Obama Being Strategic
Now that the dust has settled a bit on the election (feels like ancient history, vs. 6 weeks ago!), I find myself still thinking about what a great example it provided of one person being strategic and the other not — and the power of that!
People who are strategic, in my experience, approach an important situation by getting clear on the problem they’re trying to solve before they start throwing out solutions. It seems to me Obama went into the primary season very clear on his essential challenge: How can I persuade the American people that I’m the best person to be the president of the United States?
Once you understand the problem you’re trying to solve, being strategic also involves knowing what you have to work with – what you can bring to bear to address your challenge. Obama took a long, clear-eyed look at his current reality: his own strengths and weaknesses, and the circumstances around him that might support or impede him addressing his challenge. Being able to look at one’s current state without flinching is essential to being strategic. Obama seems particularly good at this. In his first post-election press conference, when he casually used the phrase “mutts like me,” it was a startlingly simple and neutral statement of fact about a complicated and emotionally fraught subject. The personal attacks leveled at him over the past six months didn’t seem to phase him; I believe he’d already reflected upon and made his peace with all the possible things the Republicans might throw at him.
Then, it seems to me, he created a vision – a very clear vision – of what the US would look like, feel like and do if he were the president. Out of his clear vision emerged clear speech. No question about it, Obama is a uniquely eloquent and skilled speaker – but no amount of technical capability can make up for a lack of substance. Every time he spoke about the future he envisions for us, for our country, millions of Americans felt drawn by the depth and breadth of that vision for the future. Articulating a compelling and inclusive picture of a hoped-for future is an essential element of being truly strategic.
And then he created his strategies; made those core directional choices that would move him intact and victorious toward that vision. Throughout this longest of all election seasons, here’s what I saw again and again:
Do a full-court press: Clearly, Obama decided to go broad rather than deep. He decided to speak to as many of us as possible about the things he believed were most important. Tactically, he implemented this strategy by leveraging Dean’s fifty-state strategy, fully using the internet, and building an amazingly deep and impassioned team. The results are self-evident: a slew of newly-blue states and a resounding popular majority.
Stay on the high road: Even when his own people encouraged him to respond to the Republican attacks in kind, he stayed civil and entirely focused on the big issues: McCain’s people called him a terrorist-loving Muslim, Obama acknowledged McCain’s service to his country. And certainly there were hugely tempting topics: the Keating Five, McCain’s well-known temper, Sara Palin’s religious views and ethical problems, just for starters. But Obama stuck to his strategy – and it paid off.
Share the hoped-for future: Obama used the powerful combination of his vision, his rhetorical skills, and his steadiness to powerfully turn people’s attention again and again to the possibility of a better future for our country. He believed this would appeal to Americans more than fear and divisiveness. Fortunately, he was right.
In contrast, McCain was the opposite of strategic. He seemed unclear about both his current reality and his vision (other than really, really wanting to be president, and seeming to feel that he deserved it). As to consistent choices: very few. From his seemingly spontaneous Vice Presidential choice, to the embarrassing on-again-off-again campaign “suspension,” to his ambivalence about allowing others around him to use ever-more-desperate smear tactics. But then it’s hard to be anything but tactical and reactive when you don’t have a sense of the future you’re trying to create – and “not Obama” isn’t a clear vision for the future.
So, the next time you hear people say someone isn’t “being strategic”– think of Barack Obama’s astonishing journey to the presidency, and you’ll know what they’re looking for – and why it’s important.