great speech, laced with humour, wrapped in inspiration while engaged in just the right amount of self-revelation. On a February morning in 2007 in the old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois, in the very spot where Abe Lincoln delivered his famous “House Divided” speech on 16 June 1858, Obama announced his candidacy.

If he had been Joe Biden in 2020, he would have echoed Abraham Lincoln. A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half believing in fiction and half in science and logic. The union will not be dissolved. The house will not fall. But I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become one thing or the other.

This was not Obama’s speech. I never heard Obama’s speech at the time. I was in Australia in my second year as a Senior Research Fellow at the Key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia. I had completed my work with Astri Suhrke on the Rwanda Genocide (The Path of a Genocide: the Rwanda Crisis from Uganda to Zaire) and as associate editor of the three volume, Encyclopedia of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity. I had just published a volume on Humanitarian Intervention in Zaire and, with my shift to Australia, my focus also shifted from Africa to south-east Asia. I was preparing a volume on protracted refugee situations in both regions. But I continued my work on political racist approaches and attitudes. It was at that time that I published an essay on the hijab controversy in France (“Rights and the Hijab: Rationality and Discourse in the Public Sphere”) for volume 8 of Human Rights & Human Welfare published by the University of Denver.

I subsequently read Obama’s speech. It was about the fundamental divisions in America. But mostly it was about what America must become. It was about what America could be. He told his audience, “you came here because you believe in what this country can be. In the face of war, you believe there can be peace. In the face of despair, you believe there can be hope. In the face of a politics that’s shut you out, that’s told you to settle, that’s divided us for too long, you believe that we can be one people, reaching for what’s possible, building that more perfect union.”

When I worked in East Africa and in south-east Asia, I do not recall of ever speaking or writing of peace, but of managing, mitigating and minimizing violent conflict. These were not the same as peace, order and good government. Obama spoke in terms of a dream, a dream of a more perfect union. I wrote about incrementalism, about amelioration, about decreasing the amount of suffering and discrimination in the world and sources of conflict.

Obama had come to Illinois “to build a better America.” I traveled the world to make it not as bad as it was. Obama in his speech spoke of his experiences and roles. I wrote in the detached idiom of social science and philosophy. Who I was did not matter. I could never write let alone give a speech saying that “when a child turns to violence, I came to realize that there’s a hole in that boy’s heart that no government could ever fill.” For me, the function of governance was not primarily about enhancing economic opportunity, as valid a goal as that was, but about not murdering 800,000 civilians in ten weeks in Rwanda. It was about making “Never Again” real and not a dream.

Obama assumed “the best in people.” I encountered the worst. Obama sought to implement health care that Canada and other advanced democracies had provided its citizens for four decades at the least. Obama sought fairer tax systems and even ethics reform. Anthony Lang in his 2007 volume at that time, Crime and Punishment: Holding States Accountable, hailed my (and others’) efforts at introducing an ethics of responsibility and accountability for states on the international stage. For Obama, the international stage was a realm for realpolitik; ethics was to be applied to equality primarily on the domestic stage. I was writing on just war theory and its application to the violent conflict in Gaza. (“Research on the Ethics of War in the Context of Violence in Gaza” Journal of Academic Ethics 7:93-113, 2009) Obama was focused on America even when he advocated getting out of Iraq.

Obama described a myth of America as a country seeking freedom from tyranny, not of the reality of a country seeking freedom to invade and take over the lands of indigenous people with whom Britain had signed treaties. In American hagiography, George Washington was an idealist, not a land speculator in the “Indian territories.” Obama was answering a call. Obama possessed “an unyielding faith.” The audacity of hope was inspiring, but, in the end, far from enlightening. He spoke of marrying words to a will for change. As much as I worked for change, I could never be inspiring. But I could give witness. I could offer analysis. I could recommend change.

Obama concluded that it was not the absence of sound policies that held us back. “What’s stopped us is the failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics.” I argued that what stopped us was the brilliance of bad leaders and the enormity of destructive politics and “big” ideas. As much as Obama referred back to the will and participation of the people, he was an advocate of the grandeur of the leader, the emphasis on the particular traits and behavior of gifted individuals, not those holding power over their followers, but those set in their midst to inspire them and offer direction. As participatory as Obama was and is, I have found leadership in everyday practices where we are not dependent on mobilizers but on co-creators. Obama had been raised in the ideals of a democratic monarchy in spite of being a community organizer inspired by Saul Alinsky while I have witnessed leadership actually at work in a cooperative and community context.

I recognize that leadership in terms of the romantic individualist end of the spectrum is the opposite of leadership in a collective enterprise, and that in the context of America, Obama was much closer to the latter than the vast majority of Americans. But from my perspective, he was still imbued with the idea of great leaders as much as he acknowledged the strength and wisdom of the team he led.

His analysis of how they pulled off the victory in the Ohio primary is a textbook study invaluable for any political science course on how the ground “war” can offset inexperience and even gaffes. He was learning not to be an academic, not to be circuitous and ponderous. Not to be wordy but to speak in sound bites. Further, mood was important. He had to learn not to be grumpy about the tribulations of campaigning, but to find joy in meeting and listening to people. He also learned how to tell stories more than argue policies. He had to learn – and he did – to be a “happy warrior.”

Ironically, his main opponent was also a model. Though overly scripted, Hillary Clinton was “hardworking, personable, and always impeccably prepared. She also had a good hearty laugh that tended to lighten the mood of everyone around her.” (88) Most of all, she taught him by being a counter example, the type of politician he could not afford to become – “people were moved by emotions, not facts.” That lesson helped Obama beat Hillary Clinton. It was not a posture that came naturally to him. But Obama was a quick learner except when it came to detailed management skills. His unique contribution was that he was even-tempered, extraordinarily analytical, and very skeptical of convention and pretense.

Most of all – and in such a contrast with Donald Trump – he knew how to attract and retain talent. His depictions of the roles of David Plouffe, David Axelrod and Paul Tewes are not only insightful, but clear indications of a generosity of spirit and a willingness to give credit where credit is due. Tewes was the General Patton who led and won the ground battle in Ohio by creating an effective political movement. RESPECT. EMPOWER. INCLUDE. However much Obama was also attracted to romantic views of political leadership, his team kept him grounded in the belief that he did hold that politics was more about community and connection than about power and positioning.

The question soon became how to use that acquired power.


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