Sunday, 8 June 2008

US Politics: The Secret of Barack Obama's Success - Lessons Malaysia's Pakatan Rakyat Leaders Can Learn A Thing or Two

From The Telegraph (UK) "The secret of Barack Obama's success" by Philip Sherwell


Philip Sherwell


To celebrate becoming the first black presidential nominee for a major party in history, Barack Obama has planned a "date" with his wife, Michelle, a round of golf with friends and a cycle ride followed by a pizza and sleepover party with daughters Malia, nine, and Sasha, who is nearly seven. Some thought they saw the hand of campaign strategists in this cosy schedule.

Did the artfully constructed weekend not echo the careful attention to detail that has been the secret of Obama's political strategy?

From the start of the fight for the Democrat nomination, the quiet determination which led to the nickname "No Drama Obama" was cast into the shade by the glare of the high-voltage Clinton campaign.

In late 2007, Obama's White House hopes appeared remote. Even some of his most fervent supporters were losing faith as he stood becalmed in the national polls, a gaping 20 per cent behind the former First Lady, with her legions of big-name backers led by husband Bill, the former president.

Leading Obama fundraisers were so alarmed that Penny Pritzker, the Hyatt hotel chain billionaire heiress and Obama's national finance chairwoman, had to urge the candidate to make personal calls to convince them that there was a GAME PLAN.

And there was.

For under the radar of both Mrs Clinton's campaign – which was confidently portraying her as the "inevitable" candidate – and the media, Mr Obama was putting in place the most formidable insurgent operation in American political history.

He was certain he could sway voting intentions by harnessing the 2008 version of what would once have been called "people power".

Much is invariably and rightly made of his skills of oratory and how his message of change excited swathes of Democratic voters after two terms of President George W Bush.

But just as crucial was the campaign's success in outmanoeuvring the Clintons by focusing on the minutiae – from simple strategies such as raising money online using millions of small contributors to mastering the Byzantine rules of delegate allotment in Democratic primaries and caucuses.

And those strategies reflected Mr Obama's own experiences, from the competitive corridors of Columbia and Harvard to the tough streets of Chicago's South Side, where he cut his teeth as a young community activist, then went on to sharpen his elbows as a steely political operator.

Dan Watkins, a 60-year-old lawyer and Democrat from Kansas City, can testify to the success of this unprecedented grassroots operation. His "prairie state" votes solidly Republican in presidential elections and is not normally a crucible for national Democratic politics. But after Mr Watkins attended an Obama fundraiser last May, he was invited to a campaign strategy session in Chicago for about 100 fellow Obama-supporting Democratic activists from across the US.

  1. When they sat down in a Chicago ballroom a year ago today, they were presented with a folder with a cover sheet bearing the legend "Obama University". This was, after all, an education process.

  2. The participants were given presentations on strategy, planning and fundraising by key members of the Obama team, including campaign manager David Plouffe, Ms Pritzker and Jeff Berman, the national delegate mastermind.

  3. And then they were ushered in small groups to the nearby campaign headquarters on the city's prestigious Michigan Avenue to meet the candidate himself.

  4. Enthused by this encounter and armed with the know-how imparted earlier in the day, they fanned back out across the country to launch operations.

  5. The campaign also held a series of so-called Camp Obama sessions, training young volunteers in the arts of grassroots campaigning, lobbying and organising.

  6. The end result was a political network that reached even the smallest of towns in all 50 states and several overseas territories.
Mr. Watkins,who has been involved in Democratic politics in Kansas for more than three decades,said:

"I have never seen a campaign like this.

From the top to the bottom, there is not a hint of arrogance. It is all about giving you the tools, the know‑how and the motivation to empower you to go out and get things done.

And it's been remarkably successful."

By the time Kansas held its caucuses on Super Tuesday, in early February, the Obama campaign had 18 staffers on the ground and offices across the state, vastly outnumbering the three full-time Clinton operatives.

And Mr Obama cleaned up on the day, claiming 23 of the pledged 32 delegates up for grabs.

It was a similar story across America.

While the Clinton camp focused on the high-profile big states, the Obama operation eked out delegates wherever it could, sweeping such political "backwaters" as Idaho and minimising its rival's winning margins in the likes of New Jersey and California.

They ended with an insurmountable delegate lead based on better organisation, better fundraising, better motivation and better understanding of the rules.

That was no surprise to long-time Chicago South Side resident Loretta Augustine-Herron. With her friends Yvonne Lloyd and Margaret Bagby, she helped choose the baby-faced 24-year-old college graduate to run the church-based Developing Communities Project (DCP) in 1985, working with neighbourhoods battered by the closures of factories and steel mills.

Says the 65-year-old special education teacher, Loretta Augustine-Herron:

"I see the same Barack on the campaign trail and in the debates as I got to know back then.

He was a great listener, but then this young kid would be the one advising us what to do.

He really inspired us. He's practising what he preached and following the same strategies he taught us.

He told us, NEVER GET RATTLED, do your homework, STAY FOCUSED on what you're trying to achieve and, above all, DON'T GET ANGRY, because anger distracts your attention."

He studied law at Harvard, where he became the FIRST black president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review.

He returned to Chicago in 1991 and worked for a summer at the leading Chicago law firm Sidley Austin, where he met Michelle Robinson, the young lawyer who was to become his wife. But Mr Obama turned down a job with the company and returned to the DCP.

He headed a voter registration drive from a shared office in a former Methodist church. He made it the most successful such project the state has ever seen, stunning his colleagues as he registered 150,000 new voters in less than a year.

A young man in a hurry, Mr Obama soon had his sights set on national politics and tried to unseat Bobby Rush, a long‑standing Chicago congressman, in 1999. He lost badly and was portrayed as an elitist outsider – a salutary experience that taught him the need to consolidate power bases and plan his battles.

Dan Shomon, an Illinois political strategist who worked with Mr Obama for several years, said:

"Barack NEVER forgets the lessons he learns along the way.

He creates energy and enthusiasm, but he is also very aware of the importance of organisation.

He is brilliant at relating to people, whether it is speaking in churches, at chicken dinners on the South Side or a barbecue in rural southern Illinois.

Those are skills he honed in Chicago."

In retrospect, Mr Obama's most politically significant stand in Chicago was, ironically, one that did not even earn much local media coverage at the time.

In late 2002, he was one of various speakers who denounced the impending war with Iraq – a position that has proved crucial in his emergence as a national figure.

Within two years, continuing his stellar rise, he delivered the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in summer 2004 – including the memorable line:

"There's NOT a black America and white America … there's the United States of America"
Abner Mikva, 82, a former Democratic congressman and federal judge, became a political mentor to Mr Obama after he turned down a job as his law clerk, and was one of the "wise men" who counselled him to run for the presidency in late 2006, when others said he was too young. He said:

"Our country is cyclical. At times, we want to move forward and change. At times, we want to hunker down.

It's fairly clear that this is a time we want to move forward and Barack is the man for this time.

Chicago was a great place for him to cut his teeth. He learnt the importance of the grassroots as a community organiser and he also learnt that you need to be tough.

That will stand him in very good stead."

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