Branding and decision-making laws played a decisive part in Obama’s historic victory. Obama’s powerful and coherent narrative vanquished McCain’s flimsy and shaky one, paving the way for the ongoing Liberal Revolution.
In 1961, Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy predicted that in 40 years a black man could become President of the United States. It took a little longer, but RFK prediction just came true. Barack Obama is the new President of the United States.
So, how did he do it? How did he manage to, in just two years, go from virtually unknown junior Senator from Illinois to President-elect at the helm of a new Liberal Revolution, backed by strong majorities both in the House and in the Senate?
First of all, he had momentum going for him. After two mandates of George W. Bush, a lot of resentment had been generated, and that boiled to a point where a strong dynamic for change was created. Obama was the right man at the right time to ride that wave to the Oval Office.
But he didn’t just stood there like the anointed one, waiting for the inevitable to happen. Obama built a strong narrative that was crucial to stir passions and keep that wave rolling and growing. As Seth Godin points out on his latest post, “the story is what people respond to”. And Obama’s had one of the finest in living political memory.
Obama seems to have learned from Kerry’s mistakes in 2004 and understood that having strong arguments isn’t enough. Either you use them as building blocks to assemble a powerful narrative, or you can just forget it. Of course that stronger bricks build stronger houses – but, in the end, is the house that people buy, not the materials.
Obama’s story worked wonderfully because it was built upon a clear-cut positioning. In everyone’s minds, Obama was the candidate for change. Those who supported him believed this change would be for the better, while those who were against him feared that he would change things for the worse. But no one disputed that Obama stood for “change”.
Owning the “change” category in a time that begged for it proved an insurmountable advantage, one that managed to deflate potential shortcomings like inexperience and, yes, race.
One of the strongest sub-plots of Obama’s narrative was that he managed to assert himself as a post-racial candidate. Rather than being seen as a “black candidate”, he was perceived as a “candidate that was black”. It may seem like a tiny nuance, but it makes a world of difference.
That, however, was only made possible because the top-of-mind category was already occupied with “change”, pushing “black” to the lower echelons. America’s racial issues didn’t disappear overnight, they were just bypassed by a shrewd use of decision-making laws. People didn’t elect a black candidate – they were just too busy looking the other way to pay much attention to the fact that the candidate they were electing was black.
Of course that Obama’s stately figure, with his low-tone commanding voice and perfectly-pitched speech, helped a great deal. But had it not been for his flawless positioning, and all those arresting qualities may have not sufficed.
Having laid the terrain for his story to grow, Obama took great care to trim it cautiously, never loosing sight of the master plan. The result was a rock solid narrative, from which all the inconsistencies had been carefully extirpated. Obama wasn’t denouncing the big sharks on Main Street just to be seen gleefully swimming with them on Wall Street. His speech was the same everywhere, his manners equally stately and respectful, among white and blue-collar workers alike. It suffices to see his response to the soon-to-be-forgotten Joe the Plumber to see what I’m talking about.
Again, the reactions to his speeches were opposite – those who supported him saw them as inspiring, while those who were against him decried them as nothing but a rhetorical void. But everyone basically agreed that – hopeful or empty as you may see it – his narrative was pretty much the same everywhere.
One could point out that only a fresh player like Obama could reach for this degree of message consistency. Well, it’s true that seasoned political players like Hillary or McCain have a harder time maintaining consistency, if only because of the amount of speeches they’ve been letting out over the years. But it wasn’t inconsistencies regarding their positions 5 or 10 years ago that sank their narratives. No, their record over the campaign trail proved more than enough for that.
Although impressive, Obama’s consistency wasn’t totally foolproof. In September, I wrote here about the dangers that the passage of the off-shore drilling bill posed in terms of puncturing the consistency in the Democratic message. Has I pointed out then, more than the substance of back-tracking (which was little) it was the appearance of back-tracking (which was huge) that should have scared the Democratic leadership into not doing it at the time.
This, however, was poorly explored by the opposite camp – after all, it’s hard to punch holes in the other’s boat when we’re hard at work making them on our own – and the economic crisis soon eclipsed the issue altogether.
Obama held another trump to help him overcome this glitches, and that was his authenticity.
Not only was he saying that he was the candidate for change, he was also perceived to be authentic in this claim. This was key in coating Obama with that rock-star glow that made hundreds of thousands flock to see him. He was different, and he was the real thing. Bono knew what he was talking about when he made that song.
Finally, there was another powerful quality to Obama’s narrative, and that was that it was hopeful. No matter what the issue or how grim the assessment that Obama made of it, he always managed to offer a glimmer of hope, to somehow make people feel they could, and would, turn things around.
That was crucial in involving the audience in his narrative. People need to feel that things are not going well for them to want to change, but they also need to feel that the situation isn’t hopeless, or else they’ll turn apathetic.
Obama managed to strike that elusive balance perfectly. While the “change” tagline addressed the need for renewal, the “Yes we can” slogan provided the much-needed call to action, at the same time encapsulating beautifully the mythic American “can-do attitude”. Maybe he could have done even better in strategic terms. But I really can’t see how.
In the end, the man with the best story won. Given its tremendous qualities, it’s no wonder.