The Audacity of Being Yourself

Obama Time CoverI had a two-hour lunch on Tuesday without eating a single bite of food. The two hours were mostly spent in line at the Borders on Michigan Avenue, where Senator Barack Obama was signing his latest book The Audacity of Hope.

I had the privilege to run into Obama before. I was heading for the exit at the Ravinia Festival after a Van Cliburn performance, while Obama was heading to the Gala pavilion, and we somehow crossed paths. More than a stumbling “nice to meet you” and “I hope you make it to the White House” didn’t come out. Much of the same happened on Tuesday; I might have said something non profound such as “I’m rooting for you.” But at least I got my book signed.

I don’t expect his new book to be nearly as good as his first book Dreams From My Father, which “may be the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician” according to Joe Klein from Time. What I liked most about that book was its fresh non campaign voice and language and its insightful evaluation of his life balancing between two races and many issues. I hope he sticks to that voice and insight; and according to the new book’s prologue and an interview on Oprah yesterday, he intends to.

This week’s most repeated quote from Obama is undoubtedly his statement in Joe Klein’s article in Time magazine on whether he will run for president in 2008 or not:

“When the election is over and my book tour is done, I will think about how I can be most useful to the country and how I can reconcile that with being a good dad and a good husband,” he says carefully, and then adds, “I haven’t completely decided or unraveled that puzzle yet.”

It’s beginning to look a lot like a yes. And I wholeheartedly believe he should.

Klein’s article delves a bit deeper into the Obama persona. One of Obama’s main characteristics, according to the reporter, is his ability to view issues from both sides of the argument.

“Obama believes his inability to fit neatly into any group or category explains his relentless efforts to understand and reconcile opposing views. But the tendency is so pronounced that it almost seems an obsessive-compulsive tic.”

Klein counts many instances of on-the-other-hand issues in The Audacity of Hope and later in the article an old-time Chicago politician explains that this might be a negative in a presidential campaign.

“You have to convey strength,” he said, “and it’s hard to do that when you’re giving on-the-other-hand answers.”

In the article’s conclusion, Klein leaves us with questions, rather than answers. Obama’s political future is a very delicate flower eagerly wanting to bloom and timing seems to be everything.

“Would the arrogance implicit in running now, after less than one term in the Senate, undercut his carefully built reputation for judiciousness? Is the Chicago politician right about the need to be strong and simple in a run for President? Or can Obama overturn all the standard political assumptions simply by being himself?”

As much as I am on an island of Barack Obama lovers in Chicago and the world outside of Illinois does not know the guy with the funny name beyond the 2004 Democratic Convention keynote address, I am still much inclined to insist on Obama to run in 2008.

The decision on whether Obama should run or not is maybe the most important on-the-other-hand issue in his political career. On one hand he risks being labeled arrogant and inexperienced; on the other hand he risks waiting so long his momentum runs dry. I listed the extent of Obama’s experience before. Those facts will prove his experience, but only exceptionally well-told stories can convey it. Therein hides the challenge of his campaign.

Moreover, I strongly agree with the need to be strong and simple, but as Klein notes “boldness needs to be planned, not blurted.” Political communication can be a lot like crisis communication; you need to plan, plan and plan. There are some other key rules:

Tell it all and tell it fast; even the negative. You want to be able to control the message, and being first in mind means that you control the message and you own the issue. By being open and honest about his past in Dreams From My Father, Obama is doing just that. You don’t want to see any skeletons in any closets. And the issues on inexperience and the questions of “what has he done for us so far” need to be addressed rather sooner than later; you don’t want the other side to define those answers before you do and you want to eliminate voters’ speculation.

Companies in crises need to show concern for all people involved, family and victims. Politicians in campaigns need to show concern for all people involved as well. Obama is not calling the other side evil; doesn’t have the usual left-wing ‘holier than thou’ attitude; and spends much time listening. In politics, simply listening and being respectful means the world; it is showing concern in the most flattering manner.

Do what is right. This all comes back to “be yourself.” It sounds like an easy thing to do, but with polls and advisors it is hard to indeed be yourself. Obama seems to ponder on that very same question in his book and while on Oprah yesterday he stated that he wanted to make sure he was representing the voters in Washington, not representing Washington to the voters. I hear much fresh idealism in the words of Obama; and while it’s fresh, why not put it to good use.

During a crisis, you have two or three key messages and one qualified spokesperson. Obama seems to be the most qualified spokesperson I have ever seen and the message is clear: the audacity of hope. Obama’s language is about as clear and concise as Stunk and White could ever hope for and he is well on his way to own the words hope, dream and opportunity. Obama uses fresh and inventive language, avoiding tired phrases that call for unwanted associations. And when he talks, you listen.

There is much to write about Obama and communication. In the territory of communication, a territory seemingly held solely by Republicans, I find Obama’s language and message to be refreshing, powerful, but most of all hopeful. In the end, indeed, if Obama wants to overturn all standard political assumptions, he can only be himself. And that’s the key. Obama is simply himself; all else follows.