07 November 2008

Stepping Up

So what lesson can really be taken from the Obama campaign?  Really, it can be summed up in five words:

You have to step up.

At every junction there were troubles.  Obama was lucky to even be in the race: black, relatively inexperienced, with a Muslim father and name, a product of Chicago politics... all of these things were serious impediments, and some of them justly so.  And yet he's now going to be the President of the United States, after a series of events and a campaign so far-fetched that it would have been laughed out of a scriptwriter's office.

It's equal parts inspirational and terrifying.  He rose from obscurity in the blink of an eye on the basis of equal parts sheer political talent and incredible luck.  Obama seized his Senate seat through a remarkable confluence of events.  First there was the (justified) disqualification of all other Democrats in the primary.  Then his Republican opponent had to drop out because of incredibly dirty secrets coming out of his divorce papers.  And then his new opponent was Alan Keyes, the straw-man of the Republicans practically built to be hated.  These events were all lucky, but it was Obama's immense skill and leadership ability that allowed him to capitalize on them with astonishing dividends.

From there, Obama climbed the direct ladder to power, impressing just a few of the right people with his consistent political ability and public speaking skills.  That got him on stage at the DNC in 2004.  And after that, everyone was offering a helping hand to get him on the campaign trail.

Still, everything was arrayed against him.  So much of what made Obama an amazing candidate also made him seem an impossible one.  A seemingly genuine man, he disliked the press, treating them coldly and keeping them at bay.  He didn't think or speak in sound bytes, making his views complex but almost impossible to disseminate in the infamous and necessary ten-word-statement.  He was rather left of center, and elections are always won straight down the middle (because that's where the people are).  And he had many "flaws" when it came to identity politics (black, identified as a Muslim, etc.)  In short, he had all the makings of an amazing leader but an abysmal campaigner.

So how did he do it?  He knew that he had to step up.

When the Rezko scandal broke earlier in his career, Obama took some nasty hits in the Chicago press.  He had been associated and had a deal with a criminal money-man, and while it was all on the up-and-up, it was the kind of stink that never left some men.  What did Obama do?  He called a meeting with the Chicago press, sat down with them, and told them he would answer every question they could think of about Rezko and the deal.

And he did.  As the Tribune recounts, he sat there and hit every pitch that came sailing in.  He walked out of the room with the issue defeated: he'd taken every hard question and answered them consistently.  A lot of it comes back to his skill and luck: he'd been savvy enough not to actually do anything dirty, and lucky enough that there wasn't much linking him to Rezko.  But the gap between what was provided by fortune and what he needed to move beyond: that was grade-A, high-test grit.

Another example might be the Reverend Wright scandal.  It was the worse kind of calamity: Obama was a black candidate, and here he was linked to everything the middle-class white people feared about such a candidate.  He risked becoming the other, something he could not afford to be.

Obama stepped up.  Rather than trying to spin it or change the subject, he spent three days writing a speech, and then he went to Philadelphia and spoke entirely about race.  That speech, A More Perfect Union, was one of his best.  It knocked the ball out of the park, by completely changing the dialogue away from what people feared about "blackness" into what people loved about America.

We're going to see how Obama does.  I think he'll be a pretty good President.  But we can certainly take away the lesson of his campaign: luck and ability aren't enough.  You have to be ready to step up.

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