Thursday, 20 November 2008

Big lesson from Obama that no one seems to heed

There’s no shortage of “what we can learn from Obama” lessons at the moment. It won’t be long till all the “the making of the president” type books come out, full of interviews with insiders and profound polls and focus group findings.

For now, if you only read one article, make it this one from Drew Westen, author of The Political Brain.

Drew Westen reminds us that Obama didn’t win by peppering voters with facts, figures, and policy positions and assuming voters would make a rational choice between bundles of plans.

He defeated Hilary Clinton and then John McCain by using his astonishing capacity to inspire people.

Westen shows how understanding Obama’s victories requires an understanding of what ultimately moves voters: the emotions that motivate virtually all human behavior.

He reminds us that voters are neither rational nor irrational (although at times they can be both). They vote with their values as well as their interests, and a good candidate and a good message appeals to both.

“Candidates and campaigns needn't choose between reason and emotion. A good message is one that draws people's attention, gives them pause to reflect on what has happened and what we need to do, and moves them to act.”

Westen gets really interesting when he shows how in the closing eight weeks of the campaign, Obama controlled the four stories that matter most in an election: the story you tell about your yourself; the story you tell about your opponent the story the other candidate is telling about himself; and the stories McCain was telling about Obama.

Now for the “lesson from Obama” that no one seems to want to take.

Obama built up a lead over solid McCain in September, after the financial crisis really blew up. His personal discipline and his steady clam played a huge part. But so did his story. Westen recalls how, in a speech in Colorado on September 16, Obama began to tell a story about the financial crisis and John McCain's place in it.

After presenting an excerpt from the speech, Westen explains:

“The speech is effective in both its narrative coherence--it tells the story of how we got to this point, who was responsible, and why McCain could not possibly be the one to lead us out of it--and in its emotional resonance. It begins with magnanimity and a sense of fairness, not attempting to blame the entire crisis on McCain but making clear his complicity in it and his ideological commitment to the causes of it. It uses language like "common-sense regulation" that appealed to a populist public that knew it had been swindled and was no longer buying Republican lines about government as the problem. It took the abstractions of a Wall Street meltdown and a credit crisis and turned them into the experience of everyday people: "You feel it in your own lives," he told his listeners, and described how the hope of a "dignified retirement for our seniors" was slipping away. You can picture the people he is describing, and they could picture themselves, their parents, and their grandparents.”

David Cameron and the Conservatives have failed to produce a similar story, UK-style. They are suffering in the media and the polls as a result.

But I am not sure the Liberal Democrats are telling such a story either. And we are the ones languishing in the low teens in the latest public opinion polls

So, can anyone tell me, where is the Liberal Democrat equivalent of Obama’s Colorado speech?

By that I mean the speeches, the articles, the video clips, containing the explanation of what has gone with the economy; the “villain” and the moral lesson; the emotional frames that everyone can access; the empathy with the people who are losing out; the telling of their stories; also, the suggestion of a way forward.

Please help me out by posting the URL link(s) under “comments” below.


Motueka News Online said...

Hi Neil, I've just discovered your blog and remember you from many years ago when we were in Labour Youth together. Eek, that is a while!

Obama is a great orator and it has been a long time since there has been such a powerful speaker on the world stage. I am so grateful that he comes from an humane centrist position though, as clever orators have a lot of power over human emotions. This has led people and indeed nations down some pretty scary paths in the past.
Kate Kennedy, ex-Wellington

jafapete said...

Neil, All this is true. However, if there had been no Obama, HRC would have seen Edwards and the other besuited identikit politicians off the premises pretty smartly in the primaries -- she wasn't planning to go past Super Tuesday -- and probably squeaked out a win against McCain (who had a fairly compelling story, at least at the beginning).

Policy wonks can win, if the competition isn't up to much. This is seen quite clearly in NZ, where our Helen just won three in a row. It surely wasn't because of her charisma or ability to make a speech.

Neil Stockley said...


Good to hear from you. If you'd like to catch up, please send me an email via facebook.