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Posted on Friday, 21 November 2008 12:03

Obama: Enter the great communicator

By Charlayne Hunter-Gault
Gemma Ware

The first-ever black candidate for the US presidency succeeded on his first attempt, thanks to an articulate and positive style, clear values and his powerful communications strategy

 

“This is an unbelievable moment in our history,” was the response to Obama’s victory from Georgia congressman John Lewis, a civil rights movement hero. “This is a great distance from when I was walking across that bridge [in Selma, Alabama] 43 years ago when we were beaten, left bloody and unconscious. Last night something came over me. I just jumped up and kept jumping up. Tears came down my face.”?

 

Barack Hussein Obama did it! He scaled the walls of doubt and cynicism, racism and religious bigotry, hysteria and hate, and on 4 November walked into history, appealing to the ‘angels of our better nature’, by getting elected to become the 44th President of the United States. Almost a century and a half after the US Constitution erased the designation of a black man as ‘three-fifths of a person’, on 20 January 2009, the 47-year-old Obama will become America’s First Citizen, his wife, Michelle, a descendant of slaves, its First Lady, and their children, Malia and Shasha, will become as well known as other First Children before them.?

 

Over the years, many black people have crashed down the barriers to become Firsts, but this was the Ultimate First. Yet, as voters in America and people around the world came to see, Barack Obama is not just any black man. He comes with the credentials of a multi-racial heritage, a multinational upbringing and a 21st century vision that gives him a unique view of a complex time, a complex world and America’s place in it.?

Obama's foreign policy team

 

Diplomats and policy
professionals. Read more

 

So how did he get there and what difference will it make to have him at the helm of the world’s leading, though wounded, industrial nation? Like Hansel’s breadcrumbs in the forest, clues abound, including from the man himself. “I think there is a great hunger for change in this country, and not just policy change,” he said in early 2007. “What I also think they are looking for is change in tone and a return to some notion of the common good and some sense of cooperation, of pragmatism over ideology. I’m a stand-in for that right now.”?

 

The values that have helped Obama capture the White House derive from his peripatetic childhood on two continents – America and Asia – and an identification with a third – Africa, and they have carried him through the thicket of two bruising national campaigns and helped create a superior strategy, combining substance and style.?

 

Giving voice to virtues

 

?Barack Obama’s road to the White House was paved initially with the values of his white American mother, Ann Dunham, and her Midwestern parents who helped raise him. In his autobiography, Dreams from My Father, he writes of his mother’s advice: “If you want to grow into a human being, you’re going to need some values,” and they included honesty, fairness, straight-talk and independent judgement – “giv[ing] voice to the virtues of her Midwestern past”.?

 

Equally, there are links to the values of his Kenyan father, also named Barack Hussein Obama, who left when Obama was two. Dunham told the young Obama of the “distant authority” of his father, who also attended Harvard – “how he had grown up poor, in a poor country, in a poor continent; how his life had been hard ...he hadn’t cut corners, though, or played the angles”.?

 

Dan Johnson-Weinberger, who studied voting rights under Obama at the University of Chicago, told the New York Times Magazine recently that Obama won not by playing the angles, but by understanding the playing field, specifically that “voters in African-American Congressional districts would have a disproportionate impact in selecting the nominee”.?

 

Obama “grasped the structural path to victory”, said his former student. He wasted no time in persuading the black community he was indeed “black enough”, acknowledging he stood on the shoulders of the civil rights movement’s pioneers. But while he walked the walk, he often talked a different talk from that era’s leaders, recognising class and race, speaking of the common burden of both poor and middle-class whites as well as blacks. And he called for “get[ing] past the racial stalemate we’ve been in for years” and for “forging alliances to walk the path to a more perfect union... binding our particular grievances – for better healthcare and better schools and better jobs – to the larger aspirations of all Americans”.?

 

“Change you can believe in” was the Obama mantra that resonated with so many of the disillusioned of all races, and awakened the sleeping giant of the youth across America. Together they rallied to the beat of Will-I -Am’s “Yes We Can” with Obama telling them: “America is ready to turn the page. America is ready for a new set of challenges. This is our time. A new generation is prepared to lead.”

 

?‘No drama obama’?

 

Obama has innovated in the ways he communicates. He pioneered a virtual campaign for the digital age generation at home on the internet, Facebook and YouTube. And the message drove the money – from contributions of as little as $5. No campaign in history has raised as much as Obama’s did – more than $600m. A notice to supporters to send in their mobile numbers and pass along the message to others if they wanted to be the first to know Obama’s choice of vice-president generated thousands of additional contacts. Gordon Davis, a New York lawyer and a major fundraiser for Obama, explained: “The fundraising was a basic tool to get people involved in the campaign.”  ?

 

From outhouse to White House

 

Dancing in the streets
of Atlanta. Read more

Even his opponents credit him with running a sophisticated campaign. And he did it while being labelled ‘No Drama Obama’, rarely losing his cool, his face lit up with a broad smile when attacked, a style some supporters found frustrating. But while he insisted he could deliver a hard punch if needed, that went against his natural instincts and style – which also created one of the most harmonious campaign organisations in recent memory. Davis, also a former New York City politician, said: “No internal divisions, fights among consultants, backstabbing or getting off-message... driven as much from the bottom up as the top down.”

 

?One close campaign advisor said: “He’s not the lone ranger, but he is the leader.” Obama is also a listener, who takes in all points of view before coming out with his own. And he assembled a team that was encouraged to voice their own opinions, including some 300 foreign policy advisors, the area that was initially his weakest. He has promised a phased withdrawal of troops from Iraq, with an end-point of 2010, and telegraphed his plans for new approaches to America’s old enemies, saying, while there would be a need for staff preparation, he would meet with them without preconditions. And he is expected to appoint an administration mixed with both seasoned Washington veterans and new faces who share his vision.?

 

Despite his legendary confidence and the well-chosen backfield that bolsters it, Obama has been dealt a tough hand – two wars, a sick economy and potentially bitter losers among the Americans he must now attempt to lead. This comes along with a host of other 21st century problems requiring global solutions at a time when America’s image is at one of its lowest points ever, having lost much of the moral authority and leadership it once enjoyed.

 

?International affairs expert John Stremlau said: “Here’s a case of a black person set up to fail, but no better person to rally the country and the world at a time like this.”?

 

African roots and Africa policy

 

Hopes for a new direction.
Read more

The reception Obama has enjoyed at places like the Berlin Wall and from world leaders, as well as the pride he has generated throughout the African continent, give him at least a running start.?

 

As far back as 2006, when his presidential aspirations seemed more than a distant dream to many, Obama told New York magazine: “I want to be a really great president. And then I’d worry about all the other stuff.”?

 

Despite “all that other stuff”, Barack Obama’s election has affirmed the audacity of hope.



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