Politics and Persuasion

Welcome back!!

I am just back from a week long trip that took me from Toronto to Edmonton (in beautiful spring-like weather, I might add). I have been agonizing over the Canadian government's proposed change to the national anthem's words, "In all thy sons command." A suggestion in the 'Speech from the Throne' triggered a largely negative reaction from the Canadian public, and eventually Prime Minister Harper cancelled the notion. Mercifully. 

Now two days later, I am writing this in Philadelphia with one eye on the Academy Awards (alright I admit it)....one of my favorite cities in America. Don't you just love those marketing slogans that they assign to cities? "A city that works"……."a city that loves you back"…"a city that....FILL IN THE BLANKS for your city HERE! I get a kick out of those taglines. [Although my all time favorite is by way of Bear Bryant the former University of Alabama football coach, with his immortal words….”what this football team needs is a school it can be proud of!"]

In this post I wish to explore politics and persuasion. What are the magic ingredients behind a successful political leader. One often thinks of such leaders as Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy or Nelson Mandela, perhaps.

What is one to make then of President Barack Obama and his slide in the polls, his difficulty in enacting his agenda? What lessons, if any, can be learned of this phenomena for all leaders today? 

Lessons on Persuasion for Political Leaders

Representing 'change' is a very different challenge than enacting 'change'.  Barack Obama was elected by the American public because he represented change....change in almost everything from the status quo of politics and the same old entrenched interests that had stagnated the public dialogue for so long. And what happened? More stagnation and the 'same old, same old'. Could he have done anything differently? With the benefit of hindsight, yes. Without falling into the usual partisan shots that so cloud the atmosphere, let me attempt to do so in a dispassionate way.

1. There is such a thing as too much change. First, he came into office in the face of a massive global economic meltdown. He implemented a huge bailout that had been pretty well set in the dying days of the Bush Administration. Not only that, he made the dual decision to get out of Iraq and shore up the Afghanistan campaign.  If that wasn't change enough, he launched the most massive health care package when the American public was transfixed by huge lay-offs and home foreclosures. 
 2. Sell the problem before you sell the solution. This is particularly true when the 'solution' (as in health care reform) is complicated, expensive and subject to extensive attacks. If you introduce your solution too early, it gets attacked on all fronts - some real and some surreal attacks.
3. 'Fear of the known' is often more attractive than 'fear of the unknown'. Even if people aren't entirely happy with what they have, they often prefer it to something which at that point is merely theoretical.
4. Under-promise and over-deliver. Nothing builds momentum - and a sense of inevitability on the political front - than a series of smaller 'victories'. So if you go big - and health care was big - make sure you make it. 
5. Only make deliberate enemies. If you have to have enemies, make sure that their opposition actually helps you - for example, by being seen as extreme. No accidental enemies. Bi-partisanship must be executed with discipline. Securing your base while reaching across the aisle to attract your opponents is one of the most difficult of balancing acts in politics. So, was there any real opportunity of a bi-partisan solution? I leave it to you to decide, but if there was any at the beginning of his Presidency, there appears to be little left at this point. Is it too late, especially in an election year, to expect any common ground? Perhaps not, but our society loses something as a result.
6. Communicate an over-arching theme to pull together your vision. Just as Candidate Obama pounded the drum for 'change you can believe in', President Obama appears to have several themes. In the end, whether it's economic turnaround, or ensuring affordable and reliable health care, isn't it all really about 'securing American families'? As Winston Churchill once said, "If you have an important point to make, don't try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time - a tremendous whack." 

As with Churchill and his ability to come back...and Jeff Bridges who nearly forty years after his last nomination, finally wins 'Best Actor', is it beyond the pale that President Obama can emerge from this 'winter of discontent'? 
Until next time.....

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