Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Barack Obama: Managing Change, Not Just Talking About It

Written by johnleemk on 1:24:41 am Nov 29, 2008.
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The United States now knows who its 44th president will be: Barack Hussein Obama. More than enough has been written about Obama, even from the Malaysian standpoint; I don't need to tell you how big a deal it is that more Americans than have ever voted for any presidential candidate before voted for a black man. I don't need to tell you how incredible it is that the United States has gone in less than half a century from attacking blacks to voting them into the highest offices in the land. But here is something that I don't think enough people have realised: Obama did not win just because he is black, or just because of the symbolism he represents — he won his landslide victory because he was the best candidate; he won precisely because his race did not matter.

It is of course obvious that almost any Democratic candidate would have had a field day this year. The Republicans as the incumbent party were bogged down by a slowing economy, and a president whose eight years in office have made even many Republicans sick of him. Even John McCain, the Republican candidate, ran on a platform of being the "maverick" Americans needed to change Washington. The additional symbolism of Obama's character and candidacy would merely be an added boost — the icing on the cake, the clearest demonstration of a break with the old. Almost any Democratic candidate, especially Obama, could have nearly romped into the White House — the presidency was theirs to lose.

The fantastic thing about Obama's candidacy, however, is that rather than taking it easy, he ran what must easily have been among the best campaigns in the history of politics. Just starting from the primary elections, where each party began picking its candidate, it was clear that Obama and his team knew exactly what they were doing. Obama organised an incredible operation registering new Democratic Party members, and getting them to the polls; he ran a tight ship, and kept his staff together in spite of the many challenges they faced.

Hillary Clinton ran as the more experienced candidate, but a major factor in the implosion of her campaign was the sheer incompetence of her managerial style. Her top advisor, Mark Penn, did not even understand how the party allocated delegates at the state levels. Clinton's staff reeled from crisis to crisis. Clinton ran a credible campaign, and she did give Obama a run for his money early in the campaign, but she was clearly outclassed by the better operation.

In the general election, Obama parlayed his rhetorical and managerial abilities into a massive campaign chest. Typically, candidates raise money by holding dinners for the rich elite, begging them for money; Obama used the internet to get his supporters excited, and raise money from thousands. Everywhere on blogs, you would hear of people who literally got their credit cards out and donated $25 or $50 to Obama every time they got another email from the Obama campaign asking for their support. Obama raised more money than any candidate in political history ever has, and he could not have done it by relying on the traditional system of fundraising. By the end of the election, he had so much money, he literally did not know what to do with it; his campaign was buying advertising in video games and half-hour slots on national primetime television because they had so much to spend.

Amidst Obamamania, both the Clinton and McCain campaigns panicked; many staffers begin complaining to the press about infighting within the campaigns. Clinton was forced to reshuffle her staff and eventually fire many of her top advisors before quitting the race. McCain's staff began reeling from one debacle to another, and the Republican vice-presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, worsened things by reportedly mistreating the staff. Now, after the election, it has emerged that many McCain aides intentionally kept him in the dark about a number of things, and were unable to decide on a clear message to present to the American electorate. Obama's well-run and well-oiled campaign was simply steamrolling all contenders.

And ultimately, Obama's team put together a new system of organising people that worked. In the run-up to the election, they developed a computer programme that collected information from volunteers, and presented them with a list of people who had yet to vote. On election day, as volunteers reported back who was now queuing up at the polls, names would be struck off the list in real-time. The sheer scale of the Obama operation is hard to appreciate unless you were actually there, but when I woke up on election day, the campus of my university was blanketed in Obama propaganda. Notes were left on doorknobs reminding people to vote for Obama; people went door-to-door canvassing for votes, the Obama operation having already identified who would be most likely to vote for Obama. The same scene played out not only at campuses but towns and cities across the country; the massive movement of people is something that could only have been accomplished by a smooth and polished, well-managed operation.

Now that Obama is the president-elect, he has already set about the difficult task of preparing to govern. His official government website, Change.gov, offers Americans a way to suggest policies to him, and a one-stop information centre for those wanting to know more about his plans. That such a polished website is ready to launch barely three days after the election speaks volumes about Obama's managerial capacity.

Obama could have limped to victory if he was just another politician, much like John Kerry in 2004. If he was just a good rhetorician or intellectual, he could have run an ineffectual campaign, much like the losing Democratic candidates of Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and George McGovern in 1972. Or if he was just anyone but George Bush, he could have wound up like the idealistic but incompetent one-term president Jimmy Carter. But Obama has clearly taken the best traits these leaders had to offer, and melded them seamlessly: he is a politician who can inspire the youth like McGovern, think intellectually like Stevenson, offer the idealism of Jimmy Carter, and so much more. Already some in America have invoked comparisons of Obama to stalwart two-term American presidents like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, both of whom brought great rhetorical and political skill to the White House.

As interesting as Obama's fascinating personal background might be, it is not the primary reason he will take up residence in the White House less than 75 days from now. Previous black leaders like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson unsuccessfully ran for president by stressing their black heritage and black identity — they were clear embodiments of stark, radical and drastic change. The amazing and brilliant thing about Obama is that he is bringing change to America, but only by continuing the great political traditions and heritage of the American nation. He reminds commentators of great leaders like Reagan and Clinton, rather than radicals like the Black Panthers or hardcore socialists. Obama won his hard-earned landslide victory because he represented the best America had to offer, and ran the best campaign America had ever seen.

First published in The Malaysian Insider.


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