Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The iSlate of the Union: Jobs v. Obama

In celebration of January 27 being a tremendously important day for both Steve Jobs and President Obama, Slate recently published a cute mash-up of Steve Jobs giving the State of the Union address.

This article led to a conversation I had with some friends around the importance of marketing, communications, (and frankly, hype) when it comes to not just consumer marketing, but political marketing.

A prevailing view in this conversation was that if Barack Obama would only frame his initiatives like Steve Jobs does, he’d be enjoying much more success after his first year in office.   Further, there was a strong belief that President Obama needs to demonstrate the kind of leadership that Jobs is famous for displaying at Apple.  In other words, if Obama were to lead like Jobs, then Health Care Reform would be as successful as the iPod.   In other words, Obama’s policies need to “just work.”  

There are a lot of similarities here, and I think there are plenty of politicians that can and should learn from successful marketers like Jobs.  However, I am not convinced that passing “progressive” policy like health care reform is anything like selling an iPod.  Similarly, creating progressive policy is nothing like developing any hi-tech gadget. 

Creating and passing progressive policy requires a different type of leadership, because the dynamics could not be more different:  With policy, you are forcing people to buy something.  With product, you are asking people to buy something.  True, if more policies were developed with the 'ask' mentality, they may have a higher chance of succeeding.  But politicians in Washington know that, unlike an Apple project that is under wraps for years, making policy is pretty transparent, and allow Americans to weigh in on the design mid-way through the process.  That of course has the effect of modifying the product and veering away from the original goals.   In other words, in order to make a legislative iPod, one would have to change the rules of law making. 

Another difference between iPods and progressive policy is that, time and time again, progressive policy sets a course into new territory, and forces everyone to be part of the journey.   Not surprisingly, many who benefit from the status quo have no interest in mucking with success.   And if the majority of Americans benefit from the status quo in health care, good luck getting them to buy an upgrade.   Whereas if Apple gets 10% of a given market, it’s a huge commercial success.  10% approval ratings for health care reform would be seen as a complete flop.

None of this, however, excuses Obama and the Democrats for completely mucking up the health care reform process.  They let themselves lose the public debate on the merits, and, worse, allowed themselves to fall into the 'means to an end' mentality that sent the policy off the rails, and gave their opposition much spark by crafting deals that resemble Mafia payoffs more than legislative horse trading.  

A year ago, Barack Obama was inaugurated with a feel of Apple-like fanboydom surrounding him.  Within that year, he "saved" the economy and the auto industry, and lost that argument with the majority of Americans.  Soon, Jobs will be unleashing his latest achievement that has been years in the making, where he will likely be heralded as saving the publishing industry, just like he did the music industry with iTunes/iPod.  

Seems to me that President Obama could learn a thing or two about publicity and story shaping from Jobs as they do seem to have a few things in common.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Progressives and their Long View

As President Obama's popularity dwindles from its highs not just a year ago, I am struck by an observation I have of many liberals and progressives that seems to be shared by Obama:  the preference to focus on the future over the now.

And it's not just focus -- it's language, philosophy, and orientation.  The progressive in us is the consummate planner; the part of us that looks to give up something now (time, resources, opportunities) in the hope of netting returns greater than the investment in the future.  

One might call progressives "social investors" if one were a savvy marketeer. 

Yet, investing is easier to do when it's you putting your own goods on the line to invest in your own future.  Starting a business, investing in the stock market, investing in your child's future or well-being... these are investments that are fairly easy for each of us to make.  Yet it gets a bit trickier when you're looking to commit 300 million people to a shared investment strategy.

And this is what President Obama is staring down right now -- a nation that is generally not too happy that he's planning their investment strategies for them.  Be it Wall Street bail-outs, auto sector bail-outs, or even health insurance reform, a large swath of Americans just don't trust Government to invest for them. 

Which brings me to some advice for President Obama (because we all know he reads this blog) and progressives at large:  While you might be morally, ethically and strategically connected to investing for a brighter future, a large majority of Americans live in the now, care first-and-foremost about the now, and need to believe you share their interest in the now.

This means that while you plot and plan your social investment strategies, plans and policies, you cannot forget that the majority of people aren't there with you.  They're here.  And they want to believe their leaders see the world they see, and live in the world they live in. 

Conservatives have the opposite problem, of course -- they live almost exclusively in the now and aren't big on social investment projects.  They gain popularity readily because of this dogmatic pragmatism -- it's frankly the easier pill to swallow of the two philosophies. 

Neither philosophy has exclusive rights to being perfect, of course.  They both need to be balanced against each other so that we don't exclusively focus on today, and yet don't give up all of what we have today in exchange for tomorrow.   But what surprises me about the otherwise-savvy Obama is that he has put precious little effort into portraying his administration as one that cares deeply about today, and is carefully balancing it against the needs of tomorrow.

There's no doubt that the bulk of his campaign was all about investing in tomorrow, but the market collapse in 2008 (the same collapse that likely got him elected) trumped almost everything he was running on.   I'd make the case that he hasn't calibrated his message or policies enough to fulfill the evolving needs of a nervous nation that feels systemic economic change afoot, and really isn't sure where we're going to fit in when things eventually settle down.

People feel quite unsettled out there, and health insurance reform isn't the medicine they're looking for right now.   That will come as soon as they feel secure again in a job that doesn't have good enough health insurance.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Politics in 2009: A Review

First, let me apologize for the recent infrequency of blog posts.   No excuses; just apologies.   I will do my best to ramp back up to regular posts, and at the same time look for a larger "home" for Between the Columns so that I have an environment with real deadlines. 

Now, onto a "politics in a nutshell" review of 2009:

  • President Obama was sworn into office, riding the coattails of a nation pinning their hopes on the notion that someone who seemed different would, indeed, be the difference they were looking for.  Result: It's been different, but not nearly as much as his campaign intoned.

  • President Obama took "bold, sweeping" action (a style typified by George W. Bush) in the form of a large stimulus (ahem, reinvestment and recovery act) bill that instantly affixed him to the "big spending liberal" post that was sitting there, waiting for him.   It also probably saved the country from a massive economic depression. 

  • President Obama made a historic speech in Egypt about the Middle East; yet only the technocrats and historians listened and cared.

  • Sarah Palin quit being Governor of Alaska, while calling people who stay in their jobs the real quitters.  Not sure if this was brilliantly stupid or stupidly brilliant.  And that mobius strip of a conundrum is precisely why the media has a high on Palin.  

  • Speaking of the media being stuck on Palin, Sarah becomes the first national political personality who uses Twitter and Facebook as her exclusive press secretary. 

  • A spate of rigged economic bubbles, combined with about eight years of government mismanagement -- surprise! -- left an American public untrusting of big, distant institutions.  Y'know, institutions like that federal government.  The same government that handed billions of tax payer dollars over to other big, distant institutions ranging from investment banks to auto manufacturers.  I'm stunned by the apparent lack of thought in the White House had around the transition to a new administration... that somehow Americans would so quickly begin trusting government to do "big things" like the stimulus and health care reform when it had just come off a run of Big Things Gone Bad. 

  • All of this activity, combined with some latent racism and natural conservatism that occurs when people are under stress, helped launch the Tea Party movement.   This movement has had a high participant-to-impact ratio, as the media became fascinated by this small contingent of loud, angry voices.   This serves as an important reminder that squeaky wheels still do get the grease.  Especially wheels that can are able to squeak through the regular daily squawking.  

  • In case you missed it, the Tea Party gets higher approval ratings than Dems or Pubs in a national poll among independents. 

  • Throughout the year, Dick Cheney grumbles aloud about how Obama doesn't do anything right, and is leading America into an untimely death.  The media doesn't know what to do with a former VP who has become a bizarre caricature of his former self. 

  • Amid the ugliness of a severely depressed economy, President Obama stood up and declared that he was going to fix healthcare.  He then promptly sat down and let the old-school Dems fuss about it in Congress, annoying everyone in the process (including, in the end, his base). 

  • Healthcare (ahem, health insurance) legislation hi-jinks, combined with double-digit unemployment and six-digit bonuses in recently-bailed-out-Wall-Street firms, sap the remaining mojo about of the Obama Presidency.  Although we can see "change" from many different angles, it sure doesn't feel like "change" looking straight at it. 

  • Obama tries a new tactic on handling terrorist attacks -- don't freak out.  Well, apparently, Republicans are demanding that Obama freak out, so he capitulated and did a little freaking out.  Then he got trashed for not freaking out soon enough, and then he got slammed for planning to try the failed terrorist in civilian court vs. military tribunals.    It would be one thing to have a great debate on the pros and cons of trying a terrorist in court or military tribunal, but it's another to make it a political statement vs. a policy statement.  If our parties can no longer talk about policy without embedding partisanship, then I'd have to say that they've overstayed their welcome.  Policy is meat; partisanship is candy.   Our politics and media have holes in their teeth, and are emaciated yet obese. 
Kind of a depressing round-up for 2009, eh?  Yes, this nutshell is reflective of my lens... a lens that had higher hopes for "year 1" of the era of Obama.  A lens that sees the complexities of the issues we're up against, and the seemingly unwillingness of our society to be able to cope with these complexities through meaningful debate and reasonable resolutions, policies and project plans. 

Here are some additional thoughts around why things don't feel so great on a macro scale:

America is depressed because we're letting ourselves down.  Obama said it on the campaign trail -- and he was right:  Change happens from the bottom-up, and each of us needs to make the changes we can in order for true, systemic improvements to occur in our culture.   Yet, as President, I've heard and felt almost none of this sentiment from Obama.  It's not like he's not trying to do the right thing... he certainly is.  But he's doing it in what seems to be the most conventional, conservative approach he could take -- letting Congress drive the politics, and letting the opposition party continue to control the debate and tell the more compelling stories. 

The leadership we need is not the kind that fixes the economy for us.  The leadership we need is the kind that challenges us to fix the economy.  It's our country; our economy; our values; our abilities; our limitations; our creativity; our resourcefulness; our fear; our fearlessness; our resoluteness; our inquisitiveness; our diversity; our conservatism; our liberalism; our tolerance.   We've got a ton of all of it.  We just need to be led to use what we got in more valuable, meaningful ways.  When we do that, we'll feel better individually, and only then, feel better as a society.

So, with that, happy 2010, and here's to hoping that we collectively figure out that improving our society starts with improving ourselves.