Friday, November 28, 2008

Souling Out

In an interview conducted earlier this month, President Bush said he wanted to be remembered "as a person who, first and foremost, did not sell his soul in order to accommodate the political process." I found this to be quite a revealing statement: Bush sees himself as a renegade against the system; an ideologue of his own soul at war with the soul of a nation he was supposed to lead.

When Bush became President, he and his administration felt obligated to take the wrecking ball to whatever existing culture, institution, assumption or best practice that conflicted with their personal views on what was right and what was wrong. This does not sound so unfamiliar to me, actually. I see this very same dynamic with many new CEOs being hired into established companies -- they also see their hiring as a mandate to wipe clean anything that is not how they would like it. Many times, it's exactly what the board wants the CEO to do.

The difference is, of course, that the market, shareholders, clients, and the board of directors are there to help keep a CEO's vision grounded in a pragmatic sphere. The CEO is judged quarter-to-quarter, and the market would not be so kind or forgiving of, say, an "unending acquisition spree" with "no timetable" for integration or value creation. Eventually, the successful CEO will get a sense of what works and what does not work, and this sense will trump what he/she thinks is right and wrong. This pragmatic shift is one of the subtle reasons why so many elite prefer capitalism over any other system -- capitalism is the great cleanser of baseless ideology. Well-managed capitalism forces reverence for the consumer/customer.

Not surprisingly, the first MBA President acted more like a CEO and less like a public office administrator. In terms of his style of leadership being the right fit for government administration, America might not have ever thought George W. Bush was the best man to be President... but he had a rich familial heritage that helped him gain instant relevance in 2000, and had a cowboy style of retribution that resonated effectively after 9/11... keeping him relevant in 2004.

With all the damage (that is, objective, observable damage to institutions that have traditionally defined America) that Bush's particular style of leadership has created over the past eight years, we all owe it to ourselves and our country to remember Bush's statement above, and to remember to ask questions of future candidates that will give us a better sense of how much stock politicians put into the political process. I think we will want to know, because I would argue that running for a top political office requires some accommodation of the political process.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

News you can't use

OK, time to get back in the swing of things here at Between the Columns. The news has been so exasperating of late that I frankly had nothing of worth to say or analyze over the past week. Seriously, here's what I feel the media has provided us ever since Obama won the election:
  • There's an economic crisis, and while Obama is smart, will he be too liberal?
  • There's an economic crisis, and while Obama is smart, will the change he brings be experienced enough?
  • There's an economic crisis, and Bush is out to lunch.
  • There's an economic crisis, and while Obama is smart, will he bring the change he promised?
  • There's an economic crisis, and Palin is a bumbling headline addict.
  • There's an economic crisis, and while Obama is smart, will he annoy his base by bringing in the Clinton administration?
  • There's an economic crisis, and Bush is being gracious during the transition. What a guy.
  • There's an economic crisis, and while Obama is smart, will he spend us into oblivion?
  • There's an economic crisis, and Palin pardons a turkey and gets one beheaded. Let's watch that again, shall we?
  • There's an economic crisis, and while Obama is smart, why isn't he campaigning for that dude in Georgia?
  • There's an economic crisis, and while Obama is smart, should he have so many press conferences now?
  • There's an economic crisis, and while Obama is smart, how much time will we give him to turn things around?
  • There's an economic crisis, and Bush is not intellectually curious, which might explain why there's an economic crisis.
So, there you have it. Now you know why I have no analysis. What the heck am I going to add to this repetitive, depressing, self-absorbed drivel?

Well, maybe one thing: Bush's Escape from Responsibility Tour '08 actually makes the Iraq War Disaster seem almost acceptable in comparison.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The State of State

Rumors abound that Hillary Clinton has been offered the post of Obama's Secretary of State. To be blunt, I am discouraged by the punditry and analysis surrounding this news. The analysis around this has generally been focused around the "team of rivals" concept that Obama has publicly recognized and advocated (as a result of Doris Kearns Goodwin's research into Lincoln's cabinet design process). As a result, the media and punditry see this as an "enlightened" approach to cabinet building. But this idealistic fluttering appears to me to be skipping over some basic fundamental problems with this approach.

The initial premise of an Obama candidacy was based on projecting a new brand of America onto the world stage. Obama voted against the Iraq War. He also made news with his premise of speaking to our enemies without preconditions. Both sentiments were widely disparaged in their respective times by a generally bi-partisan hawkish political and media establishment. Yet, as it turns out, these two positions turned out to resonate with Americans. American voters had apparently hit a tipping point in the hawkish, forward-leaning footing that had become conventional wisdom. Obama offered a novel and fresh approach to contemporary problem solving. These positions resonated enough to firmly affix the idea of "change" on Obama's political brand.

Conversely, Hillary Clinton was a supporter of the Iraq War, until things started going poorly. It is highly suspect by Americans and foreign leaders that Hillary would have supported the Iraq War all the way through if it weren't so badly managed, and so costly to American lives. This smacks of politics of convenience, not an overarching philosophy that would indicate any serious change from our current foreign policy footing. In addition, Hillary also said during the campaign that she was committed to obliterating Iran if it attacked Israel. In diplomacy, words matter. And these words sound much more like Dick Cheney than even George H. W. Bush, let alone President Obama.

These differences are as about as stark as could be when looking at today's foreign policy dilemmas, and would appear to be much more important than how collegial and enlightened Obama is in his process of selecting a cabinet. Sure, Hillary would be working for President Obama, and would thus be carrying out an Obama foreign policy agenda. But she would also be the eyes, ears, and mouth of America to leaders throughout the world. And global leaders are quite aware of what she has said and what she stands for.

Ultimately, I argue that it is worth considering whether the primary interface between the U.S. and our friends and enemies across the world should be led by someone from the Baby Boomer generation -- a generation, for better or for worse, that sees the world through the Vietnam and Cold War lens. It would seem more on-brand and on-message if the State Department was led by someone from the Obama generation -- a generation with a fresh, new look at how to address the evolving, multi-dimensional challenges we now face in a deeply globalized world. You know, someone with a view and convictions similar to the fellow we democratically elected as President of the United States.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Welcome to America 2.0

The subject of this post is the first thing I thought when I saw America 2.0 as I'm defining it is the analog of Web 2.0 -- a term that embodies the concept of two-way, interactive communications on the world wide web. In comparison/contrast, Web 1.0 is the label now used to describe the first wave of the Internet; back when you accessed pages for information, yet had very little ability to contribute. Similarly, President-elect Obama appears to be embodying the ethos of Web 2.0 with not just his campaign (which was widely renowned for its Web 2.0 approach), but his administration -- and therefore, our country.

I probably should not be as surprised as I am that Obama is bringing the same approach he used to power his campaign to his administration, but I am. I am oddly surprised that the idea of "change" -- which was the core brand of his campaign -- has been so quickly transferred into the governmental domain (I mean that figuratively and ".gov" literally). is a mash-up of a message and a government. I've never seen this before. For example, there is no "" or "" -- two messages that embody the Republican brand. To my knowledge, the Obama folks are already integrating their brand to a level like no other candidate has before -- they appear to be ready to re-brand the U.S. government.

I've been through brand evolution projects before in my corporate life, and it's a great initiative to embark upon if the right talent and resources are available. Brand evolutions can help re-introduce a brand with clarity, resonant design and messaging, and, critically, a contemporary value proposition.

A brand evolution could be exactly what our country needs right now, considering the state of affairs both domestically and externally. So, I am very curious and interested to see what the Obama folks have in mind: Is the Obama campaign/administration (are these one in the same now?) going to not just change things as they promised, but re-brand America domestically and to the world? not only is designed like a Web 2.0 property, but it has Web 2.0 as well: a blog, submission forms for jobs, visions, and general comments. The design and features of sends three distinct messages to American citizens:
  1. "Change" was not simply a convenient and effective campaign slogan -- it's systemic and fundamental to the Obama brand
  2. The idea of a blog to keep people updated on the status and situations surrounding the transition process provides a sense of transparency and inclusion
  3. The submission forms (jobs, vision, comments, etc.) send a message that citizens' ideas and resources are a respected and required component to modern governing
Cynics can easily claim that these are empty symbols: that the blog is merely a marketing tool, and nobody in Obamaland is going to actually read the submissions from citizens. Maybe. But in modern communications theory, merely introducing the opportunity to contribute has a psychic impact and affects how the brand is perceived. So, even if it is all empty promises and rhetoric, the very notion of providing these tools and communications sends a positive message in and of itself.

Now it's just a matter of time before we find out if this is America 2.0 in look-and-feel only, or if Obama is introducing America 2.0 as a fundamental shift in how we conduct our democracy in the 21st century.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Democracy on Election Day

On this election day that reflects a politically re-energized nation, I want to share a thought: While routine for us as Americans, we should not underestimate the power of democracy as a governing process to help ensure a self-determined future for its people.

There are many political scientists who get religious about democracy, and I see their point: Is there really any better process to help ensure that a people can collectively determine what's best for them, given the current perceived political challenges being faced? If not, then democracy could be considered a fundamental "human right." One of my most impressive political science professors, Dr. Henry Teune, advocated this in his seminars on globalization, and I have spent much time considering and debating this viewpoint.

This democracy-as-human-right principle is a core component of an ideology that has powered the Bush/Cheney/neo-conservative foreign policy. This is nothing short of a laudable goal for those who believe that democracy is a fundamental human right. The problem, of course, is that this goal has been clouded -- if not damaged -- by surrounding it with ideological terms and strategies. For instance, it might be difficult for people to separate 'spreading democracy' from 'preemptive war' right now.

This is an unfortunate conflation of ideology (neo-conservative) and principles (democracy-as-human-right), and teaches us a lesson about how easily we as people can get so religious around a belief in principles that it can actually short-circuit our mission.

What does this all mean for us on this historic election day?
  • We should not take our democracy for granted, as it is arguably a fundamental human right that most of us are quite lucky to be born into without having to fight for personally.
  • No matter who wins, let us not allow our principles -- whether they be free markets vs. managed markets, engaging our enemies vs. holding them accountable, taxing more vs. spending less -- to become ideologies. We have seen over the past eight years what happens when we allow ourselves to become ideological around our strongly-held principles.
  • Campaigns are designed to divide us into camps, and the best campaigns give us permission to close the doors to open and honest debate. As a result of a long presidential race, many of us are now in our respective corners, and we find ourselves digging our heels in, becoming ever more rigid in our beliefs. Starting tonight, when the results are in, we need to release ourselves from the hard-and-fast frames that our favorite campaign has foisted upon us. Neither candidate will implement everything they promised, and neither candidate is wired to divide us as much as either side thinks.
  • I have friends on both sides of the ideological aisle. The friends that do not share my political views are still friends because we focus on the things in life we have in common vs. what divides us. This is arguably the model that we, as Americans, need to continue to believe in. Whoever wins, each of us needs to start thinking critically around what the "other campaign" advocates that you can agree with, so you can find a path to support our next President.
  • Supporting our political leaders does not mean agreeing with them. Just like how I keep friends who have different political views, let's keep in mind that we can agree to disagree. There is no other way for America to remain a single, unified nation unless we can all work hard to do this.
  • We should never stop worrying about the forces that attempt to hijack the democratic process: issues around voting integrity, push polling, and unfair and untrue political attacks. We cannot allow the forces of corruption to take this great process from us. And the only way to do this is to continually worry about it, and hold our politicians we elect accountable for dealing with these negative forces.
  • Democracy is much more than a single vote every few years. Our constitution presumes that we will self-govern, which means that the politicians are not "them," but "us." More of us should think of ourselves as part of the democratic process on a regular basis, and not just a bit player that makes a cameo appearance whenever polls open.
With that, I wish us a happy election day, America.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Is the presidential job interview flawed?

I recently read the endorsement of Barack Obama by The Economist, and I was struck by the case they made for him. What struck me specifically was the difference between how they described their rationale for the endorsement with what I hear on the stump from both candidates.

Maybe it's because The Economist is a global publication, but their endorsement seemed refreshingly multi-faceted, ranging from the economy, health care reform, domestic race relations, to how Obama would approach foreign policy. But most of all, they seemed the most focused on Obama injecting America with a new sense of self-confidence that it will need to overcome the foreign and domestic challenges ahead.

Compare this to the campaign messages and the media coverage of the race. Do you think we're hearing about these multiple factors in our media reports? Do you think most Americans know where each candidate stands on all of the critical issues facing America? Or, do most of us now simply "know" that Obama will raise taxes to redistribute wealth, and McCain will reduce both taxes and government spending. Ever since the economic crisis emerged, it feels to me that our presidential race has been reduced to a debate about taxes.

If this is the case, then is it the media's responsibility to ensure that voters know the various positions of each candidate? Or is the media only obliged to report what the campaigns are, well, campaigning on?

In our poll-driven politics, each candidate knows that they can do best in elections with clarity and simplicity in stump speeches. Multi-faceted messages fall flat -- at least in polls. Neither candidate is immune to the polling effect. And I fear that our democracy's ability to efficiently elect the right candidate is limited by our own inability to sort out multiple policies, and how they may interweave. Worse, it appears that our unhealthy fixation on taxation overwhelms most other factors that a President has to cope with.

Sure, taxes are important, but they are not the driving force of our economy, foreign policy, or moral framework. Yet our candidates are campaigning as if taxation is the transcendent issue facing our nation. What an odd situation.